Advanced Coffee Tasting: What Your Coffee Smells Like

We've talked a lot recently about how to become a better coffee taster, and hopefully by now you've gotten a chance to practice your skills with some comparisons, or at least a bit of focused and mindful slurping. But while it's important to give your tongue a workout, your nose needs to pitch in, too.

It's time to delve a little deeper into the nuances of coffee's scent, and explore some of the main characteristics that professional tasters look for in a cup. You're ready for it, my coffee-tasting Jedi. Today we'll explore the three main categories of aromatic compounds found in roasted coffee, commonly referred to as enzymatic, sugar browning, and dry distillation.

When coffee cuppers approach samples for analysis, they are prepared to identify a host of different essences that the beans might have, including their sweetness, level of balance, and acidity, among others. Without some guidance, it can be difficult to pinpoint the specifics, but once you start to equate flavors in coffee with other things you taste all the time, unlocking the brew's mysteries becomes a bit more within reach.

Coffee is a complex food and is chock full of compounds that combine to create a different taste experience from one batch of beans to the next. One of the most important aspects of tasting, however, is smelling, and without knowing how to exercise your schnoz, the whole process might elude you.

When we talk about a coffee's "aroma," we put those smells into three categories: Enzymatic, sugar browning, and dry distillation. On the coffee cuppers' "flavor wheel", these are listed separately from tastes because we can't actually smell sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and savory, but we can smell a garden pea, or chocolate, or anything else that specifically triggers a sense (and scent) memory.

Let's break down the categories, so your nose knows what to look for.


Onion or herbaceous aromas are considered enzymatic. rageforst on Flickr

Since the coffee bean that we roast, grind, and brew is actually the seed of a cherry-like fruit, it makes sense to think of that seed retaining some of its fruity or plant-like qualities. The floral, fruit-like, and herbaceous aromas we get from coffee are described as "enzymatic" properties. These hark back to the bean's plant life, and can range from oniony to melony, from jasmine rose, from citric to berry-like.

Some coffees communicate these aromas more than others, and that can be due to anything from the plant's botanical lineage to the way it was grown and processed, to the depth of the roast, to the quality of the brew. But as a little hint, know that many Latin American coffees have a kind of sweet red berry-ness to them, while coffees from Ethiopia can display lemongrass, and those from Kenya might have a little tomatoey tartness.

Sugar Browning

Toasted bread is a delicious, delicious sugar-browning characteristic. John McClumpha on Flickr

Maillard reactions—my favorite! "Sugar browning" is the term that we use to describe that delicious alchemy that makes bread into toast and sugar into caramel. This is the chemical reaction that occurs when certain amino acids and sugars are exposed to heat, as in the coffee-roasting process. Aromas that result from this process in the beans or fresh coffee grounds—such as toasted nuts, cocoa, barley, malt, or pastry-like aroma—often directly relate to the sweetness in the cup.

(Excuse me for just a second while I sit here daydreaming about maple syrup, honey, and chocolate Thank you, Louis-Camille Maillard!)

Dry Distillation

It's "charred" not "burnt.". Robyn Lee

Roasting coffee is a volatile and somewhat traumatic process for the beans, as cooking is for any raw ingredient. As fibrous bean material actually burns in the roaster, it contributes aromatic by-products reminiscent of wood, pipe tobacco, leather, clove, or black pepper.

Since coffees are roasted much lighter for cupping analysis on a buyer or exporter's table, these sorts of aromas are much more common in situations with consumers experiencing beans as they might actually be purchased: The darker the roast, the more present these dry distillation characteristics will likely be. Try not to think of them as "burnt" smelling, though, and instead try to relate them to pleasant experiences you've had with these kinds of chemical reactions in other foods: The crispy edge on the burnt ends of brisket, for instance, or the perfect char on a wood-fired pizza crust.

Do you have any particular favorites among these three categories of scents? Are you a Colombian-loving Maillard obsessive, like me, or do you tend to prefer the more floral enzymatic aspects of an Ethiopian coffee? Or are you a bit darker, with a smoky Sumatran streak?