Today’s coffee drinkers have incredible access to information about where their brews and beans come from. Next to simple flavour descriptors such as “peach” and “toffee”, roasters are declaring varietals, regions, growing altitudes, processing methods and more.
As with wine, these details are helpful in choosing a coffee to suit your taste. But the jargon can also be intimidating – at first, anyway. Bring yourself up to speed with this glossary of common terms. Next time you’re ordering online or at a cafe, you’ll know what to pick when offered a choice between a natural process Brazilian coffee and a washed Ethiopian coffee.
The region in which a coffee was grown – probably the most defining factor in its flavour. The origin could be as broad as a continent, or as specific as a town, region or single farm. There are three major coffee producing regions. Each sub-region presents its own specific attributes, but here are some broad guidelines.
Central and South America
Expect traditional coffee flavours of nuts, chocolate and toffee, with a full body.
Expect bright, floral, high acidity coffee with a delicate or tea-like body.
Often rich, bold, earthy, funky flavours (such as over-ripe fruit) with big body. Expect a lower cup cleanliness (i.e. a lower clarity of flavour).
Not one of the major regions, but with a distinct flavour profile somewhere in the middle of Central and South American and African coffees. Flavours of red berries and floral notes, high acidity, particularly sweet and complex.
Coffee sourced exclusively from one region or farm, rather than being a blend from multiple. Roasters sometimes print the name of the farm on the bag. Lattes, flat whites and other milky coffees tend to use blends over single origins.
Coffee sourced from a very small region, such as a farm or a single allotment within a farm. It may have been processed differently from others grown in the area or grown under other unique conditions. Besides particular favour characteristics, microlots are also prized for their rarity.
Attributes (acidity, sweetness, body, etc) that reflect where a coffee was grown, under what conditions, and how it was processed.
Meters above sea level. Altitude plays an important role in how coffee develops on the tree. At higher altitudes (more than 1200 MASL), fruit matures slowly, providing time for complex sugars to develop. There are fewer pests, meaning pesticides are seldom necessary, and fresh, good quality rain falls regularly. Temperature differences from night to day create stress for the plant, making it consume sugars and produce fruit with higher acidity. Below 1200 MASL, coffee has lower acidity and results in a thinner- or lighter-bodied cup.
Once coffee cherries are harvested, the seeds (beans) are removed and thoroughly dried before roasting. Different countries use various post-harvest techniques that have enormous influence on the brewed coffee experience. Most countries have a dominant processing method, developed over their history. What you’re tasting here – as well as the method – is the culture and traditions of the local industry.
Washed processing is the favoured method in most Central and South American countries, as well as throughout Africa. The main exceptions are Brazil, where natural or pulped natural dominate, and Ethiopia, which also exports mostly natural processed coffees. In Asia, it’s a mixed bag.
Wet/washed/fully washed process
Coffee beans are removed from their cherries by mechanical pulping, leaving intact just the muselage (a thin layer of sugars) and a small amount of fruit. They are then soaked in water (fermented) to break down the muselage before being flushed with clean water. The result is a clean, fresh taste (for example, mandarin rather than plum) that’s more acidic and more complex. Think fresh fruit, not stewed fruit flavours. Adam Marley, of Adelaide coffee roaster Monastery, sometimes describes processed coffees in terms of colours. In this case, green and yellow.
Whole cherries are laid out in the sun and regularly turned, allowing the fruit to wither and dry naturally. Natural process coffees have a bigger body, lower acidity, more chocolate-y, less clean and a much fruitier profile. But more stewed or ripe fruit than fresh fruit flavours. They can be funky, potentially. Imagine colours such as blue and purple.
Semi washed/honey/pulped natural process
This balance between wet and dry process sees the outer skin of the cherry removed by pulping, leaving some of the muselage intact. Fruit is then dried in the sun before milling. This produces chocolate-y, nutty, honey-like flavours, sometimes a little funky. In terms of colours: orange and red.
Flavours developed during the roasting process (toasty, roasty, smoky, burnt brown sugar, dark chocolate, etc).
A measurement of a coffee’s roasting time, commonly from “light” to “dark” or “heavy”.
Very minimal roast character, prominent origin character, higher acidity, low bitterness, quite a lot of sweetness.
More developed sweetness, lower acidity, less sharp tasting.
Heavy bitterness, less sweetness, sometimes hollow, very low acidity, very little origin character.
A roast profile (usually light) designed to be brewed using a filter or pour-over method. Likely to be light bodied, floral, bright and sweet.
A roast profile (usually medium to dark) designed for brewing via an espresso machine. Likely to be bigger in body, more heavy and robust.
Cupping scores are used to determine a coffee’s quality, and therefore its value (price). Scores are calculated using standardised criteria set by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA). Beans that score less than 80 points are classed as “commercial grade” or “commodity grade” coffee (which mean the same thing). Anything 80 and above is “specialty grade”, which is what you find in good Australian cafes.
A tea made from dried coffee cherry skins. The tea has a blackcurrant, hibiscus-like flavour. It has lower caffeine levels than brewed coffee, but is high in antioxidants. Rare in local cafes, but worth tasting if you see it.
Coffea arabica is the dominant species in the plant genus Coffea. The genus includes a number of offshoots (varietals or cultivars) developed through natural mutation or controlled interbreeding. Arabica is favoured for its complexity and flavour balance.
Coffea canephora is the second major variety of coffee plant. It is easier to cultivate than arabica, matures sooner, is more resistant to disease and yields larger crops. Robusta is higher in caffeine content and usually presents with prominent bitterness. Some roasters use a small percentage of robusta in blends for added punch, but mostly it winds up in instant coffee or coffee-flavoured products.
These two terms are essentially the same and describe coffee plants bred for a specific purpose such as better disease resistance, higher yields or particular flavours. Some common cultivars are typica, bourbon, caturra, catuai, K7 and SL28. Varietals have minimal impact on the end flavour of a cup (compared to other factors such as processing) unless the varietal is geisha.
A varietal with exceptional cup quality, prized for its delicacy, with floral aromas (often jasmine and peach) and incredibly complex, sweet and sparkling in the cup. If you’ve ever noticed a cafe retailing coffee for upwards of $20 – sometimes even $50 – per cup, chances are, it’s geisha. Discovered growing wild in Ethiopia in the 1930s, the plant was introduced to Panama in the 1960s and rose to fame in 2005 when a crop broke the then-record for green coffee auction prices (over $US20 a pound). Geishas are coveted for their flavour and cup quality, but are difficult and costly to cultivate – hence the ludicrously high market prices.