Are you are curious about how does coffee get its flavor? Are you interested in optimizing your cup of Joe to suit your individual preferences?
You should have a basic understanding of why coffee tastes the way it does.
There are five basic tastes: acidity (sourness), sweetness, bitterness, saltiness, and umami (savoriness). saltiness and umami aren’t present in coffee.
In this post, I will focus on sweetness and bitterness, I will explain how both affect your cup of Joe. And give these tips for those who want to refine their brew-tasting palate.
How Does Coffee Get Its Flavor? Sweetness
With coffee, sweetness is not a simple concept to comprehend.
Coffee is bitter; otherwise, there will not be so many of us rushing to sweeten our daily cup.
Yet, it is not uncommon to find a coffee bag labeled with flavor notes such as chocolate, strawberry, caramel, and other sweet-sounding items.
When coffee pros refer to sweetness. They are not talking about added sugar or sucrose found in the coffee beans.
A chocolate flavor note on a bag does not mean that they add chocolate to the coffee.
A combination of the flavor molecules in the roasted coffee beans can leave you with a chocolate flavor on your tongue.
There is a decent amount of sugar in green arabica beans. Not the white stuff, but sucrose and glucose, makes up a smaller percentage than other components, and it destroys much of it during roasting.
Coffee will always be a bitter drink and will never be sweet. Like, for example, hot chocolate. Instead, coffee has a subtle, perceived sweetness based on the balance of its flavor compounds.
We can perceive sweetness in coffee through its ability to add definition to flavors. Like, the sweetness can take coffee from tasting acidic to having clear flavors of red apple.
Like many things related to coffee, the jury is still out on what creates sweet notes.
Some individuals believe sweet aromatics, fewer caramelized sugars from roasting, and trace amounts of natural sugars lead to coffee’s sweetness.
Flavor compounds remind us of sweet things (e.g., strawberries) caused the amount of perceptible sweetness in coffee. Some folk think a heavier mouthfeel can enhance or contribute to sweetness.
Sweetness can be elusive to a tasting novice. It’s subtle, but it will become easier to distinguish the more coffee you taste.
How Does Coffee Get Its Flavor? Bitterness
Coffee is bitter, and many individuals point to bitterness why coffee is gross or why a particular cup is off.
People often say coffee is too bitter when they mean it’s too sour or it dries out their mouth, neither of which is the fault of bitterness.
Human tongues are very sensitive to bitterness. (for self-preservation; many toxic substances are bitter), so its demonization is understandable.
In fact, the definition often characterizes as unpleasant bitterness, and on its own or in large amounts, it is.
But in concert with other flavor elements, such as sweetness and acidity, bitterness can add dimension and complexity to coffee.
Bitterness also balances perceived acidity, which makes it an essential component of a well-balanced cup.
I think several elements contribute to bitterness in coffee, some of which include:
•Trigonelline, a bitter plant alkaloid
If you roast coffee for a long time, it often delivers more bitterness to a cup than coffee that is roasted for a short time.
This is partial because quinic acid continues to build as coffee beans are roasting.
In addition, when your roast coffee for a short period, it has fewer soluble solids, as well as more acidity and more aroma. Which means it tastes less bitter than coffee that is roasted longer.
While many bitter compounds take longer to extract than sweet and acidic compounds. Because bitterness is so potent to our senses, its compounds can dominate a cup if given a chance.
Bitterness is a sign of over-extraction. It’s also important to remember that robusta coffee is more bitter than arabica coffee, regardless of all other factors.
Many people find the word mouthfeel to be elitist, but I think it’s very practical.
It describes how the coffee feels in your mouth. Does coffee feel like anything? Of course, it does. If you pay close attention, you’ll realize it has heft, texture, and viscosity.
Mouthfeel is not one of the five primary tastes. But it contributes to how you experience a cup of coffee, and it may even work its magic to influence certain flavors.
One way to think about mouthfeel is to break it out into its components: body, oiliness, and astringency.
The body in coffee characterizes strength, which we define by levels of tDCS in a cup,
Strong coffee can feel muddy and leave a film on your tongue. Weak coffee feels almost like water; it’s thin, and there is little to no feeling that lingers on your tongue.
If insoluble particles not filtered out during brewing can also contribute to the body, making it thicker.
People use various kinds of milk to describe the body because milk is familiar. The feel of whole milk is comparable to a heavier, thicker-bodied coffee. While skim milk is analogous to a lighter, thinner-bodied coffee.
When come to describing the body, the terms thick and thin can have negative connotations—they both imply that something went wrong during the brewing process.
Instead, professionals use two other words to describe the body: heavy and light.
Stay with me now—heavy and light may seem just as bad as thick and thin, but in describing the body, neither is better nor worse than the other.
Origins and processing methods can greatly influence the body of a cup of coffee, which means fresh coffees have other bodies.
For example, Sumatran coffees have heavy bodies, while Mexican coffees have lighter bodies.
Natural coffees have more body than washed coffees.
Heavy body, light body, and everything in between can be desirable. Depending on the coffee, which is why coffee professionals need a neutral way to talk about them.
When we analyze coffee, professionals judge the body based on what we expect from the beans. Not some universal ideal. So if a natural coffee has a light body, we might consider this a flaw if we expect the coffee to have a heavy body.
According to some professionals, another potential benefit of the body is that it will influence how we perceive flavors. For example, the body might contribute to a perceived sense of sweetness in a cup.
The body can help balance acidity. I recommend trying fresh coffees and different brewing methods to figure out what kind of body you like.
One straightforward way to test your preference is to compare French press coffee with filter coffee.
French press coffee has more body because it does not filter to remove the brew’s sediments.
How Filters Affect Body Strength only measures the soluble (dissolved) coffee solids in a cup, not the insoluble (undissolved) solids mentioned earlier, but both contribute to the body.
That means a cup made with a paper filter traps insoluble solids, and a cup made with a metal filter doesn’t trap as many insoluble solids.
The results could have the same strength, but the metal-filter coffee might have more body because it contains more insoluble solids.
Oiliness Lipids (fats, oils, and waxes) can also affect how the coffee is feeling on your tongue.
The quantity of lipids in a finished cup of coffee relates to the amount found in the coffee beans.
Arabica beans have about 60 percent more lipids than robusta beans.
Unlike many other compounds in coffee, lipids are unchanged after roasting.
But, most of the oil in coffee beans is behind sturdy cell walls. As these cells walls break down during roasting, the oil is free to escape, making the outside of the beans appear shiny.
In my experience, the oil on the beans doesn’t contribute to the cup’s oiliness.
What contributes to oiliness is the filter you use. Paper filters trap most coffee oil, so not much makes the cup.
Cloth filters also trap a lot of oil, but not as much as paper filters do.
Metal filters let through the most oil of any filter. The more oil in your cup, the thicker and more “buttery” your coffee will feel on your tongue.
Astringency is a term that describes a drying or puckering sensation in your mouth.
People perceive this sensation for bitterness, but the two are distinct. In fact, when you experience astringency, specific molecules are binding to your tongue and make it feel dry.
You may be more familiar with the astringency in red wine and tea caused by compounds called polyphenols (tannins are well-recognized polyphenol compounds in tea and wine).
Coffee also contains polyphenols, which likely contribute to its astringency.
Two polyphenols often linked to astringency in coffee are chlorogenic acids and decaf- caffeoylquinic acid.
Caffeine may also play a role. Too much astringency in coffee is unpleasant and may be a sign of over-extraction.
How Does Coffee Get Its Flavor?Aroma
Ah, the smell of brewed coffee. So distinct! So beloved! Even people who don’t drink coffee often enjoy the warm, comforting embrace of its aroma.
Aroma is the counterpart to taste. Thus is essential to coffee’s flavor; you can’t have flavor without aroma.
As anyone who has had a stuffed-up nose can attest. Our senses of smell and taste are linked, which means aroma plays a vital role in the character of our coffee.
Aroma isn’t just what is the smell when you bend down and take a big whiff of your steaming cuppa joe.
Retronasal olfaction, smelling that happens from inside your mouth, is important with taste flavors in coffee (or flavors in anything).
Nasal congestion diminishes this kind of smell, which is why food often tastes bland when you have a cold.
A sip of coffee sends hundreds of volatile aromatics to the back of your throat and into your nose.
Once detected by your olfactory system, the aroma, along with the taste and mouthfeel, helps your brain discern and log flavors.
You may notice that coffee professionals often slurp their coffee when they taste it.
This aerates coffee hits the entire palate and involves the nose.
Without slurping, coffee hits the front part of the tongue and then hits the back on its way down. Is slurping necessary for you?
Not, but it’s fun to try! They often train Professional baristas to detect aroma nuances at different stages of the coffee life cycle, from when the beans are ground to after they swallow the coffee.
When training employees and wholesale customers, they use a product called Le Nez Du café, which has 36 unmarked vials of distinct aromas that are found in coffee.
To use it, you smell each vial and try to identify its aroma. The goal is to introduce you to the aroma most often found in coffee and train your nose to determine those aromas.
Why? Well, it’s challenging to find a scent or flavor in coffee if you’ve never smelled or tasted it before!
Retronasal Olfaction Action
One fun way to better understand how Retronasal olfaction works is to exhale through your nose, after swallowing coffee, and compare what you taste to what you taste after inhaling.
The difference should be pretty distinct. Volatile aromatics create aroma. They have identified over 800 in coffee.
Although it’s unlikely that all volatile aromatics contribute to that distinct coffee smell, a few categories to help you understand the origins of coffee aromas:
•Enzymatic. These aromas originate in the coffee plant they often described it and as floral, fruity, or herbal. This makes sense because coffee beans are the seeds of the fruit.
•Browning. Browning aromas result from the Maillard reaction and the caramelization of sugars, both of which happen during roasting.
Maillard reactions, those responsible for the delicious smell of baking bread. They often describe these sweet aromas as nutty, caramel, chocolaty, or malty, and they likely contribute to perceived sweetness in the cup.
•Dry distillation. If coffee beans get far enough along in the roasting process, parts of them will burn.
They often describe the aromas associated with this burning as wood, clove, pepper, or tobacco.
The longer the beans roast, the more present these aromas will be.
How coffee beans grow, processed, and roasted can all affect how aromatics present themselves in the cup, and there is no right or wrong combination.
It’s worth emphasizing the volatile nature of coffee’s aromatic compounds: they disappear at room temperature, which is a significant reason coffee can go stale so fast.