Sweetness is a mild, smooth coffee flavor characteristic/taste sensation (a basic taste descriptor) without any harsh tastes (e.g., Rio flavor) or flavor defects/off-flavors. This sweet quality is often perceived as a palatable and/or fruity taste that is sensed primarily at the tip of the tongue.
The coffee industry focuses more on sweetness within a defined range - typically by cupping with guidelines so that results can be more easily compared - but most people will think of sweetness in more concrete terms. No coffee will ever match added sugar, but you can be pleasantly surprised by the natural sweetness of some coffees without adding any sugar.
Sweetness - The Intensity of the Coffee Sugars
The term sweet is used by cuppers (professional coffee tasters) to describe the intensity of the sugary qualities of the coffee when it is swooshed around in the mouth. While cupping coffee is done with relative consistency - the same brewing method, timing and roast - making coffee at home gives you more leniency to bring out sweet flavors.
Coffee can be made to naturally taste "sweeter" by choosing a different roast - certain coffees contain higher levels of sugars that are more prominent at lower roasts, while the roasting process may caramelize sugars in other origins.
What Creates Sweetness in Coffee?
In coffee the sweetness is produced by solutions of sugars, glycols, and alcohols as well as some amino acids that together create a variety of sweet aroma descriptors (e.g., chocolaty, fruity, caramelly).
Generally, lighter roasts will have more of a fruity sweetness. Roasting a coffee to darker levels continues the caramelizing process, transforming the flavor to more of a caramelly, chocolatey sweetness.
Effect of Processing on Sweetness
Different methods of processing coffee cherries and green coffee beans will vary the sweetness of the coffee. Allowing coffee to ferment, or not washing the coffee before drying, will increase the sweetness of the coffee. There are tradeoffs to this process - some other flavors are lost or transformed in this process, but can be acceptable depending on the style and flavor of coffee the processing station is trying to develop for export.
Fermenting is an irreversible process and can ruin a coffee, so it's done with great care.
Sweet Chocolate Notes
Coffee has a myriad of subtle flavors that activate taste buds and offer wonderful nuances. One of the most sought after flavors is – unsurprisingly – chocolate. While no coffee will taste exactly like a milky way bar, those looking for a little cocoa flavor in a natural brew can certainly pick up a coffee from a country that offers it. And why not? Both coffee and cocoa are grown in many of the same countries, and both contain varying levels of caffeine and theobromine. We’ve scoured tasting notes for the top 5 picks for coffees with chocolate notes:
You’ll notice that over half of these come from South America, with one Indonesian and one African coffee picking up the slack. In general, you’ll find south american coffees feature more prominent chocolate flavor, but it’s not exclusive to them.
The world’s best coffee beans come from Arabica coffee plants cultivated at extremely high elevations. The coffee cherries are harvested at peak ripeness and then great care is taken during the processing of unroasted coffee beans and roasting to deliver you the perfect cup of coffee. You’ll notice that many of these come from the plateaus of East Africa, where the normal elevation is far enough above sea level to provide a consistently high-grown coffee.
Coffee and Espresso Brewing Tips
To learn the secrets of brewing gourmet coffee to appreciate its fine flavors and aromas see our detailed section on Coffee Brewing. You can also read taste profiles of gourmet coffee and instructions on preparing Espresso Drink Recipes.