If you’re new to the coffee world it can seem a little daunting. When you’re just dusting off your shiny new espresso machine and in the market for some coffee beans to start brewing with, you might not know where to start. The “third wave” of coffee has brought with it some awesome advancements in coffee brewing technology, but also a huge increase in technical terms and confusing language surrounding coffee.
The increase in the use of this technical coffee language stems from the increasingly open relationships between coffee growers and roasters, but a lot of it relates only to one part of the coffee life cycle. It can be valuable information to know how many meters above sea level the coffee was grown at, or which processing method was used, but only if you know how it relates to you and what exactly those things mean for your daily cup.
We’ve rounded up some of the most common coffee technical terms and broken them down. So when you’re shopping for coffee beans, you’ll know what you need to pay attention to and what you don’t.
Contrary to what you might think, acidity is a desirable sensation in coffee. It’s perceived as a sharpness or a numbing sensation on the tongue in an enjoyable way similar to a Granny Smith Apple or Sparkling Water. Pleasant acidity is considered a marker of high quality coffee, so when buying coffee beans, look for descriptive words that suit your palette. Words like: Bright, Citrus, or Bold and intense. Obviously, if you dislike Granny Smiths, go for words like “Low, Medium or Balanced”
A master roaster is arguably the most important step in preparing the coffee ready for your consumption. A good roaster just knows not to roast it dark and tinkers with light roasts, but a Master roaster knows that a truly great roast starts with understanding the coffee plantations and how they process the beans. They also know which Varietal (see “Varietal” below), which micro-lot it’s grown in, the moisture content of the bean, when to cool down the roaster, and when to pull out the beans. Generally speaking a medium roast will bring out the best in most beans designed for espresso drinks. This caramelises the sugars without burning them to create a creamy, rich bodied, and full tasting coffee. A light roast will create a fruitier, more acidic and fresh tasting coffee, more suited to filtered coffee, like Chemex and Aeropress.
This term is often mistakenly described as “Strength.” When people say, “I want a strong coffee bean.” They often really mean “Full Bodied.” Because to make a strong coffee, you simply need to add more coffee and less Milk/water. Body, however refers to the physical properties, the mouthfeel or heaviness, of the coffee as it settles on the tongue. A heavy body feels thick and rich, where a light body feels fresh and bright. If you like a “strong flavoured coffee”, a full-bodied coffee is the way to go, but if you prefer something lighter then try a light bodied coffee.
The origin of the coffee is essentially where it was grown. Generally speaking the origin of the coffee will make a difference on the taste. This is because of the soil quality, different varietals, growing and processing practises will vary slightly from region to region. Here is a rough guide to the qualities and flavours from the major growing regions.
Central America – various fruit-like acidities with smooth, brown sugar sweetness, chocolate and buttery flavour notes, well balanced overall.
South America – mellow acidity with a strong caramel sweetness and a nutty undertone. Sweet and medium bodied.
Brazil – peanutty quality and heavy body, with chocolate and other spiced flavours.
Ethopia – Ethopia often practises both natural and washed processing (see “Processing Methods” below). Natural process coffees from the country often have a syrupy, sweet berry flavour. Washed coffees often have jasmine or lemongrass flavours, and are lighter on the palate.
Kenya – coffees from this region have a unique, savoury sweet characteristic. It can be a tomato-like acidity or black currant tartness.
This is a term that is thrown around quite a bit in the current coffee climate. A microlot coffee comes from a small segment of trees on a farm that is deemed to have special qualities. These beans are harvested separately from the rest of the farm, and processed with more care to amplify their uniqueness. Generally speaking, a microlot coffee will be a unique and highly specialised coffee, that will work best in some kinds of brews over others. So watch out if you prefer drinking white over black, or espresso over filter, keep an eye on any advice given with these coffees, and heed it!
MASL: Metres above sea level
The elevation that coffee is grown at will have an effect on the quality of the coffee. The higher the elevation, the more dense the bean will be. Hard, dense beans have a higher concentration of sugars, which produce more desired and nuanced flavours. So the higher the MASL the better quality the bean will generally be. Anything 1,200 metres or higher is considered good quality coffee. That being said, the exact MASL can also help determine the flavour notes in a coffee, so 1,200 metres may have citrus, vanilla, chocolate and nutty tasting notes. Above 1,500 metres might have spicy, floral or fruity notes.
When coffee is harvested, the green beans are contained within the fruit called a coffee “cherry”. In order to get to the goodness inside, the coffee beans and the cherry need to be separated. There are a few ways to do this, and each processing method will have an impact on the flavours of the bean.
- Dry Process – Also called “unwashed” or “natural” process. This is where the coffee cherries are left out to sun dry until the excess moisture has evaporated. This process usually results in a heavy bodied and smooth brew.
- The Semi – Dry Process – Also called “wet hulled” or “semi- washed” process. This process is where the cherries are wet and ground mechanically by a pulping machine to separate the cherry from the bean. The “mucilage” is a layer of sugar-like skin that coats the beans, and this is either washed off, or left on to dry for a day then removed. This process usually results in a heavy bodied, earthy, and mildly acidic brew.
- The Wet Process – This process basically washing the pulp of the cherry to reveal the beans. There are two methods, ferment and wash and machine assisted. They pretty much describe themselves, in the former the cherries are fermented to loosen the pulp then washed off, and in the latter a machine scrubs the wet cherries until the bean is revealed. This process usually results in a low acidity, vibrant and fruity brew.
You’ve probably read about coffees with lemon and chocolate notes or caramel and peaches. These “notes” are a way for the roaster to communicate the flavour profile of a particular coffee. It’s a way for experienced drinkers to identify the differences between coffees. So don’t go in expecting your coffee to taste like some sort of fruit salad or chocolate caramel cake, it’s still going to taste like coffee! Just use them as a reference point, if you like a certain coffee which has apricot notes, you’ll probably like another coffee with apricot notes.
This is another term that actually does make a difference to how your coffee will taste. Like a Merlot Wine is different from a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Bourbon varietal will taste different from a Typica. Here’s a quick run down of the most common varietals and their distinctions.
- Bourbon – sweet, complex and delicate flavours
- Caturra – bright and acidic, less sweet than a Bourbon
- Geisha – the most delicate, floral and unique, prized among connoisseurs
- Typica – sweet, full bodied and clean in the cup