A Coffee Taster’s Glossary of Terms
Terroir: Characteristics which correlate to the soil where a coffee grew. There is a wide range of specificity here. Terroir characteristics can be thought of as broadly as “A Brazilian profile has low acidity and tastes malty” — or — as specifically “this part of a farm has slightly different soil composition, and tastes different than another part of the farm planted with the same varietal.” Somewhere in the middle it’s probably most relevant to be able to identify different regional profiles within a country to understand and appreciate just how vast the endless variety of tastes can go when talking about terroir.
Varietal: The taxonomic classification after species. Coffee has two species, Robusta and Arabica. Coffee varietals can be thought of as stemming from the heirloom varietal(s) growing in western Ethiopia. Over time through natural mutation, natural selection, and deliberate hybridization, the number of varietals increased. Currently the number of coffee varietals is expanding rapidly as farmers continue to experiment and hybridize. Read more about specific varietal tastes here.
Species: There are two species of the genus Coffea, called Coffea Arabica and Coffea Canephora — more commonly called, Robusta. There are many varietals which descend from both species. Robusta is more productive and disease resistant, with less pleasant taste and high caffeine content.
Altitude: It’s helpful to consider a coffee’s altitude for a number of reasons. High altitudes bring cooler temperatures, so the coffee grows more slowly, and is denser as a result. Higher density often correlates to higher qualities of taste and brighter acidity.
Density: Often correlates to the altitude where a coffee was grown and how it was processed. Generally speaking, high density coffees score better than low density coffees. A huge factor in why coffee brewing by any measurement but weight is problematic.
Producer: Person in charge of operations on a coffee farm. A producer typically taking on the role of farm planner and plays a role in decisions about processing, labor, certifications, etc — as well as strategizing for a farm’s longterm profitability and security. Involvement from producers can vary widely depending on the scale of a farm and the producer in question.
Lot: A quantity of coffee that is processed, stored, and ultimately separated from another quantity of coffee. The reason for dividing things into lots usually has economic motivations for sellers of coffee, such as “all of these 84 point coffees from this region will be easier to sell as a larger regional lot for espresso blends,” but the term lot is also used frequently at farm level to refer to “day lots” which is how coffees are often separated as they are processed after picking. In general, the number of lots decreases as coffees head to market, with similarly scoring day lots mixed together as one lot and anomalously high scoring lots kept aside as “micro” or even (gasp) “nano-lots.”
Micro-lot: See “LOT” first — A micro-lot is a particularly high scoring lot which producers have separated, knowing that it’s quality will command a higher price. Think of total quantities around 5–25 Bags and cupping scores 87 & up.
Drying: After picking (natural), depulping (honey, pulped natural), or washing, coffee is typically dried by one of three methods: raised bed, concrete patio, or machine. In all three cases the goal of a producer is to promote even drying, with raised beds known to produce higher quality. Depending on the climate around a farm and the quality of the coffee in question, a producer will typically work to slow down or speed up drying to fit within a 10–20 day range for raised bed and patio drying.
Washed Coffee: A broad term which basically refers to coffee which has been de-pulped and fermented in water to remove mucilage. Washed coffees are known for profiles with a high degree of clarity.
Fermentation: All coffees go through some kind of fermentation process. Naturals are known for heavy fermented characteristics due to the breakdown of sugars inside the thick skin of the cherry as they dry in the heat (not unlike composting. Washed coffees are not known for their “ferment-y” tastes, but they do undergo a deliberate period of fermentation in water tanks, with bacteria eating away at mucilage and impacting the flavor of the coffee with lactic acid created as a byproduct. Fermentation times vary, though 12–36 hours would be a typical range.
Green Coffee: Coffee which has been fully processed and is ready to roast. At this stage the coffee is in the form of individual “beans”
Harvest: Coffee harvesting usually takes place over a 2-3 month period, though some farms harvest almost year round depending on their proximity to the equator and ranges of altitude on the farm. Often times there is a “fly crop” of off season production which tends to be lower quality than the main crop. Likewise, cherries that are picked in the middle of the main harvest are generally the best quality.
Wet Mill: The size of wet mills can vary greatly, but they are the site of depulping, fermentation, early density sorting (floaters), and drying. Wet mills are typically built on a hill to make use of gravity to move coffee from one stage of processing to the next.
Dry Mill: Parchment coffee is dehulled and sorted for density, screen size, and defects at a dry mill. With density tables and color sorters playing vital roles. This is a stage where lot separation and merging often ends, with coffees being prepared for export in the familiar form of burlap bags.
Natural: Dried with little or no use of water and skin fully intact. If water is used in natural processing, it is mainly for rinsing and sorting for floaters (low density/underripe). Naturals are known for profiles with pronounced fruitiness, florals, and fuller bodies, as well as some degree of fermentation. The amount of fermentation that is considered acceptable is somewhat hotly debated, boiling down to personal preference and issues of evolving taste. Over-fermentation in a natural can be very off-putting, as fermentation in general is a taste which can overpower its counterparts.
Honey Process: Coffee dried with the skin and varying degrees of pulp removed. The degree of pulp left on during this stage is where most farms create distinctions between (least → most pulp), white, yellow, red, and black honeys. Honey processed coffees tend to have fuller bodies than washed coffees and less ferment than naturals. Pronounced sweetness is common.
Raised Beds: A method of drying which involves elevating coffee onto screens to increase airflow and therefore evenness of drying. Raised beds typically produce the best cupping scores and are the standard for high quality micro lot drying.
Drying Patio: Any large flat surface used for drying coffee, drying patios are typically white concrete, sometimes doubling as the roof of a small producer’s house.
Beans: The common term for the inner pit of a coffee cherry which is the most common way coffee is seen in the US. Each coffee cherry’s pit is actually two “beans” covered in parchment and mucilage.
Acidity: Coffees without acidity will be flat, whereas too much acidity can be piercing and imbalanced. The most predominant acids in coffee are Citric, Lactic, Mallic, and Tartaric. For a more on acidity in coffee, check out James Hoffman’s blog entry here.
Body: The intensity of a coffee’s physical taste.
Mouthfeel: The physical sensation of the coffee in your mouth and on your tongue, akin to texture.
Notes: Descriptive words used to convey something about the taste of a coffee.
Aroma: The smell of brewed coffee.
Dry Aroma: The smell of the coffee just after it has been ground.
Wet Aroma: The smell of coffee when it is wet and beginning to brew.
Cupping: The industry standard for easy and rapid evaluation of coffees. Cuppings are an immersion brew, with specific procedures for breaking the crust, smelling, slurping with spoons, etc. Visit the SCAA’s website for specific parameters for how to set up a cupping.
Brewing: Making coffee through the contact of water and ground coffee without the use of pressure.
Extraction: The percentage of the coffee grounds which is dissolved into the water when brewing. Accepted extraction yields are 18–22%
Total Dissolved Solids TDS: The amount of solubles suspended in a liquid, which, in the case of coffee, involves first “zeroing” readings to the TDS already in the brewing water. The SCAA considers 1.15–1.35 to be an ideal concentration of coffee solubles.
Solubility: The rate at which a coffee will brew to their desired strength. Higher density and/or light roasted coffee has a lower solubility than less dense, and/or darker roasted coffee. Low solubility can be a tell tale sign of an underdeveloped roast.
Roasting: The process of developing sugars and amino acids in green coffee through the application of heat. There are many types of roasters and ways of roasting. Preferences regarding roasting vary, though it is rare that anyone would roast a top quality very dark. When tasting, it is important to be able to distinguish roast flavors from flavors inherent in the coffee, though roasts can emphasize certain attributes of a coffee as well.
Roasty: Generally, some degree of burned taste imparted by the roast. Doesn’t have to be a negative.
Baked: A roast defect caused by a combination of underdeveloped sweetness, and heavy application of heat post-crack. Baked coffee is not simply sour and underdeveloped, but can also exhibit dry, roasty flavors that can occur with a crash in a roast profile’s rate of rise. Scott Rao has a better explanation of how this occurs in roasting — read it here!
Stalled: A roast defect caused by insufficient application of heat, usually in an overly long roast, and leading to underdeveloped coffee with pronounced flavors inherent to green (un-roasted) coffee like straw.
Scorched: A roast defect endemic to drum roasting, where the outside of the coffee is burned but the inside is underdeveloped. Can be caused by excessive drum heat.