coffee beans

What Does Coffee Taste Like?
The Complete Beginner’s Guide

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By Matt Woodburn-Simmonds

Coffee is one of the world’s favorite drinks – around 2 billion cups of coffee are consumed every day around the world. But if you’re someone who hasn’t joined the caffeinated masses, you may be wondering what all the fuss is about and exactly what does coffee taste like.  

Describing what coffee tastes like is complicated. Imagine trying to describe what beer or cheese tastes like. There’s so much variation that it’s impossible to give a single answer. But there are some common flavors that give a characteristic coffee taste.

Generally speaking, coffee tastes like dark chocolate with a hint of smoke. Everything from the roast level and country of origin to the processing method can have an effect on the flavor. So, depending on the roast it may have citrus and berry flavors, sweet stone fruits, or more nutty notes. Floral aromas can also be present depending on the variety and where it’s grown.

Here, we’ll dive into all the factors that govern that variable coffee flavor and help you decide if it’s time to give it a try:

Woman drinking coffee whilst overlooking a field of coffee trees

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What Exactly is Coffee?

Ok, let’s take it right back to the very beginning. To the beginning of coffee’s life on farms around the world.

When we make a cup of coffee, we’re drinking ground-up roasted coffee beans and water. But these ‘beans’ are not actually beans at all – they’re seeds found inside the fruit (cherry) of the Coffea plant.

The journey from the Coffea plant to your cup involves many stages. But when it comes to drinking, the coffee cherry seeds are roasted to release the flavor oils in their center and to add nice toasty flavors from the heat. They are then ground and infused with water to extract all that good flavor.

Today, there are two main Coffea varieties grown and used around the world: Coffea Arabica (or just Arabica) and Coffea Canephora (more commonly known as Robusta). The coffee beans from these two plants have very different flavor profiles.

Ethiopian coffee farmer harvesting coffee cherries
Coffee cherries being harvested from the trees

Coffea Arabica

In terms of taste, Arabica coffee is considered much higher quality than Robusta. So all the best coffee beans are Arabica varieties.

Coffee made from Arabica beans can be incredibly complex with fruit and floral flavors added to the rich notes from roasting. That said, there are over 60 different Arabica coffee varieties and each has subtlety different flavor characteristics. So whilst most specialty coffee is a blend of quality Arabica coffees, it is possible to get some single varietals too.

Coffea Canephora

Coffea canephora is the scientific name for the Robusta coffee plant. Compared to Arabica, these beans are considered much lower in quality as they don’t have the same complex flavors. So it’s mostly used in instant coffee and cheap coffee blends that are roasted very dark to hide the flavor of the beans.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t get good coffee from Robusta beans.

They are more bitter, have more caffeine, and have less fruity/ floral flavors. However, it’s possible to get delicious dark chocolate and spice flavors from good quality Robusta coffee beans as they do across Viet Nam. But it isn’t possible to get the same quality of flavor as Arabica so it is more of a mass-produced crop.

Often the flavor of Robusta is what people think of as being the traditional coffee flavor.

Nguyen Truegrit 100% Peaberry Robusta whole coffee beans

Our Favorite Robusta Coffee

Nguyen is a Vietnamese coffee brand with a great selection of 100% Robusta coffees (and a few Robusta & Arabica blends).

Their Truegrit coffee uses peaberry Robusta which is when there’s only one seed inside the coffee cherry and only occurs in around 5% of the crop. So this is a rare gem.

Expect flavors of Scotch, grapefruit, and bitter melon that are best enjoyed in a French press or traditional drip coffee maker.

icon of man drinking coffee

How Different Brewing Methods Affect the Taste of Coffee

How you choose to brew your coffee can completely alter the finished product. Anyone who has ever had a shot of espresso and a cup of filter coffee will be able to tell you that they are very different drinks.

But there are some subtle differences too. So we’ll explore what coffee tastes like when brewed in the most popular types of coffee makers:


Globally, espresso is probably the most famous way to brew coffee. Here, pressure and a small amount of water are used with a short extraction time meaning that espresso tastes rich, syrupy, and powerful. In just a couple of mouthfuls, you will get a full-bodied punch of coffee.

By using quality arabica coffee, you can get intense fruit flavors as well as more dark chocolate notes.

Alternatively, a shot of espresso made with robusta coffee will taste bitter and smoky with elements of chocolate and nuts.

Our Favorite Espresso Machines

Jura Z10 - Front View
All-Singing, All-Dancing: Jura Z10
(Read our full review)

French Press

Next up is another classic of the coffee brewing world: the French press.

As this brewing method involved steeping and then plunging the coffee grounds, you can expect a cup of French press coffee to taste quite oily. This is because all the precious, delicious oils are maintained. So the result is a full-bodied, intense cup of joe that often has a slightly silty texture.

This is one of my favorite brewing methods. But just remember not to gulp the sediment-filled bottom of the cup.

Pour Over

Pour over coffee brings out the aromatics better than any other method. The use of paper filters and careful water distribution gives a bright and clean-tasting cup of coffee. If you’re interested in tasting the fruity and floral notes of your coffee, then pour over is ideal.

It’s an especially good method if you’re using good Arabica coffee that has more complex flavors than cheaper coffees.

Most Iconic Pour Over Brewers

Moka Pot

The Moka pot is an icon, the cornerstone of Italian coffee. Today, it is globally loved for its simplicity.

Moka pot coffee tastes rich and bitter. The use of boiling water through the coffee grounds adds a slightly burnt taste to the coffee that isn’t for everyone. But many coffee lovers swear by their Bialetti Moka pot.

This brewing method is ideally suited for dark roasted beans and for those who like old-fashioned Italian espresso. As it tends to over-extract the coffee, you need to want and enjoy the slightly bitter taste.

Bialetti Moka Express sitting on a wooden table

Cold Brew

Cold brew coffee is a relatively new addition to the specialty coffee world. Coarse coffee grounds are steeped for 12-24 hours in the fridge, giving the coffee a unique flavor profile.

Generally speaking, cold brew coffee tends to be sweeter, showing more of the chocolate and dark sugar notes of coffee beans. This can result in an almost chocolate and caramel flavor when combined with milk.

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How Does Roasting Affect Coffee’s Flavor?

Green coffee beans have to be roasted before you can make a cup of coffee. And roasting has a huge influence on the taste of coffee.

The level of roasting will determine how much of the flavors from farming and processing you can taste in your cup. Or, how much the coffee tastes ‘roasty’.

Roasting can generally be broken down into 3 main types: light, medium, and dark. There are lots of different roast levels that apply to specific temperatures the beans are roasted to. You can explore all these different roasts but they’re generally subsets of the 3 basic levels.

Infographic: How roasting changes the flavor of coffee

Light Roast

To bring out the flavors, all coffee beans need to undergo a certain amount of roasting. Drinking unroasted coffee beans would taste terrible – the coffee would be grassy and taste very sour. But, as the name suggests, light roasted coffee is the lowest level of roasting you can get.

A light roast will taste more citrusy and earthy. Thanks to the tea-like quality, light roast coffee isn’t to everyone’s taste. However, compared to other roasts, it best preserves the unique flavors from the growing region and processing method.

If you want to taste the differences between coffee varieties and regions, a light roast is the best option.

Medium Roast

Medium roast is the most popular amongst coffee aficionados.

The longer roast time gives a fuller-bodied cup along with the dark chocolate and nut flavors that we commonly associate with the taste of coffee. It still preserves much of the unique flavors of the beans and is much better for espresso than a light roast.

Big coffee chains such as Dunkin’ Donuts use medium roast coffee.

Dark Roast

When asked ‘what does coffee taste like’, most people associate the flavor of dark roast.

Italian espresso is made with dark roast and nearly all cheap, instant coffees are made from dark roast coffee beans too. Here, the unique flavor profiles of the beans are lost, replaced with bitter chocolate, nuts, spice, and smoke from roasting.

Unfortunately, it can often lead to very bitter and even burnt-tasting coffee. So whilst it’s a great way to disguise poor-quality coffee, even the best dark roasts are really only for you if you like bitter, smokey flavors.

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Budget vs Expensive Coffee

When it comes to coffee, it’s usually true that you get what you pay for. A bag of good coffee beans can totally change your opinion on what coffee tastes like. But cheap ones can leave you feeling like your stomach lining is being destroyed.

Expensive coffee is usually Arabica coffee beans from a specific region or farm that is well known for growing great-tasting coffee. This includes specialty coffees such as Blue Mountain coffee beans from Jamaica or Kona coffee from Hawaii, which both command high prices on this alone.

It could also be a specific type of coffee bean. For example, the Geisha variety has sold for astonishing prices when grown in Panama and Costa Rica. There are also other specialty coffee varieties like Catuai, Bourbon, and Typica. But none have reached the quality level (or price) of Geisha.

Careful farming and roasting will lead to quality coffee beans that are much tastier. And ultimately more expensive.

Budget coffee, on the other hand, is mass-produced for consistent flavor, not for great flavor. Most of the coffee of Viet Nam (the second biggest coffee producer in the world) is mass-produced Robusta which ends up in instant coffee. These beans are often roasted very dark to hide any flavor issues.

While this smoky, bitter chocolate brew may be popular, it’s a far cry from the elegant flavors of a single-origin Ethiopian coffee, for example.

You also have to question the ethics of the supply chain when your coffee is extremely cheap. Finding ethical coffee can be confusing so it’s important to ask questions. Transparency in the supply chain is everything.

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How does Farming Affect the Taste of Coffee?

The conditions in the growing region will greatly impact the coffee flavor.

Coffee can only grow in what is known as the Coffee Belt – the area between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn where conditions are ideal. But within that, there are over 50 countries that produce coffee, each with their own climates, soil, and farming practices so all with different tasting coffee.

For example, Arabica coffee grown at higher altitudes will often have more delicate, complex aromas. This is because the coffee cherry fruit ripens more slowly, allowing deeper flavors to develop. Natural process Ethiopian coffees are the best example of this.

Hotter growing conditions may lead to sweet flavors in the brewed coffee. This is caused by fast ripening, giving a bolder, but less complex cup of coffee. You can find the best examples of this in Central American coffee beans from lower altitudes.

The best soil for coffee is volcanic as it’s full of minerals that the plants need to grow. This adds more complex flavors to the cherries and then the coffee beans themselves. You’ll find lots of famous coffee-growing regions, like Costa Rica and Guatemala, have coffee farms in volcanic regions.

The final flavor profile of the beans is very variable as it relies on a complex combination of plant variety, region, soil, altitude, access to shade, etc. But most of the hard work that goes into making great coffee is done by the farmers. Those who make the least money from it.

Colombian coffee farmers working hard in all weather
Colombian coffee farmers working hard in all weather
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What About the Processing Method?

Once our delicious coffee cherries are grown, they then need to be processed to get the beans ready for roasting. Coffee processing methods are varied and can be quite complex, but there are two main methods used around the world:

Washed processing is the lower-risk, lower-reward method. It is designed to minimize the risk of mold ruining the coffee beans and to preserve as much of the flavors from where the beans were grown without adding anything extra.

The big drawback is the amount of water needed for this processing method and the large amounts of waste created. As coffee is frequently grown in some pretty dry parts of the world, washed processing isn’t ideal for everywhere.

Natural processing (and its variations), on the other hand, has higher risks but the reward is in the flavor profile. This method is more about adding extra sweetness and fruit notes to the beans. It increases the complex flavors and creates fruitier-tasting coffee.

Here, the trade-off is between the danger of spoiling the beans with mold versus the reduced need for large quantities of water that then need to be disposed of.

Green coffee beans laid out in drying racks as part of the natural processing method
Natural processing: Green coffee beans laid out on drying racks

Get to Grips with Processing

If you want to take a deeper dive into the coffee processing methods and their variations, head on over to our detailed guide:

manual coffee grinder icon

How does Grinding Change the Flavor of Coffee?

Grinding helps to release all the delicious oils from within coffee beans. The problem is that they are very volatile and will completely evaporate 45 minutes after grinding.

So, to ensure you get the best flavor from your coffee beans you need to grind them no more than 10 minutes before brewing your coffee. Using bags of pre-ground coffee or leaving coffee in the chamber of a grinder for hours (as somewhere I used to work insisted on doing), will result in a flat, flavorless coffee.

The grind size also makes a huge difference to the taste of coffee as it affects the speed at which the flavor is extracted from the grounds. This is all down to the surface area to volume ratio – fun stuff, I know.

Basically, if you imagine your coffee grounds as a big sphere that has a large volume. But there’s a relatively small amount of the surface area in contact with the water when brewing.

Now imagine breaking that sphere into 100 little ones, the total volume remains the same but there’s a much larger surface area in contact with the water. This speeds up extracting the flavors from the middle.

If your grind size is too large, you will have coffee that tastes sour as it’s under-extracted. Or if you get it very wrong, your coffee will taste watery.

If your grind size is too small, it will be over-extracted and your coffee will taste bitter.

Shop our Favorite ‘All-Rounder’ Grinders

Side view of 1zpresso J max manual coffee grinder
Manual Option: 1Zpresso J Max
Breville Smart Grinder Pro with coffee beans in the hopper and screen turned on
Electric Option: Breville Smart Grinder Pro
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The Coffee Flavor Wheel

The coffee flavor wheel is the result of a collaboration between the Specialty Coffee Association of America and World Coffee Research. It is designed to be a tool to help coffee tasters describe the flavors of coffee.

It’s easy to use, you simply start at the center of the wheel where there are more general descriptive words. Then you move outwards into more specific flavors.

Couple looking at the coffee flavor wheel whilst drinking a cup of coffee

Flavors that are very similar are right next to each other, like grapefruit and orange. Those that are slightly further apart, taste-wise, have a small gap/ deep space between them, such as orange and lemon.

The wheel is also color coded as sometimes it’s hard to pick out specific flavors. If you taste coffee and your brain pulls out “green” or “red” in what it tastes like, you can follow those colors on the wheel to narrow down exactly what you’re tasting.

This is an elaborate tool that’s a bit much for the everyday coffee drinker. But if you want to really get into tasting coffee and pulling out the nuanced flavor profiles, it’s a great tool to help you identify the flavors you like and don’t like.

You can view a full copy of the coffee taster’s flavor wheel here.

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Final Thoughts

It’s hard to define exactly what does coffee taste like as the variation is so extreme.

There are many factors that impact the flavor. But, as a general rule, quality coffee tastes fruity and floral with notes of chocolate and nuts/spice. At its worst, coffee will taste like burnt tar and rubber with bitter dark chocolate and smoke.

So use this as a guide to buy and brew the coffee that best suits your palette and what you enjoy drinking.


Matt Woodburn-Simmonds

Matt's coffee obsession started in 2006 when working as a Barista. A tendency to turn up to work hungover kickstarted his coffee journey which quickly turned into a love affair. As he moved on to work as a Restaurant Manager and Sommelier, the obsession continued to grow. Now, his passion is helping others to enjoy better coffee at home.

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