Coffee Terms Glossary

When it comes to describing coffee, it is not uncommon to see quite an extended vocabulary put to use. We try to use specific coffee terms whenever possible, but the many intertwined aspects of coffee can be very complex. More descriptive terms are often necessary to accurately portray a distinguished cup of coffee.

When it comes to these extravagant and descriptive coffee terms, things can quickly become unclear, due to the fact that different people use different words in different ways. 

Just to make sure that we're on the same page and we don't mislead you, we've compiled all of the potentially unclear descriptive coffee terms that we use for your reference.

Also check out How We Profile Coffee for a description of each different aspect of coffee that we discuss!

Coffee Terms: When we say... We mean...

  • All A-Z
  • Roast
  • Body
  • Taste
  • Fragrance/Aroma
  • Sweetness
  • Acidity
  • Aftertaste
  • Certifications
  • Species

Coffee Terms: All

Arabica: Arabica plants take more care to grow properly, and their beans provide a higher quality taste profile than Robusta beans. The majority of the coffees you'll find here are of the Arabica species.

Aromatic: Giving off a distinct and enjoyable scent.

Aromatic Wood: Referring to fragrance or aroma; the scent characteristic of strong smelling woods.

Backgrounded: It's there, but definitely not the the defining aspect of the coffee.

Balanced: Flavors are equally represented, or balanced so that one specific note does not overwhelm the others. Many notes can be combined together to create a complex, yet balanced cup of coffee.

Bright: A notable amount of acidity that offers pleasant, biting character.

Buttery: A texture similar to that of butter.

Charitable Donations: This indicates that the particular company contributes in some way to a charitable organization. This may be as a specified percentage of their earnings, or on a per product basis. Some companies donate not only their money, but their time as well in developmental and conservatory projects.

Clean: A finish in which the flavor remains remains unchanged, there is no flavor unique to the aftertaste. A clean aftertaste does not display dry acidity.

Complex: Many taste characteristics are present, often in a layered or shifting fashion. A particularly complex coffee may exhibit a notable body, a bright acidity, a recognizable sweetness and a variety of flavor notes all together in one cup.

Creamy: A texture similar to that of cream.

Crisp: The finish includes bright acidic character that is pleasant and biting. A crisp finish is not considered to be clean.

Dark Roast: Dark roasts are sometimes referred to as Italian, French, New Orleans, High or Espresso Roast. The beans are typically roasted to a point at the end of the second crack. The resulting bean is a very dark brown, (almost black) and is oily. These coffees obtain significant flavor from the roasting process, and are typically low in acidity.

Deep: A finish that is rich, satisfying, and typically prolonged.

Delicate: Light and clean, without significant texture.

Dry: An aspect of acidity that is best characterized as a dehydrated, dry sensation. This is most noticeable in the finish of the coffee.

Earthy: An exotic characteristic reminiscent of fresh earth. This could be a defining aspect or a back-grounded note.

Exotic: A scent that originates from a foreign place; a scent that most people are unfamiliar with.  

Fair Trade: This certification indicates that the particular coffee beans have been purchased from a single or group of farms at a price that is deemed to be fair to the farmers. The price is determined by a group of different international fair trade networks in order to insure that it is in fact, fair. Fair trade helps to improve the quality of life of citizens of developing countries that produce coffee.

Floral: Exhibiting characteristic of flowers.  

Full: Almost heavy in apparent weight, with an implication of thoroughly developed flavor.

Heavy: Refers to the apparent weight. Heavy and dense.

Intense: Referring to fragrance or aroma; a very strong, room filling scent. 

Light: Refers to the apparent weight. Light and not dense.

Light Roast: Light roasts are sometimes referred to as Half City, Light City, New England or Cinnamon roasts. The beans are typically roasted to a point that is at or before the first crack. The resulting bean is a light brown, dry product. These coffees retain the flavors of their origin, and frequently display a bright acidity.

Medium: Refers to the apparent weight. Between heavy and light.

Medium Roast: Medium roasts are sometimes referred to as City, American, Breakfast or Regular roasts. The beans are typically roasted to a point between the first crack and second crack. The resulting bean is a brown, dry product. These coffees have a more balanced flavor and less acidity than light roasts.

Medium-Dark Roast: Medium-dark roasts are sometimes referred to as Full-City or Vienna roasts. The beans are typically roasted to the start or middle of the second crack. The resulting bean is dark brown and semi-oily. These coffees typically have more body than a light or medium roast, and the roasting process now contributes to the taste profile.

Mellow: A balanced finish that lacks significant acidity.

Minimal: Tastes and sensations are not present in a significant manner after the coffee is consumed.

Organic: This certification indicates that the coffee has been grown without the use of artificial chemicals fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. The certification process has a number of specific requirements, and it is a costly endeavor. Although it is absolutely a positive for a coffee to be certified organic, it should be noted that many smaller and independent farms may meet the organic standard but not have the means by which to finance the certification process. The lack of a certificate should not be held against these producers, so it is important to look at independent providers on a case to case basis.

Resonant: A heavy and long lasting aftertaste.

Rich: Indicates a pleasant fullness of body, complexity of flavors and aftertaste.

Robusta: Robusta plants are easier to grow than Arabica plants, and result in a higher yield. Their beans provide a more bitter and highly caffeinated profile.

Rustic: Contains somewhat of an earthy quality, as well as woody, herbaceous or nutty character.

Silky: A texture similar to that of silk.

Single Origin: The coffee beans come from a single known geographical origin. This can range in specificity from a large, but defined region to a single farm. The idea is that all of the beans are more or less the same, and the the product will be a representation of the specific origin. Popularity and demand for single origin coffee has sky rocketed in recent years, which has lead to the increased availability of a wide variety of high quality coffees!

SMBC Bird Friendly: The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center Bird Friendly certification is provided by the Smithsonian Institution to producers that grow in conditions that provide a habitat for passing migratory birds. The criteria requires that the region in which coffee is grown be under a shady canopy, and that deforestation has not occurred. Many bird-friendly coffee producers also contribute a portion of their proceeds to the SMBC research center.

Smoky: A sweetness associated with darker roasts; an almost burnt taste.

Smooth: Refers to a lack of bitterness or overwhelming acidity.

Spicy: Possessing a characteristic of a spice, can be used broadly or specifically. 

Strong: A high amount of something is present; or a taste characteristic that is typically associated with a darker roast or more highly caffeinated coffee. 

Sweet: Reminiscent of something sugary.

Sweetly Tart: The perfect spot between sweet and sour, reminiscent of citrus.

Syrupy: A texture and thickness similar to that of syrup.

Tangy: Strong sweet and sour sensations, similar to that of a concentrated citrus drink.

Thick: Refers to the apparent density. More dense than water.

Velvety: A texture similar to that of velvet.

Vibrant: Strong and lively, the acidity is significant and gives the coffee a freshness or bite.

Zesty: Lively and fresh character, reminiscent of citrus fruits.