Mastering your senses and learning to taste coffee is a skill that produces life-long benefits. When you can appreciate the nuance of flavor, acidity, and body of coffee, you begin to appreciate the little things of life in a renewed way as well.
This blog on tasting coffee acidity is a part of our How To Taste Coffee Series. My goal with this series is simple: to give you the tools you need to experience and appreciate coffee (and other aspects of life) to the fullest.
Acidity is widely misunderstood in coffee because it usually contributes to a poor tasting experience in low-end coffees. However, in the world’s best coffees, acidity is the star of the show.
Let’s unravel the mysteries of coffee acidity and separate fact from fiction. Trust me, if you want to be able to enjoy coffee at another level, you’ll want to read on.
Acidity In Coffee Is A Good Thing
Like I said, acidity has a bad reputation. We all know what an over roasted, over extracted cup of coffee tastes like: ash, acid, and everything gross.
But you don’t drink poorly grown and roasted coffee. You drink the good stuff, so the acidity in your coffee is something to be celebrated.
Without acidity, coffee is often dull, boring, and mellow. Brazilian coffees are particularly known for their low-acidity. Though they can taste nice with mellow chocolate, nut, and spice notes, they rarely generate the same respect as coffees from their Central American neighbors, which are more acidic and vibrant on average.
Acidity in high quality coffee is balanced, crisp, and creates a zingy feeling across the front half of your tongue. This combination of characteristics highlights the naturally occurring flavors in the coffee, pushing the entire sensory experience a step forward.
Is Acidity A Flavor?
Though acids in coffee do have their own flavor, they can be hard to pinpoint and often blend with the other flavors of the coffee. For this reason, I like to call coffee acids enhancers, since they enhance compatible flavors and contribute to mouthfeel.
Sometimes acidity boosts a coffee’s citrus notes and causes your lips to pucker with a touch of sourness. Sometimes it’s clean and bright, putting the finishing touch on the note of juicy apple. Acids in coffee can be bold and bright. They can be subtle and smooth.
Yes, acidity and flavor can overlap - but not always. It’s important to be able to separate the acidity from the flavors it accompanies for more accurate tasting and a stronger appreciation.
An “orange-like acidity” doesn’t necessarily mean the coffee has to taste like oranges. Literally, it means the coffee’s acidity reminds you of an orange’s acidity. Similarly, a coffee with a “gentle melon-like acidity” may have a very mild and soothing acidity like that found in watermelon, cantaloupe, or papaya.
As you can imagine, a “grape-y acidity” would be much more sour and tangy than a “banana-like acidity”, but less intense than a “lemon acidity”.
A grape-y coffee may or may not actually taste like grapes, but that acidic feeling can remind us of grapes either way.
Remember, tasting acidity this way is only possible when your coffee is still fresh.
4 Common Acids Found In Coffee
There are dozens of acids that can be found in coffee, but I’ll stick with the ones that primarily affect our tasting experience. These are the ones that can be identified pretty easily once you’ve tasted them a few times.
Citric acid is everywhere: blueberries, tomatoes, cheese, soft drinks, chips. We generally associate this acid with lemons and limes, since those two fruits have the highest concentration of this acid (up to 8% by weight). This acid is known for its crisp sourness.
Malic acid shares similar qualities as citric acid, so the two are often interchanged in commercial baking and cooking. The classic example of malic acid is the tart zing of a crisp green apple (which is also partially due to citric acid). This acid is sour and sometimes slightly metallic, but in a smooth, mellow sense.
Phosphoric acid tastes slightly sweeter than its acid cousins, which is why it is favored by soft drink makers. When added to citrus fruits, it softens and sweetens the intense zing of the citric and malic acids. In bright African coffees, phosphoric acid is often considered to be the sweet tang that enhances rich berry notes.
At its best, acetic acid pairs with a coffee’s fruity flavors to form notes of wine or champagne in coffee, creating a unique and stunning flavor. On its own, acetic acid has a sour, fermente-y punch and a pungent smell (think vinegar).
Putting It All Together
Perceiving acidity separately from flavor is a challenge - there’s no doubt about that. Many coffee lovers skip over the task and conflate flavor with acidity, but you have the tools you need to see the difference. If you have trouble with the task, don’t worry - it’ll slowly become easier over time as you keep tasting.
A fun way to develop your palate to perceive acidity is to by a few different fruits and taste them side by side, focusing on the acidity and not the flavor. Since the fruit experiences will be pretty different (compared to trying two coffees), you’ll be able to tell the differences a little more easily.
Remember: it's much easier to taste and enjoy acidity in high-quality coffee than in mediocre beans. Here's my best tip for always having fresh, delicious beans on hand: let us send them to you!
Our JavaPresse Coffee Subscription sends you freshly roasted, flavorful beans right to your door. It's a fantastic way to try a bunch of rich coffees that you know are freshly roasted and sustainably sourced.
Check out the coffee subscription and we'll send you great coffees for learning to taste acidity.
Have fun, explore, and always ask yourself the magic tasting question:
What does this remind me of?
Next up our How To Taste Coffee Series: Sweetness!