Resuming with Sweetness

by Kenneth Davids

So let’s blog again like we did last summer. Reviewing three or four descriptive terms per week is the new plan.

Judging by an occasional puzzled email, sweetness may be one of the more confusing terms for those new to coffee description. We use the term regularly in our reviews, and it’s one of the most important technical descriptors used in evaluating quality in green coffee.

Yet readers who buy a coffee we call “sweet” will be disappointed if they expect it to taste like sugar. Sweetness in coffee is subtle, yet also pervasive and precious. It underpins much of what we value in coffee, from the honeyed floral notes of light-roasted coffees to the pungent dark chocolate of darker roasts.

Yet coffee is, after all, a naturally bitter beverage, and bitterness too is part of its appeal. But we can take bitterness for granted in coffee. It will always be there. Promoting natural sweetness, however, requires effort, a lot of effort.

If you taste a ripe coffee fruit of the arabica species, fresh off the tree, several sensations probably will strike you, among them: it tastes a little tart, a little bitter, but also a little sweet. Not extremely sweet, but discernibly so.

Returning to the effort part, almost any act of carelessness as coffee is transformed from ripe fruit to roasted bean will promote bitterness and reduce sweetness. Too much green, unripe, bitter-astringent fruit in the harvest, for example, rather than sweet, ripe fruit. Failing to dry the beans properly, allowing the formation of sweetness-dampening moulds. Failing to transport or store the beans properly. Roasting them too dark too fast. And if the coffee makes it through all of that, we can destroy any amount of natural sweetness by letting the brewed coffee sit on a hot plate for more than a few minutes.

So a good part of the care that goes into harvesting, removing the fruit residue and drying a fine coffee is aimed at preserving the original fragile sweetness reflected in the taste of the fruit. It makes everything else going on in a fine coffee better: the acidity (fuller and less sharp), the floral and fruit notes (more honeyed and ripe), caramelly and chocolate sensations in a darker roast deeper.

Essentially, many coffee drinkers are so accustomed to the dominating bitter character of ordinary coffee that they automatically add whitener and sweetener to their cup. At Coffee Review we value sweetness in particular because it encourages coffee drinkers to take their coffee black, or at least without sweetener, and experience the coffee itself, its subtle pleasures unwrapped for us by a sweetness given by nature but obsessively nurtured by grower, miller and roaster.

In a few days: flowers and aromatic wood, two positive though rather opposing descriptors we use often in our reviews.

This entry was written by:Kenneth Davids and posted on Saturday, November 27th, 2010 at 2:36 pm and is filed under Coffee at Home. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

7 Responses to “Resuming with Sweetness”

  1. Arjuna says:

    Organo Gold tastes really good…

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  4. Ryan –

    Sorry it took me so long to respond.

    The difficulty with identifying sweetness in coffee is that in our culture we are bombarded with sugary beverages, so the subtler sort of sweetness in coffee may be difficult at first to pick out. Basically, you taste the coffee and try to interrogate it for sweetness only — sort of flip through the other tastes, especially bitterness, and shuffle through the sensations you are getting looking for sweetness. If you do this a few times with different coffees — tasted black of course! — you should get a feel for it.

    Another way to look for sweetness is to look for aromatic/taste sensations we associate with sweetness. For example, in a typical medium to medium-dark or even dark roasted coffee you could look for chocolate — dark chocolate especially — and when you register the chocolate typically you are registering sweetness as well. In light-medium or light roasted coffees the sweetness usually comes across as honey, or maybe molasses.

    I hope that helps. Query me again if it doesn’t, and thanks for commenting.

    Ken Davids

  5. Rosemary says:

    You’ve described this perfectly…..thank you for putting into words what I have found in cupping coffees.

  6. Ryan says:

    Could you elaborate a little more on how to taste sweetness in black coffee? How to detect it from a sensory perspective?

    This is something that I found quite elusive when I first dove into brewing specialty coffee at home.

  7. sirada says:

    Dear Ken and Ted,

    Thank you very much for your article.

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