Coffee Linguistics 101

Coffee Linguistics 101

You may be kicking off your day off with the most complex food in your diet. Your morning cup of coffee contains an extremely complex chemical makeup. Coffee is actually so complex that scientists have devoted a great deal of time and research to understand it.

Many factors influence the flavor, aroma, and texture of your beverage. Everything from the origin of the coffee plant itself to processing, roasting, storage, water, and brew methods construct the specific accent of your coffee. This is why coffee comes in so many varieties and flavors.

“Coffee is a language in itself.” —Jackie Chan

Coffee tells a story. It speaks to us in the language of sensory notes which describe its origin and environment. The aroma, texture, and notes of the beans narrate their life. The World Coffee Research organization has created and published a Sensory Lexicon. This lexicon analyzes the taste, texture, chemical complexities, and aromas of the brew. These components (flavor, taste, and aroma) all contribute to the dialect of your coffee beans.

Organizations such as the Specialty Coffee Association of America have researched and produced resources such as the Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel. This research has facilitated in characterizing the makeup of your drink.

The vocabulary of adjectives which compose the flavors you experience originates with the location. Flavors can verbalize and describe the environment of the coffee tree.

But why?

The location, elevation, climate, soil conditions, shade, and water are referred to by the term terroir. This is the underlying science behind one of the largest contributing factors to the chemical makeup of your beans. Plants in higher altitudes must adapt to a different climate than coffea plants grown at a lower altitude. This creates the chemical complexity of the bean to vary.

According to author and coffee analyst Lani Kingston:

 "Low-altitude coffee plants produce higher yields due to faster ripening times, but the beans need to be treated differently than those from higher altitudes—all the way from roast to brew...[elevation] can only serve as a guide due to the many other influencing factors involved in coffee cultivation and production. However, generally speaking, the longer maturation process of higher-altitude beans leads to complex sugar formation, which yields deeper flavor whereas lower-altitude beans are generally milder and less acidic."

Complex flavors generally emerge from the highest of elevations (5,000 ft). These altitudes provide fruity, acidic, and floral notes. The higher altitude plants often produce the more desirable fruit/coffee beans. Trees such as Coffea Arabica thrive in higher elevations. Plants grown at a slightly lower altitude tend to cultivate rich, earthy, vanilla, cocoa, and nutty flavors. The lowest altitude plants (2,500 ft) produce mellow and subtle flavors. Among these lower-altitude coffea plants is the Hawaiian Kona tree.

Food and coffee communicate with each other. Similarly to wine, coffees pair well with food as they complement each other. When they speak the same language, they harmonize into an explosion of succulent flavors. Pair like tastes together. If your coffee is more acidic, fruity, or contains citrus notes, go for a fruity pastry such as a lemon scone or raspberry tart. Coffee with bolder nutty, chocolate, and earthy tones are perfect for desert pairings.

“If you only knew the power of the dark side…” —Darth Vader

If you want to listen to your coffee with minimal distractions, bypass the extras. Cream, sugar, or milk may compliment your coffee, but these additives may also muffle the narrative it’s seeking to tell. While I often prefer my coffee with a splash of cream, the dark side is the place to go when you want to taste and experience the complex notes. Pure coffee free of any additives may leave you joining the dark side.

This month try a coffee pairing. Match the flavors from your beans to a desert or breakfast pastry. Try your coffee black and describe the various notes. Experiment with various coffee roasts and beans with a Roaster's Choice subscription. Do you want to learn more about the science of your morning go to? Grab a book such as How to Make Coffee: The Science Behind the Bean to learn more and impress your friends. Then, grab your friends and get together to enjoy a day of coffee tasting with a Fearless Flight!


Kathy Strauch is a graphic designer, writer, bookworm, printmaker, and coffee lover from Michigan. She is also contributor with Christ Hold Fast, Higher Things, and The Gospel Economist.

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