Tasting Vocabulary : Flavor

Flavor is a catch-all term for everything we do not experience in terms of the categories of acidity, aroma and body. In another sense, it is a synthesis of them all. Some coffees simply display a fuller, richer flavor than others, are more complex, or more balanced, whereas other coffees have an acidy tang, for instance, that tends to dominate everything else. Some are flat, some are lifeless, some are strong but monotoned. We also can speak of a distinctively flavored coffee, a coffee whose flavor characteristics clearly distinguish it from others.

The following are some terms and categories often used to describe and evaluate flavor. Some are obvious, many overlap, but all are useful.

  • Richness. Richness partly refers to body, partly to flavor; at times even to acidity. The term describes an interesting, satisfying fullness.
  • Range. This is one of my favorite tasting concepts. Imagine that the sensations evoked by a mouthful of coffee are a musical chord. Then take note of where the main interest and complexity of sensation is concentrated. The Kenya will have great complexity throughout, but particularly in the higher ranges, the equivalent of treble notes. The Sumatra, if it is a good one, will be very complex in the lower ranges, the equivalent of base notes. The Costa Rica will be more integrated and total, perhaps with sensation more concentrated in the middle range.
  • Complexity. I take complexity to describe flavor that shifts among pleasurable possibilities, tantalizes, and does not completely reveal itself at any one moment; a harmonious multiplicity of sensation. The Kenya is probably most complex; if the Sumatra is a good one it may also be complex, though perhaps less balanced. If the Sumatra is not a particularly good one it may feel hard and monotoned on the palate. The Costa Rica is probably more like a singular bellclap — perfect, resonant, contained and complete.
  • Balance. This is a difficult term. When tasting coffees for defects, professional tasters use the term to describe a coffee that does not localize at any one point on the palate; in other words, it is not imbalanced in the direction of some one (often undesirable) taste characteristic. As a term of general evaluation, balance appears to mean that no one quality overwhelms all others, but there is enough complexity in the coffee to arouse interest. It is a term that on occasion damns with faint praise. The Costa Rica sample should be most balanced, although it probably has less idiosyncrasy to balance than the other two coffees. The Kenya should be both complex and balanced; the Sumatra may be imbalanced by overbearing pungent tones and may be a bit rough.