Coffee-flavor profiles for beginners

Coffee culture is evolving. No longer is coffee just an enabler for our desperation-filled all-nighters or something we hide under layers of sugar, whipped cream and pumpkin spice — today, coffee is something complex and delicious to be appreciated, experimented with and respected. Though Starbucks and Peet’s still reign supreme, local artisan shops are becoming more and more popular, touting single-source coffee, light-roasting techniques and fair-trade beans. With educated baristas, a list of expensive coffee-making accessories and even their own coffee-education courses, these coffee shops are a coffee lover’s dream. But, for the rest of us, the bombardment of new coffee information can be overwhelming. Do I like Ethiopian coffee or Indonesian? Washed coffee or dry? Dark roast or light? For someone who has spent the last four years drinking Starbucks’ Vanilla Light Frappucino, these are some difficult questions.

In reality, the flavor of coffee is almost impossible to generalize. There are so many factors that affect the taste: the altitude of the plant, the ripeness of the fruit and how thoroughly the bean was washed. We can, however, get a pretty good idea of what a cup of coffee will taste like depending on what part of the world it’s from. And, as single-source coffee is a growing trend today, being able to distinguish the different tastes from different countries will help you choose the flavor of coffee you enjoy the most. So here at Eating Berkeley, we’ve compiled a beginner’s guide to coffee flavor based on region. Remember, this doesn’t take into account the brewing or roasting process, which can really affect the final result. But hopefully, next time you enter an artisan coffee shop filled with thick-glassed, American Apparel-wearing hipsters and an extensive, convoluted menu, you won’t feel quite as lost.

Central America (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua)

Being our closest neighbor, Central America has greatly influenced our coffee-flavor profile. These coffees are usually very balanced with a good mixture of smooth sweetness and some tart, fruity acidity (the brightness of the coffee’s taste). They are often described as having a “clean” flavor.

South America (Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia)

Brazil is actually the world’s largest coffee producer, providing 25 percent of the United States’ coffee beans. South American coffee is relatively similar to Central American coffee: It is relatively mild and light. Colombian coffee, however, tends to be more sweet and less acidic (even with some nutty hints), and Brazilian coffee has a less-clean after taste and is more chocolatey and a little creamier.

Africa (Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda)

Coffee originated in Ethiopia. According to some well versed coffee lovers out there, this country produces the most pure kind of coffee. This may be because Ethiopia is the only country in which coffee is wildly grown, which makes the flavor profile extremely diverse. African coffees are usually described as complex, fruity and floral. These are stronger, fragrant-rich and full-bodied flavors.

Asia (Indonesia, India, Philippines)

Asian coffees tend to be earthier and darker than most other blends. Unlike the universally liked and known Central American and South American coffees, the unfamiliar beans from Asia tend to inspire extreme opinions: either complete love or absolute dislike. The beans are less acidic, more complex and, at times, even savory.

Image Sources: Nic Taylor under Creative Commons 

Contact Agnes Zhu at [email protected].

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  • NoCal-Geographer

    Hipster dipster news! Do you really NEED a Coffee IQ? Really?

    • Namma

      Yes. When it comes to coffee there are blends you absolutely hate and then others that are decent to YOUR palate (tastes). Many people have no idea at all WHY that is. Coffees are not labeled with what they taste like so people can only buy a larger lot and give it away or trash it when it’s impossible for them to drink.

      Most organic coffee is putrid – to me. Because it’s fruity and sweet. Something I cannot abide in coffee since my personal preference is absolutely black coffee with perhaps some collagen powder thrown in to smooth it down further.

      To MY taste buds some coffees are far too acidic and that after taste turns my stomach. As far as I’m concerned nothing can improve it. However, some people love it.

      So far the best visual I have seen is at (an no, I’m not affiliated or a customer. Found them in search same hour I found this page.

      • Rachel Green

        I have a question, I have tried a very nutty coffee at the airport once, from the houston news and it was eurocafe brand. It had a nutty taste from beginning to end, not just at the end in a subtle way. Does anyone know of any commercial brands that will do the same for me.

        • Namma

          If you ever find something that replicates it, post here. It’s difficult because custom roasts and grinds are done for large chains like that. As a note, if anyone ever find a coffee that not only tastes like it smells but has chocolate tones in it, let me know. Trader Joe’s Organic Fair Trade was awesome for a while, then they apparently changed their supplier and it sucks big time now.

    • Dillon Calicher

      Absolutely. It blows my mind that over 50% of American adults drink this beverage EVERY DAY, yet know very little about it. Even a general knowledge of coffee helps you to accomplish a number of things. For one thing, you’re able to select an origin or blend that you actually like. Furthermore, this helps you to identify “good” coffee and reduces the likelihood of being bamboozled by effective marketing.