No two coffee blends are exactly alike. What are the different coffee flavours?
Each coffee’s flavour is determined by four main components of taste: acidity, sweetness, bitterness, and saltiness. From cultivation to brewing, there are many factors that influence a drink’s taste even before coffee shops add cinnamon, chocolate, or mint flavouring.
Knowing what influences a coffee’s flavour will help you choose the perfect one for you. So let’s get started.
Note: A coffee’s flavour should not be confused with what type of drink it is. The different types of coffee drinks include, but are not limited to:
Coffee shops will often add “flavouring” to these different coffee drinks, such as: chocolate powder, cinnamon, vanilla extract, etc. and toppings. Rather than focus on such add-ons, this article will break down what shapes a coffee’s natural flavour.
What Are the Different Coffee Flavours? In Short:
- There are four main components to the flavour of coffee: acidity, sweetness, bitterness, and saltiness.
- There are four types of coffee bean, and each one provides a unique flavour: Arabica, Robusta, Liberica, and Excelsa
The Four Main Components of a Coffee’s Natural Flavor
There’s often an assumption that the taste of coffee is sharp and bitter, but there’s much more to it than that. Coffee can be incredibly fruity, nutty, smoky, and so on. The elements that go hand-in-hand with these flavours are the degrees to which the coffee bean is acidic, bitter, sweet, or salty.
These components are affected by the bean type, origin, climate, and processing methods.
If you feel a sort of sharpness from your coffee, then it’s acidic. It’s easy to mistake this with bitterness, but they’re actually different. Acidity is more like tartness; the coffee tends to have fruitier, often citrusy notes to it as opposed to the sour. It’s actually a desirable quality in coffee as it adds a bright and refreshing quality to the taste.
The Arabica coffee bean is known as the most acidic bean type.Arabica’s flavour is actually incredibly sweet and mild.
Lightly roasted coffees tend to be more acidic, so consider lightly roasted Arabica coffee beans if you want to try acidity in your coffee.
It’s incredibly difficult to tell bitterness and acidity apart. Still, the best thing to remember is that acidity will feel bright and sharp like a citrus fruit. But bitterness is usually picked up at the back of your mouth rather than the sides. While this might not sound too pleasant at first, the right amount of bitterness is often desired in coffee.
The longer a bean is roasted, the more bitter it becomes. The aim is to find the balance between acidity and bitterness and having just the right amount of both. It’s only when coffee beans have been roasted for too long that they become unpleasantly bitter.
Improper brewing techniques or letting a coffee sit for too long can also contribute to unwanted levels of bitterness.
Bitterness is often associated with earthy, woody aromas and is what characterises some coffees from others. For example, Robusta coffee beans have a lower acidity level but higher caffeine content making the distinctive flavour of earthiness and bitterness. It’s the taste of coffee that is more universally recognised.
The most recognisable flavour is that of sweetness. Everyone has enjoyed something sugary at one time or another to be able to identify when something is sweet. Coffee can be sweet in a fruity sense or it can have notes of chocolate and caramel within the taste and aroma.
Coffee beans that were harvested when the entire coffee plant was more uniformly-ripe are sweeter. The beans are then sun-dried—also called “natural processing”—to preserve that sweetness.
If you enjoy sweetness, consider buying lightly roasted Arabica coffee beans from Africa or South America that specify having chocolatey/caramel notes or fruity ones rather than nutty or smoky.
Noticeable saltiness in your coffee is often a bad sign. The most common cause for it is under extraction of your coffee during brewing. Under extraction means that the water was unable to extract—or bring out—enough flavour from the coffee grounds. This results in an unpleasant and imbalanced taste that is close to saltiness.
There are many reasons your coffee may have been under extracted. For example:
- too little water was used in brewing
- the coffee maker is malfunctioning
- the coffee grounds are too coarse—or not “fine” enough—making them more difficult to extract
And of course, the water quality could also affect the coffee’s final taste. Water that is too high in minerals—and particularly sodium chloride—would also give your drink a salty taste.
But since saltiness taste has been scientifically proven to neutralise bitterness effectively, many choose to add a pinch of salt to their coffee grounds. When used in this way and in such a small amount, the salt is not at all perceptible to our taste buds.
Typical Flavours of Each Type of Coffee
There are four types of coffee beans, each with unique characteristics. When comparing coffee beans, it is crucial to remember that individual factors will determine the final coffee drink’s taste. From cultivation to brewing, all aspects of the coffee-making process will impact the final flavour. So the descriptions below are more of a general rule of thumb.
Known as the mountain coffee, the Arabica is often grown at high altitudes. It can be found in the hilly areas of tropical countries in South America, Asia, and Africa.
Due to Arabica’s milder taste and nuanced layers of flavour, it has garnered the reputation of being used to make premium coffee. It is often a favourite among artisan coffee shops and connoisseurs and has been cultivated to provide more of a tasting experience for the gourmet coffee market.
Arabica is more expensive than Robusta and makes up for about 60% of coffee production worldwide despite being harder to grow.
The Arabica bean was thought to be the first coffee ever produced and originated in Ethiopia. But it got its name when it was transported to Yemen and Lower Arabia in the 7th century.
The flavour is delicate and sweeter compared to other bean types, which is perhaps why it has become the world’s most popular coffee.
Arabica results in light to medium-bodied coffee with an airy flavour due to the high-altitude method of cultivation used on it. The caffeine content is also lower compared to Robusta so its sweetness is easier to perceive.
Robusta makes up around 30% of the coffee produced worldwide and is mainly used for instant coffee. Robusta is often grown in tropical countries, with Vietnam being its largest producer. Robusta tends to be easier to grow, making it cheaper than Arabica since it can be cultivated at lower altitudes and in harsher, warmer conditions.
Robusta has lower acidity levels and a simpler compound of flavours. This means it is less sweet and has comparatively fewer notes. Robusta tends to be sharper and more bitter. This is partially due to its higher caffeine content of up to 2.7% compared to Arabica’s 1.5%.
Some may see the sharper taste as a downside to Robusta. But if you need a boost of energy, Robusta is going to be more effective. This also makes it ideal for espressos.
Robusta also results in a more “woody” taste, which may be preferable to those who aren’t fond of Arabica’s more floral flavours.
As the lesser-known cousins, Liberica and Excelsa coffee beans make up the final two of the four types of coffee beans. But in recent years, Excelsa has been labeled to be part of the Liberica family despite arguments that they’re entirely different from one another.
The Liberica family came about in 1890 after the plant disease ‘coffee rust’ killed off a large amount of Arabica plants. This left the world without a supply for their huge coffee demand.
The Liberica bean originated from Liberia and was found to be a great alternative. Soon countries like the Philippines and Indonesia began mass-cultivations of it.
However, the resurgence of the Arabica plant combined with trade and political disputes between the U.S. and the Philippines resulted in Liberica bean’s demotion. Arabica has since maintained its premium status as the global coffee bean.
But just because the Liberica/Excelsa coffee beans aren’t as well known as their coffee counterparts doesn’t mean they lack in taste or quality. The flavour of Liberica is often described as full and slightly smoky with a floral, fruity aroma.
Many also describe it as tasting sweeter than Arabica and with lower acidity. Similarly, Excelsa is renowned for producing a tarty, fruity-bodied flavour.
Other Factors That Affect Coffee Flavour
Type of Coffee Roast Used
When a coffee bean is roasted, the flavours and aroma developed during the cultivation process are released. The coffee bean’s character profile becomes clear. And it becomes easier to tell whether a coffee blend is fruity, smoky, nutty, or caramel-like, etc. But the length of time spent roasting the beans also impacts the acidity and bitterness.
Lightly roasted beans are known to be milder and less bitter. Light roast coffee will also be more acidic and tart to the taste.
But darker roasts will have a bitter quality. Dark roasts are often used for espresso and Italian blends. Medium roasts provide the best of both worlds with a heavier body and slightly bitter taste while maintaining some of the flavour and aromas.
Lightly roasted beans are more aromatic and more likely to provide those artisan flavours. In comparison, dark roasted beans taste more like the universal taste of coffee that we know with less nuanced flavours and aromas. If you’re still undecided, the safest bet would be a medium-roasted Arabica for a well-rounded taste experience.
When beans have been left in an open bag, they oxidise. This turns the pleasantly bitter taste that you desire in your coffee into an unfavourably sour one.
The best way to keep your coffee beans fresh is to buy them green and unroasted as raw beans can stay fresh for up to two years. But if you want to continue buying your beans roasted, then be sure to store them in an air-tight container and in a dark, dry and cool location. Use the coffee beans within two weeks from opening the packaging because they become unpleasantly bitter the longer they’re left unused.
As mentioned earlier, coffees—like Robusta—that have higher caffeine content will taste more bitter. This is because caffeine itself has a bitter taste, and it also decreases our ability to taste sweetness. The higher the caffeine intake, the harder it will be to detect any sweetness that may have been present in the coffee originally.
There is also a misconception that the longer you roast a bean, the less caffeine it will contain.. But the truth is that caffeine content is quite stable throughout the roasting process. The differences in caffeine levels arise depending on how the coffee is used after it has been roasted.
The longer you roast a coffee bean, the more water it loses. So you will end up with a coffee bean that has less weight because of water loss but has expanded in size due to the air pockets within it.
This size difference could potentially affect how much coffee you end up using to prepare a drink.
If you measured the beans with a scoop, then it would take fewer large beans to fill up the scoop compared to smaller-sized beans. Fewer beans leads to a weaker brew and lower caffeine content—hence the source of the misconception mentioned earlier.
In other words, there is no substantial caffeine content difference between different roast types. So if you’re worried about higher caffeine content causing extreme bitterness in your coffee, focus less on the roast type and more on the brewing methods used.
Find out more about caffeine and your favourite drinks’ caffeine content with our comprehensive caffeine guide.
As you can see, there are so many elements and components that determine a coffee’s taste.
And the best way to find the best coffee for you is to experiment. You could start with the Best Flavoured Coffees of 2021. Or learn more about how grind sizes and other coffee processing factors contribute to the perfect brew!