Coffee is an incredibly complex beverage. Scientists have discovered over 400 different flavor components in coffee and there are likely many more to be discovered. The flavors that can be found in coffee are almost limitless. But what affects this flavor and how can this help me choose a coffee I will enjoy? I want to examine all the factors that go into the flavor of coffee and then give you some generalities to help you make an informed decision when buying a new coffee.
- Terroir. Yes, coffee is an agricultural product that is tied to the region it comes from; the soil, the air, water, and climate. Coffee can even be affected by the other plants that are grown around or near it. There are some coffee plants that are grown with fruit trees and they pick up some of the aroma of those fruits. The coffee regions are traditionally split into, Central America, South America, Africa/Arabia, Asia/Indonesia, and Island coffees such as Jamaica and Hawaii. There are differences based on microclimate and elevation as well within these regions.
- Processing Method. This variable can affect the flavor greatly. There are two major methods that are used. The processing method deals with the process of removing the coffee bean from the coffee cherry pulp and mucilage. The natural process, found mostly in Brazil, Ethiopia, and Yemen involves leaving the coffee cherry intact and letting it dry in the sun. This process generally produces bold, low acid flavors, but can also produce earthy, dirty, and wild flavors. On the other end of the spectrum is the wet mill process where the coffee cherry and mucilage are removed from the bean while it is still fresh. This produces coffees that are bright and aromatic, with clean flavors, but body and sweetness are generally reduced. This process is best exemplified in Central American coffees. In between these is the semi-washed process, sometimes called the pulped natural, or honey process. This involves removing the coffee pulp but allowing the bean to dry with the mucilage still attached. This can produce a coffee with tons of sweetness and a balanced acidity. This is done in Indonesia and Brazil, though many countries are now experimenting with semi-washed coffees.
- Roast level. This is the most obvious flavor variable but as you can see it is only a part of the picture. The lighter the roast, the more the origin flavors of the coffee come through. At a very light roast the coffee will be highest in acidity and aroma and the body will be light. There will be very little roast flavor. At a medium roast you get a great balance of the roast flavors and the origin flavors, there will be a bit of bittersweet in a medium coffee. A medium-dark roast will have strong roast flavors and the origin flavors and acidity will be subdued. A dark roast has almost no origin flavor and the roast flavors will include some smokey-ness. There will be almost no acidity and the body will be a bit weaker. In a dark roast there will be little difference in flavor based on the origin of the beans. Between a dark roast and beans on fire you get increased charred flavors. By this time, the bean is mostly charcoal and ash.
- Brewing method. The brewing method will determine the strength and the flavors/aromas that are pulled from the roasted beans. A drip process will produce a brighter, cleaner cup, whereas an infusion method such as a French press will produce a bolder cup with increased body, but with decreased clarity.
As you can see, there are a multitude of factors that make up the flavor of coffee.
Quick reference guide to coffee flavor
- Central America: Bright, aromatic, light to medium body
- South America: Balanced acidity, lots of sweetness
- Africa/Arabia: Very bright, citrus, fruity, highly aromatic
- Asia/Indonesia: Low acid, earthy, heavy body
- Island: Mild and sweet
- Wet Process: Bright, light body, aromatic
- Dry Process (Natural): Low acid, Intense, bold
- Semi-Washed: Balanced acidity, increased sweetness
- Light: Bright, light body, mild
- Medium: Balanced acid, medium body, some bittersweet
- Medium-dark: Low acid, heavy body, caramel sweetness, bittersweet
- Dark: Smokey, low acid, lighter body
- Drip: Bright, clean, lighter body
- Infusion: heavier body, intense and blended flavors