Sweetness in Coffee, Explained
What is sweetness in coffee?
- A characteristic in certain coffees
- The intensity of coffee sugars
- Influenced by several factors
- Affected by coffee processes
- Produces different forms of sweetness
When someone thinks of coffee, the first flavor that comes to mind might be ‘bitter.’ Some of us probably grew up on dark, harsh-tasting coffee and thought that all coffee tasted the same — but there’s a lot more to it than that. Sweetness is one of the crucial attributes to a specialty coffee’s flavor profile and is the mark of a well-made drink. But what is sweetness in coffee, and how do we taste it? In this article, we dive into this elusive element in coffee.
A Characteristic in Certain CoffeesAll 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 (about 50% of its total composition). These include sucrose, arabinose, glucose, galactose, and more — which all contribute to the "sweetness" you can taste from the coffee.
The number of sugars in raw coffee beans also depends on the species, varietal, and growing conditions. For example, Arabica varietals tend to have higher levels of sucrose than a Robusta varietal. This can lead to coffee blends made from Arabica having more pronounced notes of sweetness.
The Intensity of Coffee Sugars
When you consider a cup of coffee that’s been unaltered — no milk, no sugar, no sweetener — you might think that you won’t taste much sweetness at all. However, this comes from our misconception that “sweet” equals an artificial, sugary taste. This is not the case when it comes to specialty coffee.
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. The subtle flavors of sweetness are examined during the cupping stage by swishing the coffee over their entire palate.
Influenced by Several FactorsThis intensity is affected by several factors. When coffee tasters find that sweetness is lacking, it’s normally caused by some type of defects, such as inconsistent ripeness, or improper storage.
But if your coffee doesn’t taste sweet, does that mean that the beans you bought were bad quality? Not necessarily. Changes in sweetness can be caused by any step in 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.
Affected by Coffee Processes
The different methods of processing coffee cherries can either bring out or dampen the natural sweetness of the coffee. Certain processes can increase the element of sweetness, but there will be tradeoffs. Some other flavors can be lost or transformed to emphasize sweetness.
HarvestingThe 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 ProcessingCleaning 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.
RoastingRoasting also plays a role in determining sweetness. The natural sugars in the bean are transformed during this step, in a chemical event called the Maillard Reaction.
BrewingBrewing is the final moment in creating the taste of sweetness. 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 comes out in harmony with all the other flavor attributes.
Produces Different Forms of SweetnessTo taste and describe the sweet notes in your coffee, you have to understand one thing: it can come in many different forms.
So how do we understand this aspect of coffee? The best way to train yourself to notice sweetness is to try many ‘sweet’ coffees.
For example, Indonesian coffees like our Aulia Kahpi have a bright, fruity sweetness. 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. 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 – represent the sweet aromas you find 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 – some people describe this taste to be like cotton candy or marshmallow.
- Brown sugar – a round and rich 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 – has a few aromatic spice notes.
Key TakeawayBeginner coffee enthusiasts often associate sweetness in coffee with their artificial sweetener, but it’s actually a natural element that can be found in any specialty coffee. Sweetness is a complex flavor that’s carefully shaped by the coffee process. It’s considered to be a pleasure for those who can taste and enjoy it in their coffee.
Want to experience sweet coffee for yourself? Take a look at our selections here. Plain Sight Coffee Roasters has a few options for you to experiment with. Order today and receive our freshly roasted coffee in no time!