Coffee Flavor Terms and More: A Glossary of Everything from Acidity to Wet-Processing

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Do you know your acidity from your body? Your chocolate notes from your nuttiness? Your dry-processed coffees from your washed ones? If not, don’t worry – we’re here to help.

The coffee world can be a confusing place, with terminology ranging from general to specific. This blog post will take you through a glossary of all the coffee flavor terms you need to know.

By the time you’ve finished reading, you’ll be an expert on everything from aftertastes to woody flavors!


coffee flavor terms

List of coffee flavor terms and more

Acidity: a term used to describe the level of brightness or sourness in coffee. Acidity is not necessarily a bad thing – it can add liveliness and depth of flavor to a coffee.

Acrid: A negative tasting term that is used to describe a coffee with an unpleasant, burning aftertaste.

Aftertaste: Refers to the flavors and sensations that are experienced after swallowing coffee. The aftertaste of a particular coffee can be sweet, bitter, or sour.

Aromatics (Aroma): Aromatics are the smells that are released when coffee is brewed. These smells are caused by the essential oils that are found in coffee beans.

Ashy: A negative tasting term for a coffee with an off-tasting, burnt aftertaste.

Astringent: A term used to describe a coffee with a harsh, dry taste. This is often caused by the over-extraction of the coffee during brewing.

Baggy: Straw-like coffee bag flavor develops in coffee that has been kept for an extended period of time in burlap (jute) bags. Mildew taste is a characteristic of light roasted coffee with moldy characteristics.

Baked: A burnt, burned, or baked flavor in your coffee. Roasting at a lower temperature may result in a baked taste. If you roast coffee for more than about 17 minutes in a drum roaster, it will generally be burnt or have a baked flavor. Baked coffees are dry, woody, and flavorless.

Balance: A flavorful and balanced coffee is neither complex nor overpowering in flavor or aroma. Yemen Mocha, for example, is usually strong and flavorful, but it is also well balanced. In contrast, Kenya AA generally has a wine-like fruity taste that is dominant. A good balance in a cup of coffee might be achieved by blending several different coffees together.

Beany: A coffee with a beans smell or taste. This is usually caused by under-roasting the coffee, which results in an unfinished flavor profile.

Bitterness: One of the basic tastes, along with sweetness, sourness, and saltiness. Bitterness is caused by certain chemicals, such as quinine, that are found in coffee beans. Roasting coffee darker will generally result in a less bitter taste.

Body: The term body is used to describe the mouthfeel or texture of coffee. Often described as heavy, light, thin, watery, etc. Body is affected by factors such as roast level and brewing method. For example, a light roast coffee will generally have more body than a dark roasts.

Bouquet: The term bouquet is used to describe the aromatics or smells of coffee.

Bright: A term used to describe a coffee with high acidity. Bright coffees are lively and have a clean taste.

Burnt: A coffee that has been roasted for too long. Burnt coffees are dry, woody, and flavorless.

Buttery: A term used to describe a coffee with a rich, buttery taste. This is has a smooth mouthfeel and is often found in coffees from Indonesia.

Catty: A term used to describe a coffee with an unpleasant, animal-like smell. This is often caused by the over-fermentation of the coffee during processing.

Chewy: A coffee with a thick, syrupy mouthfeel is said to be chewy.

coffee flavor terms

Chocolatey: flavors that resemble unsweetened chocolate, such as cacao, cocoa, or dark chocolate. Chocolate notes are often found in darker-roasted coffees.

Clean: A term used to describe a coffee with no defects. Clean coffees are well balanced and have a pleasant taste.

Cloying: A negative tasting term for a coffee that is too sweet or has an over-ripe flavor.

Complex: A term used to describe a coffee with many different flavors. Complex coffees are often described as being “full-bodied” and “well-rounded.”

Corky: A coffee with an unpleasant, musty smell. This is often caused by the over-fermentation of the coffee during processing.

Crust: When cupping (tasting) coffee, the layer of saturated coffee grounds that rises to the top is known as the float. The ground are agitated in the traditional coffee cupping technique known as “breaking the crust” to release trapped vapors, allowing a cupper to observe the coffees distinct qualities. Before tasting brewed coffee, the crust is scooped out with a spoon. 

Cupping: The process of tasting coffee in order to evaluate its quality. Cupping is done by placing a small amount of ground coffee in

Creamy: Describes a coffee with a smooth, creamy texture. This is often found in coffees from Indonesia.

Dark roast: A term used to describe a coffee that has been roasted for a longer period of time. Dark roast coffees are typically less acidic and have a more intense flavor.

Defects: Defects are blemishes in the coffee beans that can affect the taste of the coffee. Common defects include over-fermentation, mold, and bean size.

Earthy: Fresh earth, wet soil, or raw potatoes are all examples of earthy scents. While not always a negative feature, earthiness might be caused by mold during the processing of picked coffee cherries. Semi-dry processed coffees from Indonesia frequently have earthy notes, for example.

Ferment: A sour, oniony flavor caused by over-fermentation. The beans will still have a lot of pulp remaining after de-pulping coffee cherries, which removes the skin and some associated mucilage (pulp). After fermentation, the residual pulp is frequently freed because it becomes loose as a result of fermentation. If fermentation isn’t halted as soon as the final parchment (husk) loses its slimy texture and has a rough feel, the coffee may develop an alcoholic flavor. 

Flat: This is what happens when the coffee has lost its flavor. The over-extraction of the coffee causes a bland flavor after it’s brewed.

Finish: The aftertaste of a coffee. The finish can linger on the palate for a long time and can be sweet, bitter, or savory.

Floral: Found in Ethiopian coffee, floral coffees have light, delicate aromas. Flavors that resemble flowers, such as jasmine, rose, or lavender. Floral notes are often found in lighter-roasted coffees.

Fruity: A fruity coffee has flavors and aromatics reminiscent of fruit or the coffee cherry. This can be caused by the coffee’s origin, variety, or roast level. For example, Sumatra Mandheling coffee will have fruity flavors, while Brazilian coffee will have earthy, chocolate flavors.

Grassy: A flavor that is characteristic of freshly mowed green grass, herbs, green leaves, green beans, and unriasted fruit. Under-roasted coffee beans and under-dried or water-damaged coffee beans have a grassy aroma referred to as green, herby, or herbal. 

Gritty: A term used to describe a coffee with an unpleasant, sandy texture. This is often caused by the over-fermentation of the coffee during processing.

Harsh: A coffee that is too bitter or acidic. Harsh coffees are Pungent and disagreeable to drink and often have defects.

Heavy: Describes a coffee with a thick, syrupy mouthfeel. This is often found in coffees from Indonesia.

coffee flavor terms

Herbal: Coffees with an herbal aroma are often described as smelling like herbs, or unripe fruit.

Hidey: The smell or taste of leather. For example, hidey notes may be found in some east African coffees.

Honey processed: A type of coffee processing where the coffee cherry is removed from the seed (bean) but with a layer of mucilage left on. The beans are then dried with the mucilage intact, which imparts a sweetness to the final coffee.

Hoppy: A term used to describe a beer-like flavor in coffee. This can be caused by the coffee’s origin, variety, or roast level.

Instant taste: A taste quality of instant coffee that has been freeze-dried. Many people find instant coffee’s flavor unpalatable. Instant coffee is frequently served in Colombia and Brazil, both large volume exporters of roast coffee.

Jammy: A term used to describe a coffee with fruity flavors. This can be caused by the coffee’s origin, variety, or roast level.

Light roast: A coffee roast that is light in color and has a light body. The coffee beans are roasted for a shorter period of time, which results in a coffee with more acidity and flavors inherited from the coffee cherry.

Lingering: Describes an aftertaste that lingers on the palate for a long time. The finish can be sweet, bitter, or savory.

Malic acid: A type of acid found in coffee that is responsible for the sour coffee taste. Malic acid is found in unripe fruit and can be produced during the coffee roasting process.

Malty: The smell of malt. The aroma of cereal, malt, and toast is commonly combined with Cereal and Toast-like to represent the flavor of grain, malt extract, and freshly baked bread. Grain-related scents (“cereal”, “malty”), as well as malted grain (roasted corn, barley, or wheat), malt extract, freshly cooked bread ,and toast are described in this category.

Medicinal: A chemical odor that’s reminiscent of medicine, or iodine. A medicinal flavor with undertones of iodine, which may be acquired while cherries dry on the coffee plant. Blending is ineffective in suppressing medicinal tastes.

Medium roast: A coffee roast that is medium in color and has a medium body. The coffee beans are roasted for a longer period of time than light roast, which results in a coffee with less acidity and more complex flavors.

Mild: A coffee with little to no acidity. Mild coffees are often described as having flavors of chocolate or nuts.

Natural process: A method of processing coffee cherries where they are dried with the fruit still attached to the bean. This results in a fruity flavor profile.

Mellow: Mellow coffee refers to a cup of joe with a smooth, clean taste. These types of coffees are typically well-balanced and easy to drink. For example, most medium-roasted, low-grown (under 4000 feet) Arabicas have mellow flavors.

Mouthfeel: The texture of the coffee in your mouth. This can be described as syrupy, thick, thin, velvety, etc.

Neutral: Neutral coffees typically don’t have a strong taste, but they may still be sharp or pungent. For example, coffees from Brazil and Colombia often have neutral flavors.  

Nose: The term nose is used to describe the aromatics or smells of coffee. The aroma and taste characteristics of a coffee are sensed by the nose, especially when exhaling coffee vapors after swallowing.

coffee flavor terms

Nutty: The flavor and fragrance of fresh almonds are strong. Coffee cuppers avoid using the term “nutty” to characterize coffees with tastes or fragrances likened to rancid nuts or bitter almonds. A nutty taste is found in certain coffees from South America.

Oniony: The flavor of onions is one that’s frequently associated with the use of stagnant water while processing coffee by the wet method. The oniony nuances are usually avoided by using fresh water instead of pulp water during processing.

Papery: Describes coffee with an unpleasant, paper-like taste. This is often caused by the over-fermentation of the coffee during processing.

Past Crop: Coffee from a previous year’s harvest. Past crop, old crop, old, or oldish are also used as taste terms to describe coffee stored for more than a year. Past crop coffees tend to have a woody, strawy, or hay-like flavor and less acidity.

Peasy: An unpleasant bitter taste similar to fresh green peas.

Primary tastes: Professional coffee cuppers use terms to describe flavors detected by the tongue (primary tastes) and those picked up through smell (secondary tastes). There are four primary distinct taste profiles that we can detect with our taste buds: salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. Each taste bud contains between 50 and 100 taste cells, and each cell has receptors that assign particular signals to specific neurons in order to generate a conscious response in the brain. Receptors present in taste buds are responsible for differentiating tastes. Some receptors tend to recognize sour foods and are usually located around the sides of the tongue. Receptors near the end of the tongue differentiate between sweet and salty foods, whereas those at the back perceive bitter tastes. The middle portion of the tongue generally lacks taste buds.

Pyrazines: A family of compounds that are found in all roasted coffees. Pyrazines give coffee its characteristic roasted flavor.

Quakery: The flavor of overripe or underdeveloped coffee beans is similar to a peanut.

Rancid: RancidThe terms “rancid” and “rotten” are used to describe characteristics of decomposing coffee. Professional coffee tasters are careful not to describe a strong and unpleasant aroma as “rancid” if there are no other signs of deterioration.

Rubbery: RubberyThe aroma and flavor characteristic of hot tires or rubber bands. A rubbery characteristic, while not always negative, is highly recognizable in some coffees, especially fresh Robustas.

Scorched: Roasted coffee with burn marks caused by inadequate tumbling or by roasting too hot. Also called “tipped” or “charred”. Scorched beans may look completely roasted but are likely to have sour and bready flavors.

Secondary Taste: The term nose is used to describe the aromatics or smells of coffee. The aroma and taste characteristics of coffee are sensed by the nose, especially when exhaling coffee vapors after swallowing.

Sharp: A term used to describe a coffee with high acidity and a biting sensation on the tongue.

Smoky: A term used to describe a coffee with an unpleasant, smoky taste. This is often caused by the over-fermentation of the coffee during processing.

Sour: Acetic acid is a harsh, biting taste (as in vinegar or acetic acid). Fermented coffee may have sour or sour aromas. Overripe or fermented cherries, as well as incorrect fermentation when yeast and alcohol produce vinegar-like acids, can all cause a sour flavor. To prevent this fault, parchment (husk) is still wet after fermentation is washed immediately after to remove the slime and rough texture of the parchment coffee. Sour flavors are often mistaken for acidity; however, acidity is the slightly tangy sensation associated with bright coffee flavors.

Smooth: A taste characteristic of balanced coffee without any pronounced tastes or aftertaste. Also called round, rounded, or soft.  

Smoky notes: flavors that resemble smoke, such as tobacco or wood fire. Smoky notes are often found in darker-roasted coffees.

Spicey: The aroma of sweet spices such as cloves, cinnamon, and allspice. The term “spicy” when describing coffee does not include the aroma of savory spices such as pepper, oregano, and curry.

Sweet: A term used to describe coffee with a pleasant level of sweetness. Sweetness can be natural or added and is often balanced by other flavors, such as acidity or bitterness.

Tart: A term used to describe a coffee with an unpleasant, sour taste.

Tainted: An unexpected off-flavor not clearly defined by usual taste categories. Too much pulp in fermenting parchment will produce tainted coffee.

Tobacco: The aroma and flavor of fresh tobacco in brewed coffee. A tobacco-like taste is not necessarily disagreeable and is found in various specialty coffees throughout the world. A tobacco taste or aroma should not be confused with characteristics of burnt tobacco (ash).

Washed process: A method of coffee processing in which the coffee seeds are soaked in water for extended periods of time. The washing removes the mucilage layer that is attached to the parchment (husk) of the coffee seed. Washed coffees generally have a cleaner taste and less body than unwashed coffees. Wet-processed coffees are sometimes referred to as “water-processed” or “soaked” coffees.

Wet-processing: A method of coffee processing in which the coffee seeds are soaked in water for extended periods of time. The washing removes the mucilage layer that is attached to the parchment (husk) of the coffee seed. Washed coffees generally have a cleaner taste and less body than unwashed coffees. Wet-processed coffees are sometimes referred to as “water-processed” or “soaked” coffees.

Winey: When we talk about wine, we’re talking about the experience of taste, smell, and mouth feel. A winey flavor is generally associated with acidic and fruity notes. Sour or overly fermented flavors are frequently confused with this term.  

Woody: The taste of old coffee. Woody coffee smells like dry wood, an oak barrel, dead wood, or cardboard. This defect occurs when beans are improperly stored for an extended period of time. Coffees stored at low altitudes in high temperatures and humidity (as in many ports of shipment) tend to deteriorate quickly and become woody. All coffees can become woody if stored long enough.


coffee flavor terms

Types of coffee beans

There are two primary types of coffee beans: Arabica and Robusta.

Arabica: The better quality coffee bean, accounting for about 75% of the world’s coffee production. Arabica coffee is grown at altitudes between 600 and 1200 meters above sea level, typically on large estates. The ideal temperature for growing Arabica coffee is between 15 and 24 degrees Celsius.

Robusta: A lower quality coffee bean, accounting for about 25% of the world’s coffee production. Robusta coffee is grown at altitudes between sea level and 600 meters, typically on small farms. The ideal temperature for growing Robusta coffee is between 20 and 30 degrees Celsius.

Coffee grown at higher altitudes is often considered to be of better quality because the beans grow more slowly, allowing them to develop more flavor.

The type of coffee bean also affects the flavor of the coffee. Arabica beans are typically described as having a sweeter, fruitier flavor, while Robusta beans are typically described as having a harsher, more bitter flavor.


coffee flavor terms

Coffee brewing methods

There are many different ways to brew coffee, and each brewing method can produce coffee with a unique flavor profile. Some of the most popular brewing methods include:

Drip Coffee: Perhaps the most common brewing method in the United States. Drip coffee is made by pouring hot water over coffee grounds that are contained in a filter. These are usually automated devices that drip hot water over the grounds and then collect the brewed coffee in a carafe.

Espresso: A strong, concentrated coffee made by forcing hot water through tightly packed coffee grounds. Espresso is the base for many popular coffee drinks, such as cappuccinos, lattes, and mochas.

French Press: Also known as a plunger pot, the French press is a coffee brewing method in which coffee grounds are steeped in hot water for several minutes before being pressed to the bottom of the pot.

Pour Over: A coffee brewing method that involves pouring hot water over coffee grounds that are contained in a filter. Pour over coffee makers often have cone-shaped filters that allow for a slow, steady pour. This is a manual method of brewing coffee, so it requires a bit more attention than some of the other methods.


Final Thoughts

Coffee is a complex beverage with hundreds of flavor compounds that can be affected by everything from the type of bean to the brewing method. By understanding some of the basic terms used to describe coffee flavor, you can begin to appreciate all the different factors that affect the taste of your cup of coffee.

The next time you’re enjoying a cup of coffee, take a moment to think about the different flavors you’re experiencing. From acidity to wet-processing, there’s a lot that goes into your cup of joe. With this glossary in hand, you’ll be able to better identify and enjoy all the different flavors of coffee.

Experiment with different brewing methods and bean types to find the flavors that you enjoy the most. And don’t be afraid to ask your barista about the flavor profiles of their coffees – they’ll be more than happy to chat with you about all things coffee!

Happy caffeinating!

Kris Silvey

I've been drinking coffee my entire life, from a little boy stealing coffee off the counter to an adult (who still steals his wife's coffee occasionally). I'm passionate about exploring the world of coffee and finding another great roast to experience.

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