By LAURA REILEY
Times Food Critic
Coffee is usually assessed much like wine, using descriptors such as aroma, acidity, body and taste to describe what's encountered in a cup. And like wine-speak, there is a certain amount of puffery thrown about.
Here are the basics when considering coffee:
With aroma, ask yourself how intense and pleasurable the smell is on first sniff. The aroma reveals a lot about the flavors to follow, the fruit, acidity or herbal tones.
Acidity is not about sourness or astringency (these qualities are defects). It is the bright, dry sensation that enlivens the taste of coffee. Without acidity coffee is dull and lifeless; acidity serves to lift the coffee, adding sharpness and effervescence. Acidity is generally inversely correlated with darkness of roast.
On the other hand, the darker the roast, the greater body the coffee will have. Body is the sensation of weight or viscosity on the palate that gives power and persistence to taste. Body can be thin (a bad thing), light and delicate, or heavy and resonant.
And taste is anything that doesn't fit into one of these other categories. Use words like complex, balanced, rough, deep and clean. As with wine, there are other food flavor comparisons that aptly describe a coffee's flavor: fruity, herbal, even winey.
Varieties and place of origin also give clues to a coffee's flavor, whether it's a medium-bodied workhorse Colombian or exotic Jamaican Blue Mountain, the world's priciest bean. Brazil has overtaken Colombia as the No. 1 coffee-producing country, but there are a lot of other countries that lay claim to a mean bean. Brazilian beans tend to be characterized as full-bodied, with low acidity and ripe, mellow flavors.
On the African continent, Tanzanian coffee is more robust than many Central American coffees, with a distinctive, deep richness. Ethiopian is tangy (often described even as "gamey") with luscious fragrance and medium body. Kenyan is a delicate but full-bodied coffee with high acidity and a strong floral and citrus aroma.
Sumatra is a heavy-bodied Indonesian coffee with lower acidity and a concentrated, woody taste, one that is accentuated in "aged Sumatra." Coffee from nearby Papua New Guinea is heavy and syrupy, with broad, mouth-filling, earthy flavors, and Java's coffee boasts smoky, sweet chocolate flavors and a lighter mouthfeel.
No matter where your coffee hails from, throw in a few words about finish (duration of aftertaste, flavor changes after swallowing), for good measure, and you're sipping with the best of them.