Understanding Coffee Bean Types, Flavors & Characteristics

Learn what roasters & coffee companies are really saying

It can be daunting to understand coffee bean types, flavors & characteristics enough to go to a coffee shop or super market. Then look up at that large wall of coffee bags and select one. Which one should you choose? Why are you choosing it? What do these flavor words mean?!

We’re going to help explain how to understand beans and flavor characteristics, so you can get the best coffee for you.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
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Understand Coffee Roasts

First thing we’re going to talk about is going to be roast degree. How darkly a coffee is roasted. Generally, we talk about either light, medium or dark.

Supermarket coffee can be a bit tricky because they don’t use this type of language. Often, they use strength, and they’ll say strength 5, strength 3. They don’t generally put anything down as strength 1 or 2 because no one wants weak coffee.

Specialty coffee roasters gets very angry about using the word strength on the front of a bag because strength means something else.

What is Coffee Strength?

Strength is the ratio of coffee to water necessary to brew coffee. The higher the strength, the less water necessary to achieve a certain level of richness or bitterness. Specialty coffee often does not describe roast degree. The most common thing to see is a description of whether it might be used as a filter coffee or as an espresso coffee.
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What's the Difference Between Espresso vs Filtered Roast?

Now, when it comes to the term roasted for espresso, that tells you a little bit regarding the coffee from that particular roaster. Most roasters will roast their espresso products a bit darker, a little bit deeper than they would do their filter coffee roasted product.

However, some people in specialty use what’s called an omni-roast. Omni-roast is where they’re somewhat roasting for both at the same time. It’s a kind of philosophical thing for many roasters and their approach to espresso, filter coffee, and to roasting as a whole.

That all being said, if you are buying specialty coffee and it does not indicate roast on it, it is a light to medium roast.
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Standard Supermarket Coffee Roasts

Supermarket standard is light or medium coffee. On the occasions they don’t directly say roast light or medium, they tend to signify that.

If there’s a description of the roast, like the country, which doesn’t really mean anything. For example, French roast. But if it says it’s dark roast, then you know, it’s different. Otherwise, you can presume it to be light to medium roasted.

With the supermarket stuff, the higher the strength, the darker the roast. Generally speaking, the lighter the roast of coffee, the more acidity it will have. The darker the roast, the more bitterness it will have and the less acidity it will have.

Specialty coffee roasters feel that light to medium gives you a nice sweetness, a little bit of acidity, not too much bitterness, and tons and tons of flavor of where the coffee comes from.

This is why it’s such a popular roasting style choice for specialty companies.

Marketing Tactics of Commercial Coffee Makers

Now, we need to talk about the descriptors and commercial coffee companies. In fact, more and more commercial companies will offer you maybe 3 or more descriptive words. The objective is to complete 2 different jobs, and I hope people can forget about this.

In some cases, descriptions can be so odd or unusual or kind of contrary and clashing that it really doesn’t make sense. But it sounds good to a beginner coffee consumer. It will sound completely delicious.

Those coffee descriptions from commercial coffee makers promise a great deal. If you say my coffee is going to taste of caramel, well, I expect it to taste almost as if you’ve put caramel in the bag.

This leads to further confusion with the consumer who thinks, “Oh, is this like a flavored coffee?” “Is this like a caramel flavored coffee?” Don’t make the mistake, those exist, but more often than not, commercial coffee makers are not living up to their marketing. They’re trying to communicate something about the coffee’s tastes to you with that word. And we’ll come to that a bit more very soon.

Quick tip: specialty coffee is a little bit like wine. There is an exception, the most expensive wines are often the most elegant, the most classic, and they would be familiar and enjoyable to most people.

The highest priced coffees tend to be the most unusual, the least kind of typical coffee-tasting coffees. That is the suggestion to bear in mind

If you’re looking at a more expensive coffee, have a look at those words. Do they promise you a very unusual experience? And is that what you want?

How Coffee Roasters Come Up with Descriptions

One of the things to bear in mind is that often these roasters come up with their descriptions
for coffees through a comparative tasting.

They’re not just tasting that one coffee on its own.
They’re comparing it to other coffees that they’re also roasting and serving.

But if you, the consumer, don’t have that comparative tasting experience when you drink it, it can feel harder to pull out the berry qualities of a coffee or the kind of ripe pear promised by the roaster.

However, if you were comparing it to something else, then the differences would be more obvious. You could say, “This is kind of more pear-like in its way in its flavor when compared to coffee B, C or D”.

So, know that there is an element of frustration that’s almost inevitable because you won’t have the same comparative experience as a coffee roaster. Generally, they’re doing their best to broadcast some key information to you.

They are trying to help you really find out if you’re going to enjoy that coffee or not. No one knows your personal preferences and what you like.

Many times, consumers don’t know what they want. With that being said, consumers do know what they dislike. With that information we can guide you to a better coffee.

Top 3 misleading coffee descriptions

Generally, if there isn’t a texture adjective on the coffee bag then it’s medium-bodied.

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Understanding Coffee Flavors

The 2nd thing to decode on a coffee bag that is a somewhat polarizing topic for coffee drinkers and that’s the acidity.

Some people do not want any acidity in their coffee. The idea of an acidic coffee is genuinely repulsive to them. Others love it. They want it to be bright, juicy and vibrant.

How can you tell if a coffee is going to acidic? Look out fruit descriptions. If you see fresh fruit words in the descriptors, like berries and apples. If they use fruit descriptors or referring to fresh fruits, that coffee will have a reasonable amount of acidity.

If you see berry fruits, expect a lot of acidities. If you see citrus fruits, I’d expect a lot of acidities. If you see things like apples or pear then expect a good amount of acidity.

If the words are fruit words, but they’re a combination of artificial fruit or something then expect less acidity. For example:

If a description has no fruit words, then I would expect very low acidity from it. However, if they’re using other words like caramel or treacle or nuts or chocolate, those are non-fruit words, suggesting low acidity in that regard.

Coffee Beans: Fruit & Fermentation

I would call fermented fruit flavors the third kind of key aspect around a sort of love/hate with coffee. That sounds a bit odd, but there are styles of coffee that are often dry or natural process coffees where the whole cherry was dried in the sun.

This is instead of the seeds being squeezed out and sort of washed and cleaned of their fruit before being dried.

If it’s been dried inside the fruit, then a little fermentation can go on, and you can get these kinds of funky, very unusual flavors that are often described on bags of coffee as tropical fruit.

If you see pineapple, if you see mango, if you see strawberry, even chances are there’s going to be some fermented fruit qualities to the coffee in the bag. If it says dry process or natural process on the bag, expect those flavors.

Now, some people love those flavors. They are unlike any other coffee flavors. They are easily identifiable. In our opinion they are fun from time to time.

Other people are completely disgusted by them, and they hate them. For that reason, it’s really important to us that people understand how to not buy those or buy those on purpose and never make a mistake.

If you don’t like fermented fruit flavors then I would strongly avoid dry or natural process coffees unless they’re making a lot of promises around how clean it tastes. Talk with the shop owner or barista.

There are no weird fruit flavors on the bag. If they’re saying it’s just like clean, sweet or chocolate on nuts, maybe. However, if there are any kind of fruit on there, the chances are that’s not going to suit your taste. It’s just a bit of a gamble, which I want you to avoid.

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