What It Means When Coffee Is Sweet

What It Means When Coffee Is Sweet

Coffee often conjures thoughts of bitterness, especially for those accustomed to dark, intense brews. But contrary to popular belief, there's a rich complexity to coffee beyond bitterness. Sweetness is actually a crucial attribute to a specialty coffee’s flavor profile and marks a well-made drink. But what exactly is sweetness in coffee, and how do we taste it? In this article, we explain this essential flavor element in coffee.

Understanding Coffee Sugar Content

All raw coffee beans come from the same source: coffee cherries. What we roast and grind is the seed of a fruit. Each seed is packed with carbohydrates, which comprises about half of the bean's total composition. These carbohydrates—sucrose, arabinose, glucose, galactose, and more—contribute to the "sweetness" you can taste from the coffee.

Now, the sugar content in coffee beans varies based on factors such as species, varietal, and growing conditions. For instance, Arabica beans typically harbor higher sucrose levels compared to their Robusta counterparts. This difference usually results in Arabica blends having more pronounced sweetness notes.

The Nature of “Sweetness” in Coffee

When you consider a plain cup of coffee (no milk, no sugar, no sweetener), you might think that you won’t taste much sweetness at all. Black coffee is often thought of as a strong and bitter brew. However, this is a misconception that comes from the idea that “sweet” equals an artificial, sugary taste. For specialty coffee, "sweetness" is a different taste altogether.

Professional coffee tasters (also known as cuppers) use the term "sweet" to define the intensity of certain coffee qualities. These are naturally present in the coffee, even without any additives. During the cupping process, cuppers assess these subtle sweetness notes by swirling the coffee across their palate.

Factors Influencing Sweetness

The intensity of sweetness in coffee is influenced by various factors. If coffee lacks sweetness, it's often due to defects like inconsistent ripeness or improper storage.

But the absence of sweetness doesn't necessarily equate to poor-quality beans. Sweetness levels can fluctuate at any stage of the coffee supply chain—even the brewing method can affect it.

Aside from the coffee process, personal attributes can affect your perception of sweetness. After all, everyone’s palate and taste buds are unique, and not everyone will experience a cup of coffee the same way.

The Intensity of Coffee Sugars

Enhancing Sweetness through Coffee Processing

The different methods of processing coffee cherries can either bring out or dampen the natural sweetness of the coffee. While certain techniques can increase sweetness, other techniques can transform other flavors present in the bean to emphasize or highlight sweetness.


The cultivation of sweetness starts way before the harvest. Coffee cherries that ripen slowly, or are grown at higher altitudes generally develop more sugars. When the cherry is ripe it tastes sweet and flavorful, which is why pickers need to be careful about their timing. Only ripe cherries can produce sweet, balanced coffee.


Cleaning and processing also affect their sweetness. Natural processing methods allow the cherry to lightly ferment before its outer shells are removed. This adds to the level and complexity of their sweetness. On the other hand, coffees that skip this step and are washed after harvest typically have a gentler sweetness.


Roasting is pivotal for sweetness. The Maillard Reaction during roasting transforms the bean's natural sugars, which can intensify sweetness depending on the bean's flavor profile. Roasting not only intensifies sweetness but also unlocks a spectrum of complex flavors inherent in the beans, contributing to the overall character of the coffee.


Brewing is the final factor that affects the taste of sweetness in your coffee. When brewing specialty coffee, the water ratio, temperature, filter material, and timing all affect what flavors you get in your cup. If these elements are all carefully balanced, sweetness harmonizes with other flavor attributes in the coffee.

Affected by Coffee Processes

Exploring Sweetness in Coffee

To taste and describe the sweet notes in your coffee, you have to understand how sweetness can present itself in your brew.

So how can a casual coffee consumer understand this aspect of coffee? The best way is to sample a diverse range of “sweet” coffees.

For example, Indonesian coffees like our Aulia Kahpi have a bright, fruity sweetness, while Central American coffees have a more floral sweetness to them. Other coffees can have a sweetness that is reminiscent of honey, while others might taste dark chocolate, like our Barrel Aged Brazil Varias Minas and Trooper, respectively. Specialty coffee has a myriad of subtle sweet flavors that offer wonderful nuances.

To help you on your tasting journey, take an in-depth look at the SCAA flavor wheel. Here, the sweetness element is broken down into several categories:

Sweet Aromatics — the sweet aromas you sniff before you even drink your coffee.
Vanilla — a flavor most people are familiar with, and its aroma is described as woody and slightly chemical-like
Overall Sweet — refers to a more prevalent, overall sweetness that harmoniously works with the coffee’s aroma
Vanillin – different from Vanilla, some people describe this taste to be like cotton candy or marshmallow.
Brown Sugar – a rich and well-rounded sweetness
Molasses – more caramel-like than brown sugar, and has sharp and acidic notes
Maple Syrup – like its namesake, it has an earthier sweetness that lingers on the palate
Caramelized – similar to brown sugar, but with a more smoky flavor.
Honey – a rounded sweetness with a few aromatic spice notes.


Sweetness in coffee is often misunderstood as the taste of sugar or artificial sweeteners. However, sweetness is a natural and complex flavor present in specialty coffee, shaped and influenced by various elements in the coffee-making process. The myriad of ways sweetness presents itself in a brew adds that extra layer of pleasure to the coffee-drinking experience, especially for coffee enthusiasts with a more developed palate.

Want to experience sweet coffee for yourself? Plain Sight Coffee Roasters has a few options for you to experiment with. Take a look at our selections here. Order today and get an exceptional brew delivered straight to your doorstep!

Edited by Natalie Ann Unson

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