The Flavour of Coffee

Did you know that there have been over 850 aroma/flavour compounds discovered in coffee? It’s one of the most complex beverages in this sense (sense, get it?).

Aroma, Body, Acidity and Flavour 


With the advent of the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s new and improved Flavor Wheel, comes as many questions as there are tasting notes. 

Taste is a complex thing - well, sort of. There are actually only 5 tastes our tongues can detect: Sweetness, Saltiness, Bitterness, Acidity and Umami.

A very logical next question is, “How do we actually taste all of the things we can taste?!”. Incredibly, we smell them. Our nose is the gateway to all of these amazing notes, telling us the difference between everything from strawberries and raspberries to caramel and butterscotch to chocolate milk and regular milk.

Understanding how we taste is not only necessary in the development of the products we serve, but also helps people find the coffees they love. And, as a customer, it can help you find the coffees, wines, foods and drinks you’ll return to time and time again.

To simplify things, we run our classes breaking down the taste of coffee into four key points: Aroma, Body, Acidity and Flavour.   

Coffee professionals (like us!) follow these four fundamentals of taste, the guiding principles for recognizing and transcribing a coffee’s flavor profile. 

  1. AROMA 
  • Characterization of coffee’s aroma depends on:
    • Terroir, processing and variety, and roast. All of these aspects play a role in the final coffee’s fragrance and aroma (fragrance is present in dry coffee, aroma is present when coffee and water are combined). 
  • With your freshly ground beans or brewed cup, inhale and use the SCAA flavour wheel to discover aromatic attributes:
    • Begin with easier notes like fruits and sugars (i.e. Is it fruity or earthy? Do you detect dark sugars like molasses or caramel?) 
  1. BODY 
  • The body (viscosity) of coffee is influenced by:
    • Brew method (i.e. French Press brewing will result in a heavier, more robust brew than Coffee Machine brewing) – check out our brew guides for more info!
    • Roast, and many of the aspects of the processing and Terroir 
  • Characterization of body can be broken down like this:
    • Light Body: watery, tea-like, silky, slick, juicy
    • Medium Body: smooth, milky, syrupy, round, creamy. Think of 2% milk
    • Heavy Body: full, velvety, big, chewy, coating. More like whole milk 
  • A coffee’s acidity is influenced by:
    • Processing (e.g. Naturally processed coffees typically have less acidity than washed processed coffees)
    • Roast (e.g. More developed coffees are typically lower in acidity than light roast coffees)
    • Variety and Altitude 
  • In your brewed cup, you can characterize a coffee’s acidity by:
    • Mellow
    • Winey
    • Citrus
    • Sour
    • Berry-like 

The flavour of a coffee is best described as the items that come to mind when drinking it. 

  • Flavours are made up of complex compounds interpreted by our tongue and nose. It could taste like a snickers bar, a fresh strawberry, a margarita or maybe some combination of all of them! It’s not a concrete science, by any means. Flavour is always influenced by culture and experience and the biology of each individual.

The Importance of Balance

  • Balance plays a significant role in our tasting experience when it comes to flavour
  • At DETOUR, it’s our job to balance all the attributes of the coffee provided by its origin, varietal, elevation, processing method and roast profile to extract the best flavour or taste profile in the cup. 

Flavour Facts

There are so many flavour compounds in coffee that are dissolving in the hot water during the brew process, and 4 main compounds that contribute to the overall sensory of your cup:   

  1. Fruit Acids
  • Fruity, floral aromas and flavours
  • Taste crisp in sweet brews, sour in less-sweet brews
  • Quickest flavours to dissolve when brewing
  1. Maillard Compounds
  • Toasted grain, wood, tannin and nut flavours
  • Taste malty in sweet brews, sharply bitter in less sweet brews
  • Flavours dissolve at a slower rate than fruit acids
  1. Caramels
  • Vanilla, caramel and chocolate flavours
  • The primary source of sweetness in coffee (green coffee beans caramelize when roasted)
  • Dark caramels have a bittersweet flavour, dissolve slowly; sugary light caramels, have a sweeter flavour, dissolve more quickly
  1. Dry Distillates
  • Clove, tobacco and peat moss flavours
  • Created by the reduced (burnt) caramels and maillard compounds, dominant in darker roasts
  • Tastes dull, ashy and bitter in sweet brews
  • The slowest flavours to dissolve out of the flavour compounds and are overpowering, even at very low levels 

Home Experiment

Print out the Flavour Wheel, brew a few different DETOUR beans and have some fun. Which notes do you get? 

* image credit: SCAA