Coffee Tasting Terminology
This list may seem a little daunting, but remember that what you are looking for in a good cup of coffee is essentially body, aroma and flavor. Choose a coffee that you like and see what you can detect. Alternatively, try coffee where the taste is not as it should be, and compare it with a good brew to try to see where the differences lie.
Acidic: Very desirable coffee quality, sharpness detected towards front of mouth; denotes quality and altitudel can be fruity (citrusy, lemony, berry-like. etc) or a pure tongue-tip numbing sensation (Costa Rica, Kenya, Mexico offer good examples).
Aftertaste / Finish: Flavor / mouthfeel remaining after coffee has left the mouth, sometimes surprisingly different from actual coffee taste.
Aromatic: Coffee with intensive pleasant fragrance (for example Hawaii, Colombia, Jamaica, Sumatra).
Ashy: Coffee with flavor / aroma of cold fireplace ashes.
Astringent: Mouthfeel characteristic that "draws" the tongue and tissues, often apparent as after-taste.
Bitter: Basic flavor sensation detected at the back of the mouth and soft-palate, often as after-taste, sometimes desirable to a limited degree (as in dark-roast, espresso). Not to be confused with acidity.
Blackcurrant: Flavor reminiscent of blackcurrant or berries; some acidity but with stronger undertones not found in citrusy, highly acidic coffees; not a negative term.
Body: Signifies the perception of texture or weight of liquid in the mough; thin or light body can feel watery ( a few high-grown arabicas); full-bodied means heavy liquor, as in Sumatra, Java and most robustas.
Broth-like: Pleasant flavor in some lighter East African coffees similar to clear soup, like bouillon, often accompanies slightly citrusy flavor.
Caramel: Sweet flavor reminiscent of caramelized sugar, or, slightly different: candy floss (cotton candy).
Cerealy: Flavor like unsweetened grain or oatmeal, sometimes found in under-roasted ronusta coffee, bland and not particularly pleasant.
Cheesy: Rather pungent flavor / aroma of slightly sour, curdled milk or cheese.
Chemical / Medicinal: Coffee with unnatural off-flavors, real or reminiscent of tainting.
Chocolatey: Flavor reminiscent of chocolate which can be found in various crops (some Australian, New Guinean and Ethiopian, for example)
Citrus: Flavor reminiscent of citrus fruits die to high acidity; very desirable, denotes quality and high-altitude growth.
Clean: Pure coffee flavor, no twists or changes in the mouth, no different after-taste (Costa Rica sometimes provides good examples).
Dirty: Coffee tasting as if the beans have been rolled in dirt or soiled.
Dry: A certain type of acidity and / or mouthfeel, but not, as in wine, the opposite of sweet; often accompanies light, or even delicate coffees, such as Mexican, Ethiopian and Yemeni.
Dusty: Dry-earth taste and smell, exactly like dust, though not the same as dirty or earthy.
Earthy: Aroma / flavor reminiscent of damp black earth, organic, mushroomy, cellar-like (can be found, for example, in some Javan or Sumatran coffees "gone wrong").
Floral: Coffee beans having a very fresh, floral, heady aroma, like that of floral-scented perfume.
Fruity: Flavor / aroma often found in good arabica coffees, reminiscent of a wide range of fruits: citrus, berries, currants, etc, always accompanied by some degree of acidity; this is usually positive, but can indicate overripeness or over-fermentation.
Gamey: Unusual and interesting flavor, often found in dry-processed East African coffees (such as Ethiopian Djimmah), reminiscent of cheesy, but not sour or negative.
Grassy: Green and astringent aroma with an accompanying taste like a new-mown lawn, sometimes found in coffees from Malawi and Rwanda.
Green: Aroma / taste of unripe fruit or plants, as when green stems or leaves are crushed or broken; can denote under-roasting.
Hard: Flavor, not to be confused with hard bean. In terms of flavor, hard signifies a brew lacking sweetness and softness.
Harsh: Strong, unpleasant, sharp or "edgy" flavor; also used to describe Rio-y, iodine-like flavor.
Hidey: Aroma / taste like animal hides, uncured leather, or, at best, new leather shoes.
Lemony: Flavor very like mild lemon found in very acidic coffee, such as that from Kenya.
Light, mild: Light-bodied coffee, pleasant low-to-medium acidity. Some Mexican, Honduran and Santo Domingan coffees exhibit these characteristics.
Malty: Coffee flavor very like malted barley, sometimes in combination with chocolatey, sometimes alone.
Mellow: Soft, with pleasant low-acidity.
Metallic: Sharpness, acidity slightly gone wrong, Some Nicaraguan coffee, for example, can be overly metallic.
Mocha, mokka: Arabica coffee originally named for the old port of Yemen, now also associated with Ethiopian Harrar coffee. Nothing to do with chocolate, although coffee drinks with mocha imply chocolate with coffee.
Musty: Flavor of improper drying, mildew, generally undesirable.
Neutral: Bland coffee, very low acidity, not derogatory, as implies no off-tastes; good for blending (often describes many ordinary Brazilian arabicas).
Nutty: Pleasant flavor reminiscent of nuts, often peanuts (some Jamaican).
Papery: A taste / aroma exactly like dry paper, slightly similar to dusty.
Rancid / rotton: The flavor of a spoiled oily product, as in rancid nuts or rancid olive oil; fairly disgusting; can cause involuntary gagging.
Rio-y: Iodine, inky flavor from microbe-tainted beans. Prized for traditional brewing in Turkey, Greece and Middle East.
Rounded: Cup balance with no overpowering characteristic, well-balanced; can also mean pleasantly smooth, without being sharp.
Rubber: Aroma / taste reminiscent of tyres, garages, often detected in certain robustas, for example.
Sacky: Coffee tainted by improper storage, flavor / aroma of hemp, possibly damp.
Salty: One of four basic tasting categories, occurs occasionally in coffee; also can denote presence of chicory in coffee blend.
Smoky: Aromatic flavor of woodsmoke, very pleasant attribute sometimes found in certain coffees such as some from Guatemala and also occasionally some Indonesian arabicas.
Soft / Strictly soft: Coffee with low acidity, mellow sweetness, pleasant roof-of-the-mouth easiness (possibly similar to the feel of Italian red Lumbrusco wine); some Brazilian Santos for example.
Sour: Undesirable " diry socks" flavor of over-fermentation.
Spicy: Aroma / taste of spice, perhaps sweetish or peppery, found in certain coffee, such as those from Java, Zimbabwe, Guatemala; or the more erratic Yemen and Ethiopian coffees.
Stalky: This gives a flavor reminiscent of dry vegetable matter or other plant material stalks.
Stinky: Rotten flavor indicating possible contamination by " stinker" bean.
Sweet: Pleasant, mellow, agreeable; sometimes used to describe soft coffees, but also can be found in highly acidic coffees.
Thin: Term when coffee's body does not equal acidity or flavor; out-of-balance, watery, wishy-washy in mouthfeel.
Tobacco-y: Aroma / flavor characteristic of unsmoked plug (chewing) tobacco.
Turpentine-y: Smell or taste reminiscent of chemical, possibly phenolic-like substance.
Well-rounded, well-balanced: Cup giving impression of good mix of flavor, acidity, body and perhaps aroma.
Wild: Term describing certain Ethiopian/Yemeni coffees - suggesting unusual, inconsistent and interesting; sometimes used with spicy; also exotic, tangy, complex.
Winey: Combination of slightly fruity flavor, very smooth mouthfeel and texture reminiscent of wine. Term should not be used indiscriminately to denote acidity; better reserved for coffees with genuine feel (more than taste) of wine, slightly rare but unmistakable (in some Kenyan as after-taste; found in some Ethiopian Harrars, Yemeni and various others).
Woody: Flavor peculiar to either dead (indicating old crop, coffee stored too long) or green wood flavor found in certain coffees, like fresh saw-dust; neither very pleasant.
Yeasty / Toasty: Flavor reminiscent of either yeasty (unbaked) bread, or bread lightly toasted.