I was just up at the Barista Camp in Santa Barbara this week and was stoked to have so many great conversations about tasting coffee. I took part in the Intro to Cupping class as well as helped out in the Organic Acids class and with Katie Carguilo's lecture on coffee processing. The thing that's been at the front of my mind for some time, and which really stood out to me again in taking part in all of these cuppings and conversations is the idea of sweetness in coffee. I've talked about it here and there on this blog and even wrote a bit about a specific kind of sweetness.

What's getting at me about sweetness in coffee these days is that it seems like no one is talking about it. We've been so caught up in trying to convince people that acidity can be a positive characteristic in coffee, that it now seems that it's the only characteristic worth talking about. Walk into any craft/specialty coffee spot right now and ask about any particular coffee, I can almost guarantee that the first thing that they would mention about it would be the acidity or brightness. The fruits they list might be sweet, and they'll probably throw in some cocoa or caramel reference, but only after they talk about the brightness of the coffee.

On the SCAA cupping form, sweetness is a box that you check off, indicating whether it's there or not. I think this is okay. You're simply supposed to be using that form to analyze the green coffee and it's potential. I think the qualitative measurements for body and acidity are more controversial than the sweetness check box. But in looking at the forms for the current iteration of the still in development roasting competition, the form for analyzing the roast doesn't include sweetness at all! I found that to be shocking. What are you doing during roasting (if you're doing it right) if not developing the sweetness of that coffee?

Here's where my train of thought is going; would more people have a positive response to a coffee if the first thing you mentioned to them about it had to do with the sweetness rather than the acidity? I'm not saying that you shouldn't talk about the brightness, but talk about how it interacts with the sweetness, how the acidity highlights the sweetness or defines it otherwise. Generally speaking, people aren't looking for a bright coffee, they're looking for a sweet coffee. Perhaps if we made a point to accentuate the sweetness, then it would be even easier to get them to come around to appreciating the brightness and body in a coffee. Focus on what they're going to find the most pleasing, and build our descriptions around that.

Having this conversation with folks around the cupping tables and in various sessions, I was really uplifted that it seemed to click with so many folks. A big part of it isn't even just changing our language to help us sell coffee better, but it also helps us describe our coffees in a way that makes more sense because it talks more to where the flavors actually come from. It's a whole lot easier to believe that something tastes like something else when you can describe even a little bit why that may be. We do ourselves a big favor when we start with sweetness.



#1 Great stuff to consider.

Great stuff to consider. Personally on my own cupping form I rate sweetness at three levels, very little, some, and very.

#2 an experiment

I wonder if anyone is willing to try a little game with me. Take one coffee and code its name. For one day of service only talk about the sweetness of the coffee when offering it to folks. The next day, change the code/name and offer it again, this time only talking about it's brightness. You can measure the response either by simply the count of people who decide to have that coffee, or you could easily generate a real simple feedback form that you ask people to fill out and see what they have to say about the same coffee on different days. Who's up for workshopping this with me? I'll talk to a shop around here and see if they're game, but I'd be real curious to hear some other folks' findings.

#3 Sweetness

I would have to agree on the sweetness aspect of coffee. The majority of customers add sugar to coffee to satisfy their taste buds. Not too many of them add any kind of acidic flavoring, (balsamic vinegar, lemon juice?). I know its not really what you meant but it's true that people prefer sweetness in their coffee. It is true that acids increase sweetness (in combination),and that a lot of emphasis is placed on quantifying acidity but not so much with sweetness. Maybe its because all sweetness is good but acidity can be not so good sometimes. I can bet if I told a customer to expect a nice sparkling phosphoric acidity or a nice caramel sweetness, they would probably respond best to the caramel descriptor. I will give it a try anyways. Maybe we should put more emphasis on sweetness descriptors when evaluating a coffees characteristics. It would actually be interesting to study some of the sugars that exist in coffee and the effects that roasting has on these sugars. Also, how different acids increase sweetness in combination with each other.

#4 totally concur!

This is a great topic. I find that even trying to mention acidity, I have to explain first that acidity does more in coffee than upset your stomach. (ugh... Burned coffee is usually what people are equating to acidic coffee...) Then, after that I have to relate the acidity to something they can relate to. i.e. citrus, dried fruits, etc... While this may help to maintain the conversation, I feel that people often just go back to making the same comments about acidic coffee makes their tummy hurt.

Sweetness in a roast is what fueled my second fire for coffee roasting, first being that I could actually learn to roast it at all. The first time I smelled roasted marshmallows in a yellow bourbon, I was totally hooked. I love playing with a roast and dialing in the 'sweet spot' (pun intended). It is almost purely the sweetness that I am searching for when determining the proper roast for a coffee. I know that may sound a little short-sided, but with my current equipment and process my nose is probably the most effective tool for determining roast level.

I'm a little new here to the shrub, but I really like what I see so far. Great topic.


#5 As an aside and a preface, I

As an aside and a preface, I unfortunately don't witness the concept of "developing sweetness". As far as I can tell, after the crack, sweetness only lessens. On the other hand, we certainly caramelize or carbonize sugars into less sweet but maybe more complex flavors as well as temper or reveal acidity which is experienced in balance with sweet and bitter flavors. Absolutely, sweetness is exceedingly important and should be a given for specialty coffee. It's pairing with acidity is what allows us to name familiar flavor experiences.

This is a great topic, and I'm thinking that as far as offering the experience to my customers that I absolutely should consider the type of sweetness first in the tasting notes before aroma and acidity. As another has posted, sweetness is what most people want of their beverage experience. So perhaps the outstanding Teklu Dembel of this summer would have been: Honey, Jasmine, Mandarin instead of Citric, Floral, Silky.

#6 caramelized

I'm not necessarily saying that you develop more sweetness per se, but rather that you alter the type of sweetness. Yes, caramelization does lead to more bitter and less sweet, but that doesn't happen immediately after the first crack has finished. Immediately after first crack, the sweetness is still malty and cereal like, it's when you get into City+ range where the sweetness is more candy or honey sweet. It then moves into a more fruited sweetness, and this is the level where the coffees with the potent stone fruit notes really shine, if dropped too light the citric acid and cereal notes muddle these flavors. Past here is when we start to get a bit more bitter with more cocoa and vanilla-like sweetness.

Which is what you more or less said, but I want to highlight your other point which is the balance of the modes of taste which can make a roast a truly special representation of the latent qualities of that coffee, but we definitely do ourselves a great favor by not neglecting to talk about sweetness first and foremost with our customers.

#7 go easy, i'm learning.

Wow... I can't express how great it is to be talking to roasters... I am going to have to learn to speak more clearly and succinctly when discussing things here. I am sure that I will often be humbled by the experience and education that roasters in this site bring to the table. So please pardon and correct me if I speak or refer to something incorrectly.

I completely agree with what everyone has said here. endlesscycles has a great point about carmellizing and carbonizing the sugars. I don't normally focus on the sugars at the early stages of the roast, but maybe that is just shortsided. I am going to see if I can work on developing sweetness without focusing on the carmel type flavors of the sugars, never really thought about that.

Though, I normally try to nail down the point when the sugars are the soloist (my n00bishness may be showing...) . And, in my limited experience that has been when I get things like, roasted marshmallows or "Honey Smacks". I usually dump before I get too much cocoa or vanilla type sweetness. But, that is because I am trying to get my friends and family to slowly retreat from their '"dark", Roasted Coffee Pictorial Guide. ">french or italian' roasts that they have become accustomed to.

I normaly think of the sugars having a spectrum of character, aspects of that can be brought out by heat and bringing out the depth of their character, or left to play a more symphonic role in the concert of the cup, by not carmellizing so much.

I always ask that anyone who is drinking my coffees for the first time do so without any cream/sugar/etc... to see if they can identify the sweetness. They often rarely go back to cream and sugar in their coffee. Which is more a testament to fresh coffee than it is to my coffee in general.

?- As far as how roasted coffee ages etc... Is there an understanding about how that affects the overall sweetness in the cup? Just curious what I should expect.