The water-soluble taste and aromatic compounds of coffee are perceived primarily through smell (the olfactory membranes) and taste buds (nerve endings on the tongue).
Coffee cuppers (professional coffee tasters) often distinguish the coffee’s taste (flavor) from its acidity, aroma, and body, or describe the flavor as the quality that remains after those qualities are considered. More commonly the flavor is inclusive of these qualities.
What is a Well-Balanced Coffee Flavor?
A coffee’s flavor describes the overall and combined sensations/perceptions of the coffee’s distinctive aromatic and taste characteristics, the fusion of body, acidity, aroma, bitterness, sweetness, and aftertaste. A well-balanced coffee is one in which no single flavor characteristic dominates and/or overpowers/overwhelms the others. Many of the best coffees in the world are well-balanced, though some highly rated coffees are specifically sought after for their unique (not well balanced) flavors.
Coffee Taste Descriptions
Some general coffee flavor descriptions include complex (multi-flavored) and rich (describes a full-bodied coffee). Some coffees have a flavor reminiscent of red wine and are referred to as winey. Other coffees have a fruity essence that suggests berries or citrus.
Coffees with Fruity Flavors
Fruit flavors tend to be sweet natural tasting, and are some of the highest sought after qualities in the best coffees. They’re generally grouped into stone fruit (peach, apricot, nectarine) to citrus (orange, lemon, grapefruit, nectarine) and berries (raspberry, strawberry, blackberry, black currant, cherry). Generally, Africa puts out a lot of coffees with prominent fruity tastes, while South American coffees grown will sometimes have them as a secondary. Some regions are listed here with prominent associated flavors, see each page for more details:
- Kenya – Berries
- Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Region – Citrus (Lemon)
- Brazil – Fruity (Cherry)
- Costa Rica – Tropical Fruit
- Tanzania – Tropical Fruit (Kiwi), Berries (Blackberry)
- Guatemala – Citrus (Orange, Green Apple)
- Colombia – Berries (Blackberry, Currant), Stone Fruit (Peach, Apricot)
Variations in crops between years mean that some years show more pronounced flavors than others, and flavors will vary between varietals within a country, but these descriptors show up frequently for the coffees mentioned above. Fruity notes are uncommon as an espresso flavor, due to the organic compounds being destroyed at the “espresso roast” point – note that any roast (including a medium roast) can be used in an espresso machine.
Coffees with Chocolatey Flavors
There’s a lot of different terms that can be used to describe chocolate, and no surprise, it’s a very popular flavor. It can be described as milk chocolatey, swiss chocolate, dark chocolate and cacao-y. You’ll find many South American countries leading the way in chocolate flavor, especially Colombia and Brazil. Many of these places are also known for growing cacao, used in making chocolate.
While the more subtle flavors (milk chocolate) will show through stronger in a medium roast, the heavier flavors of dark chocolate and cacao will last well into darker roasts and be more prominent as the more nuanced flavors of each origin fade away. Dark chocolate is a more prominent espresso flavor than milk chocolate.
Coffee Flavor Syrups
Brands such as Torani and Monin develop flavoring syrups designed to be used in coffee and espresso-based drinks. The most popular ones are:
There are also dozens of other variations, such as vanilla bean and french vanilla. Some very unique flavors can be added, such as macadamia nut, pumpkin spice, english toffee, butter rum, and irish cream.
While they can be used in straight black coffee, most of the syrups are designed to be used in milk. The dairy is a key component in enhancing the flavor of the syrups, and higher fat content dairy works best.
They’re made with a combination of natural and artificial ingredients, and are meant purely for taste.
There are actual coffee-flavored syrups as well, including coffee and espresso flavors, which can be added to milkshakes and other desserts without needing to brew and keep actual coffee around.
Espresso isn’t a special type of coffee, it’s simply a term used to describe coffee that is brewed in an espresso maker or machine. Very dark roasted coffee is canonically referred to as an Espresso roast, although any coffee roast can be used in an espresso machine.
Espresso is typically very strong flavored compared to regular coffee because of the higher amounts of dissolved solids in the drink. A finer coffee grind is used in espresso machines, combined with a higher pressure brewing process means that more of the coffee is extracted.