Words are important. As a writer, I feel very strongly about this. But, unfortunately, when it comes to the description of coffee, there is a free-for-all in how it is described. So often, the coffee ends up being personified rather than described using bold, aggressive, and bitter words.
Bitter is the most overused and inaccurately used descriptor in coffee. After years of tasting with people of all experience levels, I find that people use the word bitter as a catch-all descriptor for various lingual sensations. So if something is sour, burnt, pungent, or intense, it comes back labeled as bitter. Bitter is one of the five primary taste sensations that the tongue can perceive. Your bitter taste receptors are located in the back of the tongue near the throat; this is an evolutionary survival trait leftover from our hunter-gatherer past. Bitter was meant to induce your gag reflex, as most poisons taste bitter. Today, we enjoy bitterness in balance with sweetness and acidity. I personally attribute this enjoyment to human masochistic tendencies in our entertainment. The same tendency that drives the masses to the theater for disaster and apocalyptic movies.
Bitterness in coffee comes primarily from the caffeine content. Extreme bitterness is often more of a result of improper brewing and over-extracting the coffee.
Sweetness is the most often correctly identified flavor at all levels. This is likely because of our cultural affinity with sugar. Sweetness is perceived near the front of the tongue, while acidity sensors are most concentrated on the sides of the tongue. Acidity is another misunderstood word. Most people hear the word acidity and think of dangerous acids like battery acid or stomach acid. They believe it may hurt them or hurt their stomachs. This is a misnomer.
Various organic acids naturally occur in coffee and reveal themselves in the flavors of lighter roasted coffees. The most identifiable are citric, malic, and phosphoric acids. Citric, as it sounds, is the acid found in citrus fruits and will mirror these flavors in coffee. Malic is what you would find in apples and pears. It is a more gentle flavor, less sharp. Phosphoric acid is present in low levels and will reveal itself as a warm bubbly sensation on the sides of your tongue. Phosphoric acid isolate is a key ingredient in Coca-Cola and is part of its effervescent quality. We will discuss where to find the best examples of these acids in different origins another time.
For now, here are some of the basics when describing coffee. Bitterness – perceived in the back of the tongue can be – bitey, harsh, pleasant, soft, or overpowering. Some bitter flavor notes may include ash, burnt wood, and cacao. Sweetness – perceived near the front of the tongue – may have notes of chocolate, sugar, caramel, molasses, etc., and be round, full, and deep. Acidity – perceived on the sides of the tongue – may be experienced as sharp, snappy, soft, mild, piercing, and sour. Specific acidic notes may be described as pear, lemon, lime, citrus, orange, grapefruit, berries, grapes, vinegar, etc.
The next time you are drinking your morning coffee. Take a moment to let the coffee coat your tongue and try to feel where on your tongue you are feeling the most intensity. Then give it a name – sweet, acidic, bitter, etc. Then go further and see if you can taste a specific note within that category. I’d love to hear what your experience. Please add them in the comments section. Enjoy!