A Beginner’s Guide To Coffee Tasting Terminology

SCA Flavour wheel
SCA Favour Wheel

“This medium-bodied coffee has a floral and sweet aroma…”. Does this sound familiar? While most coffee descriptions are elegantly worded, there are segments of uninformed coffee lovers who have no idea what such descriptions mean. Here is a quick rundown on the terminology that is used to describe a coffee, allowing you to fully understand the next coffee description that you lay your eyes on. 


Aroma is the smell of the coffee. As you drink coffee, your olfactory system (also known as your sense of smell) processes the gasses and vapours that are released from the coffee. The aroma is a key contributor to the overall taste of coffee. 


Don’t worry, there are not actually dangerous acids contained in your coffee. ‘Acidity’ is a word that refers to the presence of particular, food-based acids that are found in coffee (primarily Chlorogenic Acids). The acid is broken down during roasting which contributes to the acidity, sourness, astringency and bitterness. When coffee is ground and brewed the acidity in the coffee is released to more familiar flavours .


Also known as the “finish”, the aftertaste refers to the brewed coffee flavours that are released after swallowing. 


The ‘body’ of a coffee, is the physical, tactile feeling and consistency of the coffee in the mouth. Body is also a measure of the coffee’s viscosity (thickness); an attribute that affects the aroma and flavour of the coffee as well. The viscosity is created through the bean’s oils and acids that are extracted during the brewing process. The body of a coffee is described from being ‘light’ (i.e. a tea-like consistency), through to heavy (i.e. a syrup-like consistency). 


Coffee contains natural sugars and carbohydrates that are highlighted throughout the roasting and brewing process. So when coffee tasters refer to the ‘sweetness’ of coffee, they are referring to the natural sweetness and sugary quality of the drink. 

Clean Cup

Simply put, a ‘clean cup’ is the absence of any defects (including any unpleasant flavours or aromas). 


The term ‘balance’ is used to describe a coffee flavour that does not oversaturate any particular point of the palate, and that does not focus on a particular taste characteristic. In other words, coffee ‘balance’ means that no flavour quality overpowers any other flavour quality. 


As you might have guessed, the ‘flavour’ of a coffee refers to the tasting sensation that is experienced when drinking coffee. Coffee flavour is described using familiar foods, such as chocolate and berries. While the flavours of such foods are not necessarily contained in the coffee itself, the residue that is imparted by the coffee provides a flavour that is somewhat resemblant to another food type (such a comparison is described as a ‘flavour note’). As mentioned previously, the aroma is a key contributor to flavour. Additionally, there are five basic categories of flavour: sweet, sour, bitter,salty and umami. The Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) have developed a flavour wheel outlining the various flavour descriptors within the aforementioned flavour categories and has become a helpful resource for correctly discerning the various flavours within a coffee drink.