This is the first of an ongoing series entitled, Whats in Your Cup? In this series, we’ll discuss the tastes and flavors that are found in coffee, helping you better identify — and enjoy — what’s in your cup.
Creating a Common Language
“The basic difficulty in coffee flavor terminology is inherent in our language. Although many words describe the sensation of sight, sound, and touch, few words describe the sensations of smell and taste.”
And so begins Ted Lingle’s forward to The Cupping Handbook (part of the SCAA Handbooks Series), which breaks down the sensations coffee cuppers experience when cupping. Despite its academic (and often coffee-geekish) description of how to properly cup, this book is one of the essential steps coffee professionals take on their journey to better understand all that coffee has to offer.
When you describe a pleasing taste to someone, you might use words such as sweet, sugar, and honey. Now try to describe something unpleasant. Hmm, how about the words sharp, tart, sour, or bitter?
Too often when we taste something, we make assumptions based on our experiences, and the language we use to describe those experiences can often be misleading. That’s why describing food (and coffee) isn’t always easy.
Professional coffee cuppers train their palates to better understand the nuances they taste in coffee. Words such as mellow, tea rose, and syrup-like are used to describe the aromatic and taste properties of the brew. And, once cuppers agree on the words used to describe the flavor being experienced, then they can better understand each other — which is essential in determining a coffee’s quality.
Training the palate is essential for everyone — not just coffee cuppers. When we hear the words sour, fatty, or acidic, we evaluate them agains our culture, our experiences, and our beliefs. And, unless we fully understand what they are meant to impart, a misunderstanding may occur.
To help us better describe what we eat or drink, let’s first gain a better understanding of what is going on with our own taste system – and in particular, how we react to the flavor of acidity.
Understanding our Taste System
Our taste preferences are highly individual, and based on numerous factors. For instance, “We’re biologically hard-wired to reject bitter and sour tastes as a defense mechanism,” explains Priscilla Martel, chef, cookbook author, and baking instructor. “Sourness can signal something spoiled, or indicate a toxic produced when the wrong type of bacteria ends up in milk, for example.”
But it doesn’t end there. According to Martel, we are more sophisticated in our ability to distinguish between a delicious sourness (as one might find in a yogurt), and one that might denote rancidity (as one might note from a spoiled milk or cheese).
For the most part, we’ve come to associate an acidic taste with something negative, but as both Martel and Lingle affirm, it’s all about training – or retraining – our palate.
A Bright Note in Your Cup
When talking about acidity in coffee, the concept isn’t too complicated, just a bit misunderstood. “The cup profile of a coffee has three componenets: acidity, body, and flavor,” explains Stephen Bauer, Co-Managing Director of Paragon Coffee. “And much like citrus fruit juice, some coffees are acidic, or sharp, in the cup.” (The opposite example is milk or water; neither of which have acidity.)
As noted in Lingle’s handbook, “Acidity refers to a flavor note, not to the actual acid content. Coffee is relatively low in acid, with an average pH around 5.0 – 5.1, which is more neutral than beer or any fruit juice, and similar to carbonated water. As Ukers notes in All About Coffee, if a vinegar/water solution were made within an equivalent pH, its acidity could not be detected by taste.”
And, if we’re talking about acidity in coffee, it is important to understand that it can mean several things, “including how the coffee was roasted and the brewing method,” Bauer explains. For example, if the coffee was brewed at too low a temperature, only the acidic notes will come out. Or, if the beans were ground too coarse, you’ll get an acidic cup of coffee with little body and flavor.
So, if you are going to embrace the acidity found in your cup of coffee, it is important to reconnect with your taste buds – and to stop and taste something before your add any other flavors to it. “All too often, when a plate of food is put before us, we automatically reach for a bottle of sauce, dressing, or the salt shaker before even taking a bite,” says Bauer. “We somehow presume it is not seasoned to our liking. And, coffee is also like that. People automatically reach for the cream and sugar, because they have been accustomed to a poor flavor of coffee that has to be masked by sugar, or a thin bodied coffee that has to be increased with creamer.”
Darker roasted coffees are less acidic;
both in their flavor profile and in actual acid content.
Sure, we have a propensity to classify acidity as something less than desirable, but when it comes to coffee, it can mean a taste that is truly enjoyable. “Acidity is sometimes referred to as brightness in the cup,” explains Bauer. “It is the snap or sparkle on top of the flavor of the coffee.
So, how do you know if you’re enjoying a bit of acidity in your coffee? Bauer reminds us that we sense sweet on the top of the tongue, salt on the front sides, spice on the back sides, and bitter on the very back of the tongue, what he refers to as the ‘back pallet’. “If a coffee is truly acidic, that area of your tongue will light up,” explains Bauer.
The acidity of a coffee can be brought out in several ways, and knowing the acid inducers can help you better enjoy the delightful acidity found in certain coffees. The first thing to remember is “the longer the infusion of the coffee, the more of everything you will get, including acidity,” he says. “Of course, how much natural acidity a coffee has is the determining factor,” In general, acidity has been correlated with coffees grown at very high altitudes and in mineral-rich volcanic soils. The acidity found in coffees, especially those from Central America an some from East Africa, is a highly valued quality. Sourness, however, is an extreme of acidity, and can be considered a coffee defect.
He adds, “Generally speaking, the lighter the roast of the coffee, the more acidity it will retain. The darker the roast, the less acidity it will retain. So the most acidic coffee in the world would be a light roasted Kenyan coffee, and the least would be a dark roasted Sumatra coffee.”
Further, Bauer suggests to become more attuned to taste when drinking coffee. “Try the coffee black so as not to mask the flavor, use fresh roasted beans that you grind just prior to brewing and use a fresh press if at all possible. These things will bring out the flavor the most. The greater the variety you try, the more likely it will be that you will find your perfect cup. And, that is something that you will retain for life!”
* To enjoy a coffee with enjoyable acidity, check out our Coffee of the Week – Kenya Thunguri – Top Auction Lot
* Related articles on taste, acidity, and coffee cupping
Low Acid Coffees by Ken Davids