If you have had any contact with the specialty coffee market, chances are you’ve come across something similar to this strange sounding phrase: “…yielding a sharply acidic coffee with an intense flavor, very fragrant and floral.” Whether you’re buying from your local supermarket, or you’re purchasing green beans from a broker – this is an example of the way people “talk” about coffee. Sure, the words are familiar but, unless you’ve also had some experience in wine tasting, their usage might be a little unfamiliar.

Fortunately, this foreign language is based in perceptions that we all have in common. Although there are subjective differences – what one person perceives as spicy, another may think is bitter – we all share a common set of taste perceptions. It is on these that this vocabulary is built. Spicy, chocolaty, grassy, we all have had some experience with these tastes. Ok, so maybe you haven’t eaten freshly mown grass recently, but you have probably smelled it. And, because so much of what we taste is based on how it smells, you will recognize that “flavor” in other things.

Certain characteristics are easy to distinguish, even for the beginning taster. You will notice after directly comparing coffees that relatively small differences will be brought out in the cup. However, in order to fully utilize the cupping experience, and to even approach your own definition of a perfect cup of coffee, you need a vocabulary that describes these differences. It is therefore essential that you acquaint yourself with a standard glossary of terms before setting out to cup. Here are some samples from Ted Lingle’s “Coffee Cupper’s Handbook” (pub. Coffee Development Group, Washington DC) and the cupping chart from I & M Smith (pty), Ltd. Keep in mind that they more you cup, the more references you will have, the easier it will be to distinguish the various characteristics.

A measure of the acid content of the liquid; in fine coffees acidity results in a pleasant sharpness. Not to be associated with the genuinely sour taste of inferior coffees.
The sensation of brewed coffee vapors released after swallowing. Characteristics will range from carbony to chocolaty, spicy to turpeny.
The sensation of gases released from brewed coffee; may be described as ranging from fruity to herby.
Perceived by the back of the tongue and characterized by solutions of quinine, caffeine, and other alkaloids; usually caused by over-roasting.
Perceived by the sides of the tongue and ranging in taste from soft to neutral. Found often in washed Arabica coffees such as Guatemalan Low Grown.
Associated with mouthfeel and texture, this should be a strong, full, pleasant characteristic; see also mouthfeel.
The total aromatic profile, resulting from compounds in the fragrance, aroma, and aftertaste.
A common aromatic sensation; reminiscent of candy or syrup.
A common aromatic sensation in a brew’s aftertaste, reminiscent of unsweetened chocolate or vanilla.
Related to mellow; characterized by a fragile, subtle flavor; perceived by the tip of the tongue. Found in washed New Guinea Arabica coffees.
An unclean smell or taste that can be specific, such as sourness or mustiness, or a more generalized taint that reminds one of eating dirt.
Used when describing bouquet to denote a lack of strong perceptions in fragrance, aroma, and aftertaste; also called dead.
The experience of aromatics once the coffee is in the mouth.
The aromatic sensations inhaled by sniffing; can be described as ranging from floral to spicy.
An aromatic sensation reminiscent of citrus fruit or berries.
Used to describe an odor and/or taste in some coffees that is reminiscent of a freshly mown lawn, with accompanying astringency like that of green grass.
A rounded, smooth taste, characteristically lacking in acidity.
Refers to coffee that lacks any overriding characteristic, either pleasant or unpleasant.
The tactile sensations the coffee produces on your palate. How a coffee “feels” in your mouth.
A dull, indistinct, and thickish flavor that can be caused by the grounds being agitated.
A flavor that often occurs due to poor storage or lack of sufficient drying, aging, or overheating. In aged coffees, mustiness is not necessarily undesirable.
An aromatic sensation that is released as a brew is swallowed; reminiscent of roasted nuts.
A flavor characteristic that is desirable in good blenders. Used to denote a lack of any strong flavors.
Used when describing bouquet to denote intense perceptions of fragrance, aroma, and aftertaste.
Characterized by a parched sensation on the tongue, related to sharp, salty taste sensations.
Related to over-acidity; a sharp, biting flavor, often from under-ripe beans.
An aromatic and taste perception reminiscent of spices.
Free of any harshness.
Related to under-brewing, resulting in coffee lacking in any acidity; also referred to as lifeless.
Caused by wrong water-to-coffee ratio, which results in a low level of oils in the coffee. This is mouthfeel.
A gamey flavor often associated with Ethiopian coffees.
Reminiscent of a well-matured red wine; characterized by a full-bodied smooth coffee. Often found in Kenyan and Yemeni coffees.
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