Have you heard WINE enthusiasts describe wines with bewildering language like "Up front, with green apple, melon and butter hints. Just tangy enough on the finish to keep it all honest?"
Sometimes wine reviews don't make a lot of sense, but coffee reviews very often do.
Here are 5 words that are worthwhile understanding when describing coffee.
1. Body. That's a term for how thick and flavorful a coffee is. It's one the four characteristics that professional coffee roasters score when rating a coffee in a cupping competition (the four are Flavor, Aroma, Body and Acidity). Roast level doesn't always affect body. Body is an independent variable. Colombian Coffee is known for its body. So are Central and South Americans in general. Robusta beans, the foil to Arabica, have very little body. Tea has very little body. If you feel that you could chew on the coffee, it has body. If it doesn't linger on your palate, it doesn't have body.
2. Balanced. This term might seem vague but it actually means something. It means that no one particular flavor dimension is dominant -- acidity, body, flavor notes. Have you heard of the Panama Esmeralda coffee that was made famous a few years ago because of its amazing lemony citrusy flavor? Not balanced. Wonderful nonetheless. Just not balanced. Similarly a very earthy Sumtran coffee isn't balanced. Its earthy mossiness dominates. A nice blend of Central America, Afircan and Sumatran beans? Balanced by design.
3. Acidity. A citrusy acidity is desirable in well balanced coffees, experts say. Sometimes it's lemony, or organey, or lime-like. It isn't accompanied by bitterness. So it doesn't taste like coffee from a 7-Eleven. As part of a well-balanced coffee, some acidity is desirable. It rounds out the flavor. It's easy to recognize and unmistakable. Some coffees with acidity include Kenyan, Ethiopian and Central American.
4. Clean. You might think this means coffee that doesn't have much flavor to it, or that the physical beans are normal sized. It means something different. This means that a coffee is free from flavor defects. Some flavor defects include fermentation, rotten fruit, bagginess (burlap or jute because those are the materials used for many bags) and a peanuty flavor if the coffee wasn't ripe enough when picked. Coffee roasters and green bean dealers talk about the hundreds of steps that it takes to grow, pick, process, dry, transport, store, roast and brew coffee. It's many more steps than used for wine. So "clean" is a very positive accolade that all those steps were done correctly. It's like giving the growers, processors, dealers and roasters an "A."
5. Fruity. Latin American coffees are well known for their fruitiness. Sometimes it tastes like berries or hibiscus or cherries, grapes or blackberries among others. A hint of fruitiness is wonderful in a coffee if you listen for it. Naturally processed coffees (also called dry processed) have a strong fruitiness. That is because naturally processed coffees from most commonly India, Ethiopia, Kenya and Yemen are dried with the coffee cherries (fruit) still on the beans. The beans gain a fruity flavor. It's a desirable characteristic. Note that some traditional coffee roasters interpret the fruitiness of naturally processed coffee to actually be a borderline flavor defect. Not for most thirs wave coffee drinkers and roasters. It's a desirable flavor trait.
Listen for these flavors in your coffee and enjoy!