Tips on Assessing Coffee

26 Jul 2013 09.14 am by L.M.

For many, coffee is an important part of our day. While the alarm clock gets us rolling out of bed it is the coffee that wakes us up. According to Coffee Cuppers, professional coffee tasters, there are a set of characteristics of coffee that are used to assess its quality – aroma, body, flavour, sweetness and aftertaste. This article aims to help you understand these different qualities and how to recognize them. 


Smell the fragrant aroma of the coffee while it is being grounded and while it is brewing. Aromas may range from fruity, fresh, nutty or smoky and will indicate how fresh the beans are or whether the beans have gone mouldy.  Fresh coffee should have a sharp, clean or pure aroma while mouldy coffee will tend to have a musky smell.


Feel the texture and sensation of the coffee. This is referred to as the body. Experience it settling on the tongue and inside the mouth. Feel for consistency, thickness and viscosity. These qualities contribute to the richness and the overall flavour of the coffee. 


Taste the aroma, acidity, sweetness, bitterness and body of the coffee. Bitterness and sourness indicate the levels of acidity and may be experienced as smooth or dull flavour. The former is usually associated with medium acidity whereas the later usually means low acidity. Smooth coffees are usually described as a “clean” taste. Look for distinctive qualities in a coffee, some may have fruity flavours whiles others have a smoky flavour. A good coffee should have a balanced flavour where no one quality is too over powering. Sweetness of a coffee is experienced, not like a regular sweetness from sugar but rather a mild, smooth or fruity sensation on the palate that does not have any harsh flavours. This is usually described as a “bright” and pleasant coffee with a sharp and tangy taste of acidity. 


The easiest way to predict the flavour and body of a particular coffee is to be familiar with the different types of roasts. There are eight types of roast each with a unique flavour but in general, lighter roasts tend to have a “bright” sharp and tangy flavour while darker roasts tend to have a fuller flavour. Beans that have been over-roasted tend to have a burnt, charcoal or smoky flavour and will have lower caffeine levels. The longer the beans have been roasted the less caffeine it will have.


Light Roast

Cinnamon roast has a light brown colour, dry (no oil residue), and has a mild and grainy aroma with a slightly sour taste. 

New England roast is dry and slightly darker than the cinnamon roast however it does not have the mild and grainy flavour.


Medium Roast

American roast are probably the most common beans used today and is dark brown and dry. The roast has a sweeter flavour than light roast and exhibits a balanced flavour between acidity, aroma and complexity. The roast also has a “clean” body and is smoother than medium roast beans. 

City roast (half) roast is a medium brown colour and dry. It has a high acidic flavour and no obvious roast flavour.


Medium –Dark Roast

Vienna roast has a milk-chocolate brown colour and an oily surface. It has a flavour verging on a bittersweet chocolate taste and high acidity. 

City roast (full) roast is a dark brown bean and is slightly oily on its surface. It tends to have caramel or chocolate flavour undertones. 


Dark Roast

French roast are possibly the darkest bean, almost a black colour, and is very oily. It usually has a bittersweet, sometimes caramel and smoky flavour. It can generally, be described as an intense and spicy body.

Italian roast has a very dark brown colour and an oily surface. Like most dark roast however it has an exceptionally strong burnt flavour.


The perceived quality of a cup of coffee is said to vary greatly amongst individual palates. In general however, there are two types of coffee beans the Arabica and Robusta. The former is grown at higher altitudes and is consider to be of superior quality with a milder and more aromatic flavour while the latter is consider to be of a hardier crop with a more bitter taste. The Robusta bean is usually used with a practical purpose for blending and saving money for coffee produces as it is much cheaper to produce. Coffee found in the supermarket has a tendency to contain large quantities of Robusta beans and low quality Arabica beans. Coffeehouses on the other hand have a tendency to sell the higher quality Arabica beans. Espresso blends are the only exception and usually contain high amounts of high quality Robusta beans. 


Given its name, one might assume that the Robusta bean is larger. This is however incorrect, the Arabica bean is slightly larger than the Robusta bean and has an elongated shape whereas the Robusta beans is more circular. The Robusta bean has roughly 2.2% caffeine whereas the Arabica bean has roughly around 1.2%. The Arabica bean also has higher sugar levels, roughly around double the amount of the Robusta bean. This would explain why they have a more aromatic flavour than its lowland cousin. 


Assessing the quality of a coffee before it has been brewed is a difficult task as there are a number of factors other than the quality of the bean that affect its overall quality. The most important are how freshly ground the beans are, the time since the beans have been roasted, the equipment used to make the cup of coffee and the bean quality. Regardless of how good the bean is, if one of these factors is lacking the quality of the cup of coffee drops substantially. 



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