Coffee Flavor

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About
Coffee has one of the most complex flavors of all our foods. At its base is a mouth-filling balance of acidity, bitterness, and astringency. A third or less of the bitterness is due to easily extracted caffeine, the rest to more slowly extracted phenolic compounds and browning pigments. More than 800 aroma compounds have been identified, and they supply notes that are described as nutty, earthy, flowery, fruity, buttery, chocolate-like, cinnamon, tea, honeyed, caramel, bready, roasty, spicy, even winey and gamy. Robusta coffees, with their substantially higher content of phenolic substances than arabicas, develop a characteristic smoky, tarry aroma that is valued in dark roasts (they are also distinctly less acidic than arabicas). Milk and cream reduce the astringency of coffee by providing proteins that bind to the tannic phenolic compounds, but these liquids also bind aroma molecules and weaken the overall coffee flavor.