From where it’s grown to how it’s roasted, there are a lot of factors that affect the flavor of your cup of coffee—even before you brew it. Knowing what impacts coffee flavor can help you identify the beans and roasts that suit your palate.
You don’t need to be a trained coffee taster to learn how to find the notes you’re looking for. Read on for a crash course in different coffee flavors and where they come from.
They absolutely do. While there are different varietals of the coffee plant that tend to have different flavor profiles, where the plant is grown is at least equally (if not more) important in the final taste profile.
The most significant factors in the taste of a coffee are soil composition and elevation. Higher elevations usually also mean cooler climates, and this causes the coffee plant to grow more slowly. Since the beans take longer to mature, they contain more complex sugars, which translates to a more complex flavor.
High-altitude coffees (those grown at 1,200 meters or above) are also called “hard bean” coffees for their high density and tend to be the most prized as single-origins.
Most low-grown coffee tends to have a flatter, more bland flavor profile—it can still be very drinkable but isn’t as exciting. The exceptions typically come from places on southern and northern fringes of the Coffee Belt. Hawaiian Kona, for example, is a well-regarded low-altitude coffee, since the island’s distance from the equator still gives the beans a longer growing cycle.
Soil composition can be a trickier thing to explain, but it also certainly plays a role in why coffee has unique tastes across regions. Volcanic soil is nutrient-rich and holds a lot of moisture, both key for high-quality coffee. Generally, the more minerals are in the soil, the more acidity will come through in the bean.
Not all coffees from a given region will taste the same. Having said that, there are certain flavor profiles you can expect from, say, an Ethiopian, ones you aren’t likely to find in beans from Guatemala or Colombia.
Coffee is grown on every continent except Europe and Antarctica. Let’s briefly run down the main producers in each region and how their beans are likely to taste.
Africa is the birthplace of coffee, and you’ll still find wild-growing coffee plants in some parts of Ethiopia. Fruity, bright, and acidic is what you’ll get from most African beans. Depending on the region, Ethiopian beans can have wine, floral, or berry notes, and tend to have a thinner body. Kenyan coffee can range from a clean, dry acidity that borders on savory to a fruit-forward big-bodied taste with bold citrus notes. Other African nations like Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda are similarly praised for their bright, sweet, fruity beans.
Colombia and Brazil are the main coffee producers in South America, though it’s also grown in Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela. Generally, South American coffees have a heavier body and lingering mouthfeel, with smoother, richer flavors. Common notes are nutty, chocolatey, or buttery, though you’ll still find a few farms and varietals with the berry acidity more common to African beans.
Central American coffee has in large part defined western coffee-drinking tastes. The similar climate and processing used throughout Central America give coffees from the continent a fairly consistent base flavor, which is defined by a well-balanced cup with moderate body, acidity, and sweetness. Expect a smooth cup with caramel or chocolate notes, as well as a fruity acidity that varies by region. For the most part, you can expect the same flavors from North America’s growing regions (Mexico, Hawaii, and Jamaica).
The main producers in this region are Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. You’ll find more variation in the coffee from one island to the next than between nations in other areas. This is also the most divisive of the coffee growing regions, eliciting a “love or hate” reaction from most connoisseurs. Coffee from Java is known to be smooth and balanced with a heavy body, while that grown on Sumatra is praised (or derided) for both its earthiness and spiciness. Most coffee from Papua New Guinea has notes of both citrus and chocolate, and often has an overall flavor more similar to a Kenyan than other Indonesian beans.
While Asia is a large continent, most of it sits outside the Coffee Belt. India, Vietnam, Laos, and the Philippines all grow coffee, but you won’t necessarily see it on the shelf as a single-origin. About 80% of the coffee grown in Vietnam is Robusta, which is high in caffeine but more bitter and less aromatic than the Arabica preferred by western drinkers.
Along with the variations caused by environment and varietal, how the coffee is roasted has a big impact on its flavor. Roasting causes chemical changes to happen inside the beans. The oils rise to the surface, the sugars caramelize, and they lose density as the moisture evaporates.
Roasting the beans also traps carbon dioxide inside of them, which helps to release aromatic compounds once they’re ground and causes the “bloom” seen during pour-over brewing.
There are four common roast levels:
Finally, there’s the preparation. How you brew your coffee influences which of the potential flavors in the beans come through, and which are left behind. The best way to exemplify this is to compare a shot of espresso to a cup of drip-brewed coffee.
Espresso is brewed in a short time under high pressure, using beans that are finely ground. This makes for a more condensed brew with a heavier body and more caffeine per ounce.
Since it brews quickly, an evenly-extracted espresso shot will have more of the front-end acidity and sweetness, with less of the back-end bitterness, since those bitter compounds are the last to be released from the bean.
Drip coffee is brewed more slowly, using a coarser grind. Compared to espresso, this yields a thinner and more balanced cup with less acidity. Since there’s a longer ground contact time, you’ll also get more of those back-end bitter notes that can be lacking from espresso.
Finally, some terms refer to the way the espresso itself is produced:
Coffee itself has practically no calories. A cup of drip-brewed coffee has between 1 and 5 calories per 8-ounce cup, while espresso contains about 3 calories per shot. The high calorie content of café drinks comes from the milk, sugar, and other flavorings that are added. If you’re looking for the most diet-friendly option, a plain black coffee or espresso is the way to go.
You’ll hear conflicting reports when it comes to coffee’s impact on your health. Detractors point out that caffeine can raise your blood pressure and contribute to insomnia, while the acidity of it can lead to heartburn and indigestion.
These things are true—but they don’t give you the whole picture. The truth is, coffee has a lot of potential health benefits as well. Recent studies indicate it can help reduce your risk for type 2 diabetes, heart attack, stroke, and liver disease. It’s also been shown to have benefits in delaying the onset of neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
One thing dieters love about coffee is that it boosts your metabolism. Most diet pills contain caffeine because it increases your body’s ability to burn fat, as well as giving you more energy to work out. In addition, the antioxidants contained in coffee encourage better overall health, and may even be a factor in preventing certain cancers.
And thinkers have good reason to drink it, too. Caffeine blocks adenosine, an inhibitory neurotransmitter, and that lets your neurons fire more quickly. There’s a reason you feel smarter after you’ve had your morning joe.
Faster neuron firing increases your memory, attention span, reaction time, and mood. A 2011 study conducted at Harvard even found a 20% lower instance of depression among those who drank 4 or more cups of coffee per day.
Of course, there’s no such thing as a miracle food, and drinking coffee all day long isn’t recommended for everyone. The more research comes in, though, the more it seems true that the benefits of coffee outweigh its negatives from a health perspective.
A coffee bean has a certain flavor potential when it’s picked, but that’s not truly unlocked until it’s roasted and brewed. Every step of the process will impact the end taste of your cup. We hope this brief breakdown of common coffee flavors has helped you better understand why your daily java tastes the way it does!
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