Balanced. Clean. Bright. Um… Tasty? Coffee is a subjective thing at the best of times, and attempting to explain to a circle of coffee experts what exactly you’re tasting can be a daunting experience. And once you’ve cycled through the standards - Full, Juicy, Mild, Complex etc - it can get repetitive.
(Pro tip: don’t say “It tastes like coffee.”)
Here are some adjectives to keep in reserve next time you’re at a cupping (industry term for a formal coffee tasting) and run out of things to say.
Exceptionally delectable or fragrant; worthy of the gods.
Has the coffee left you speechless? Is it delicious to the point where other descriptors can’t do it justice? Would Zeus himself bow down before it?
Hostile or aggressive.
Best used when a coffee has such a strong, punchy aroma that you feel overwhelmed. Potentially a less negative alternative to terms such as bitter, harsh or sour. See also: Discordant, Bombastic.
Pompous or elaborate but with little substance.
A coffee that is trying too hard, trying hard to be liked or to stand out, but falls flat at the last. Big, full flavours can tip over into Bombastic. See also: Belligerent, Discordant.
Jarring or contradictory; grating; unharmonious.
Getting hints of orange peel and mint? Chocolate and aniseed? Is the smooth body ruined by a bright, flashy finish? Sometimes there is just too much going on, and the clashing parts ruin the whole.
Graceful and refined; sophisticated.
A light body, a smooth finish and delicate, floral elements might combine into an elegant cup. See also: Gossamer.
Bringing memories, feelings, or images to mind.
A nice general, unspecific word. Useful when you can’t quite pinpoint what it is you’re looking to describe; a convenient diversion tactic. Best paired with an equally vague memory, such as “summer holidays as a child” or “the south of France”.
Extravagant, dynamic, confident.
Big, juicy flavours that brim with life. A luxurious sweetness twinned with depth and complexity. Or maybe it just tastes really good and you don’t know what else to say. Exuberant brings to mind happiness and positivity without really meaning very much. Perfect.
A delicate, wispy or silky material or substance.
More specific than Elegant, hovering around a negative descriptor of a coffee that comes out thin or reedy. If you’re tasting with the roaster and want to spare feelings, “A gossamer body” can put a positive spin on an underdeveloped coffee.
Lacking excitement; mundane.
Sometimes a coffee comes out deficient - not quite defective, but rather missing something important. It’s run-of-the-mill, ordinary, not worth discarding but also not praiseworthy. A more positive alternative might be Businesslike or Straightforward - one could even give up, term it Balanced and move on.
Out of place, not in keeping with surroundings.
Why does this Kenya Nyeri taste like a beef stew? See also: Discordant.
Reduced or dampened.
The thing that should stand out doesn’t. Maybe the coffee was roasted incorrectly, or brewed wrong, but there’s a lot of white noise in there and you’re losing your grip.
Continuing to exist despite opposition; persevering tenaciously.
A long slow finish in a coffee can be a positive thing: a lingering aftertaste which continues to inspire memories or connections. Likewise, a taste that hangs around too long on the palate can ruin a previously positive impression: a caramel finish that turns ashy and won’t dissipate.
Sharp, penetrating or acute.
When the lemon tang is overpowering, bordering on sour, but you don’t want to be rude.
Having a greasy, oily or soapy aspect.
A less pleasant version of ‘syrupy’ or ‘creamy’, when the coffee slides across your mouth without joy.
The upside to coffee’s subjectiveness is that, as long as you speak confidently, no one will judge you (well, they might, but they won’t do it out loud). It makes formal coffee tasting more relaxed, and one of the more enjoyable aspects of the coffee industry, as the informality allows for freedom to express oneself.
It's just a matter of finding the right words.
And if all else fails, you’ll have this list to fall back on the next time you need to sound smart in front of a group of people who have their own monogrammed cupping spoons.