Evaluating Coffee Bean Quality - Six Characterisitics Used To Judge Specialty Coffee Beans

by dan on May 8, 2010

How To Discern the Coffee Bean Quality As If You Were A Professional Coffee Taster

To judge the overall quality of coffee, professional Coffee Cuppers rate the intensity of six basic coffee characteristics:Aroma, Body, Flavor, Acidity, Sweetness, and Aftertaste.

Here is a short description of each of these six coffee basic coffee characteristics, and also some tips on understanding how to discern their intensity.  By doing this you can judge/rate specialty coffees and compare gourmet coffees from different estate coffee farms to see which you like best.

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These six fundamental coffee qualities can also be used to compare premium coffees with other exotic gourmet coffeesfrom around the world.

AROMA-To assess a coffee’s aroma, first smell the freshly-ground coffee beans before they are brewed, and then again when the beverage is in the cup after brewing.

The distinctive fragrant smell of the coffee is known as the bouquet, and reveals how fresh the coffee is. The bouquet will also help you detect if there are any off-flavors. For example, if some of the beans became moldy before they were processed (fermented, dried, milled, and roasted), this may be revealed in the aroma.

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The coffee’s aroma may be described, for example, as smoky, nutty, or fruity, and may suggest some of the nuanced flavors of the coffee. An aroma described as floral is reminiscent of flower blossoms, while an aroma described as fresh is vibrant and likely freshly roasted. The aroma will also reflect the roast level of the beans.

Because the human senses tend to work together, the aroma can also affect the coffee’s subtle taste characteristics as discerned by the palate when you sip the coffee.

BODY-A coffee’s body is perceived as a tactile sensation that describes the coffee’s mouthfeel-the feeling of the coffee as it settles on your tongue and coats the inside of your mouth.

To evaluate the coffee’s body, ask yourself: What is the heaviness or weight of the coffee as perceived in your mouth? What is the tactile sensation, the consistency? What is the viscosity, or thickness? These qualities all contribute to the coffee’s flavor, and the sensation of richness that determines the coffee’s body.

The coffee’s body can also be affected by the brewing method. The drip/filter method removes desirable flavor oils that would normally contribute to the coffee’s body. Espresso machines and French Press coffee retain these oils that are extracted from the coffee beans during brewing.

FLAVOR-This describes the coffee’s taste. The flavor is really the fusion of all of the coffee’s qualities including the body, acidity, and aroma. If the coffee is well-balanced, then none of these components will overpower the others.

When assessing the flavor of the gourmet coffee, ask yourself: What is the essence of the coffee? What is your overall perception, and how do you describe the gourmet coffee’s distinctive characteristics.

Flavor is often described as, for example, complex (multi-flavored), or fruity (reminiscent of citrus or berries). If a coffee is stored improperly the flavor may be very one-dimensional (e.g., tastes like cardboard) and may be described as stale.

ACIDITY-This quality is often experienced as a pleasant, sharp aftertaste toward the front of the mouth-perhaps even a numbing or tingling sensation on the tongue tip. You may also perceive a dryness at the back of the mouth as well as under the edges of the tongue.

Note: This quality of acidity is different than: the coffee’s ph level (degree of acidity); the quality of bitterness of a coffee detected on the soft-palate and at the back of the mouth, which may also be desirable to some degree; and sourness (a sharp, tart taste toward the back of the tongue or intense briny sensation on the tip of the tongue), which is undesirable and sometimes associated with over-fermented coffee.

Subtleties of the acidity may be lemony or berry-like, and are often described as lively or bright (pleasant, high acidity, perhaps sharp and tangy), enhancing the flavor of the coffee. The acidity may instead be smooth (medium acidity), or dull or flat (low acidity). Generally speaking, a gourmet coffee’s acidity denotes quality.

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SWEETNESS-A coffee’s sweetness is experienced as a distinct sensation that is very different the sweetness of regular table sugar. A sweet coffee is usually mild and smooth, feels nice on the palate, and lacks any noticeable defects or harsh flavors. A sweet coffee may also reveal a fruity taste on the tip of the tongue.

AFTERTASTE-After you swallow a sip of coffee, the sensations you experience in your mouth comprise the aftertaste, or finish. The aftertaste may be sweet and heavy or light and dry. It also may be quick or may be lingering. A dry aftertaste leaves a dehydrated or parched sensation in the mouth, and is often present in delicate and light gourmet coffees.

Subtle nuances may be present in the aftertaste depending on the particular coffee.  The aftertaste may reveal hints of spiciness or fruitiness as well as chocolate, caramel, or other flavors.

A coffee described as “bright” has a pleasant, perhaps sharp and tangy amount of acidity and leaves a dry aftertaste. A coffee described as “clean” finishes smoothly, not dry, and the coffee’s pure flavor is not negatively affected by any drastic changes in the aftertaste.

A coffee’s aroma and aftertaste are sometimes referred to as the coffee’s “nose.” If you get a pleasant lingering feeling after you swallow the coffee is said to “develop in the finish.”

A Note On Coffee Processing-Wet-Processed vs. Dry-Processed Coffees

Coffee may be either wet-processed or dry-processed, and the method used will have an affect on the coffee’s flavor characteristics.

Wet-processed coffee is first washed of any dirt or dust as well as any coffee fruit that may be remaining on the seed. This washing process is said to produce a “clean” tasting coffee with an acidity that shines through brightness, though the wet-processing does tend to detract from the coffee’s overall body.

Dry-processed coffee beans are first dried in the sun. Then the dried fruit (coffee cherry) is raked from the beans. When this dry-coffee is bagged there may be remnants of the coffee fruit that remains with the beans. These coffee fruit remnants have the effect of increasing the coffee’s body, though the fruit remnants may also result in a final brewed coffee that has less acidity or “snap” than wet-processed coffee.

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