For true coffee lovers, the most important element in any morning brew, whether it’s a filtered black pour over or a bold double shot cappuccino with a light cloud of froth, is always the same: Flavor.
But what constitutes a well-flavored brew? What elements do you look for, what informs your palate?
When it comes to coffee, there are 4 key components that will affect your overall enjoyment of your beverage. Understanding these components and how they interact and behave both together and apart will help you to improve your at home coffee making consistency AND your ability to appreciate an especially well-done brew at your local coffee shop.
So what are they? The 4 crucial elements to know are: Sweetness, Bitterness, Acidity and Aroma (is that last one a surprise?). To help you take your coffee appreciation game to the next level, I’ll dive into what each of these concepts mean and how they contribute to a solid brew.
When I say that sweetness is a key element in the flavor profile of coffee, I’m not talking about the syrups, creams, and sprinkles that Starbucks liberally doses their cardboard-tasting coffee with to make it palatable and contribute to the nation’s diabetes crisis. Sorry, PSL lovers, this isn’t your time to shine.
When it comes to pure coffee, sweetness can be evaluated much the same way it is in wine. It is an undertone, a current running through the brew that suggests a flavor that has no direct relation to coffee at all, such as chocolate, nougat, and often, caramel.
You are reminded of these flavors not because they are actually added to the drink, but because the roasting process and naturally occurring sugars found in the bean, known as polysaccharides, suggest them to your brain and senses.
They aren’t sweet in the same way that granulated sugar is, they are subtle and indistinct but leave your palate with the hint of a flavor. This impression is amplified by higher levels of viscosity (thickness) that make the brew taste especially decadent and rich.
Sweetness is a key element in any brew because it interacts with bitterness to create an enjoyable balance that is both interesting and addictive.
As a fun experiment, next time you are at your local coffee shop, order a single espresso shot, no added milk or water, and take small sips, savoring the crema and coffee on your tongue while trying to parse out what flavors you encounter. With some practice, you can become pretty adept at picking out the sweet tones, which are usually the most familiar and easiest to put a name to.
The true counterpoint to sweetness on the palate is bitterness and with coffee, you can’t have one without the other. To the seasoned coffee drinker, bitterness is part of the enjoyment of the brew, for the novice, it can be a little hard to get used to at first.
It is important to understand that bitterness can be done both wrong and right. Burned is not bitter. Sour is not bitter. True bitterness is encouraged as a subtle counterbalance to sweetness and acidity and is inherent in the natural flavor of the bean. It shouldn’t be blamed for poorly roasted beans or a badly frothed milk in a latte.
Bitter flavors come from two key compounds: trigonelline and quinic acid, both of which are naturally occurring. These components offer structure, a foundation that sweetness and acidity can build on to create a complex and rich drink.
Bitterness most commonly goes wrong when over-extraction occurs during the brewing process, either too slow for espresso or too long for drip. Grind, water and temperature will also play a role in determining bitterness and whether or not it is well-balanced.
Mastering these techniques will allow you to optimize your brew for just the right amount of bitterness to create a pleasurable experience.
While sweetness and bitterness are the most obvious flavor elements in coffee, acidity has it’s own starring role to perform. When you hear acidity, don’t think sour or tart, think juiciness, fruitiness and balance.
Acidity is truly inherent in the bean and is greatly affected by the variety and most especially where and how it is grown. Higher altitudes generally mean more acidity, you’ll notice that Kenyan and Colombian blends are generally especially bright and acidic. Lower altitude coffees have less acidity but still offer the fruity undertones.
So what compounds are responsible for acidity? There are actually over 30 that can come into play, including citric, malic, lactic and acetic. These compounds are enhanced or muted by the presence of the bitter and sweet flavors and will present themselves different as a result.
Just like with bitterness, extraction will also play into how acidity is perceived. The skill of the barista can really make or break a cup. A finer grind will give you greater acidity, while acidity will peak at around 100 degrees Celsius.
Acid concentration is measured by pH, it is also important to understand that different beans have specific pH labels on their own based on the roast and skill of the roaster. As the coffee goes through the roasting process, the acid levels will drop.
It is important to have a finely tuned roasting process to maintain the harmony between the pH and bitterness of the bean.
I like to think of this last element as the surprise star. While you may have guessed sweetness, bitterness and maybe even acidity if you’re really on your game, most people don’t realize that aroma is a huge contributor in how we perceive flavor.
Ever heard the saying that we “eat with our nose” as well as our mouth? Much of the enjoyment we gain from a delicious meal is due to our sense of smell. Coffee is no different!
I also like to draw the comparison with wine tasting. When sampling wine, you’re supposed to hold the sip on your palate and examine the flavors as you breathe out through your nose. The experience of smell when we do this is known as “retronasal” smell and it works the same way with coffee to inform flavor.
This is another one of those skills that is fun to practice with pure espresso and even dark French Press coffee to see how the smell affects your experience of the drink. The more you practice, the more you’ll begin to notice!
I hope this brief primer on the four main elements of flavor in coffee will help you take your tasting and maybe even your brewing game to the next level. At the very least, you can use your newfound knowledge to impress your favorite local barista.
As always, feel free to leave any questions you have in the comments and I’ll try to answer them the best I can!
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Week 1 - Home Espresso Machines
Week 2 - Coffee Beans
Week 3 - Types of Drinks
Week 4 - Advanced Brewing
Join Mike (me) and learn all the basics of making great tasting espresso!
I am a die-hard espresso fan. I love every form of the drink from straight espresso shots to lattes and cappuccinos. I currently use a Breville BES870XL Barista, it is an awesome machine. BUT, my dream machine is definitely an Italian Quickmill Andreja. Those bad boys make badass espresso. I love answering your questions, leave a comment or question below!