Sweetness is always an exciting topic for coffee tasters.
Surprisingly, it’s just as misunderstood as acidity and bitterness. I get asked all the time, can coffee be sweet? I suppose it’s one thing to enjoy sweetness – as most of us do – and another to believe it belongs in coffee.
I can tell you, a lot of people are unsure about the role of sweetness.
While they don’t necessarily prefer the bitter coffees common in rest stops, diners and canteens, it’s what they’re used to. Many of us spend years, decades even, adhering to that familiar over-extracted, over-roasted flavor profile.
It’s dark and it’s bitter, but it’s coffee as we know it.
Fortunately, this coffee tasting series is all about dispelling age-old myths. Once you’ve learned a little about coffee flavors and their key roles, hopefully, you’ll wave goodbye to burned, bitter brews.
Why Is Sweetness Important For Coffee?
The sweetness of a coffee bean begins at the origins of it all.
It gets developed during the bean’s growth, even before it is harvested. As beans ripen, they become much sweeter.
At this point, it’s a very clean sweetness rather than a sickly, syrupy flavor. In most instances, the ripest, sweetest beans are prioritized during harvest. Specially trained pickers inspect crops and select only the finest ones.
This is important because sweetness is vital for a coffee’s flavor balance later. A very ripe, very sweet bean is not necessarily going to create overly sweet coffee. It’s more likely to play a balancing role and temper any sharper, acidy elements.
The nature of sweetness in coffee can give us clues as to how it was processed.
For instance, naturally processed coffees are left to ferment for a short while after harvest. It introduces complexity and depth but with a small risk of over fermentation which can create too much sweetness.
Washed process coffees, on the other hand, tend to have a subtler sweetness that’s harder to unpick from other flavors.
Both methods produce excellent varieties, so it’s perfectly fine to have a preference here.
The important thing is, after harvest, the sweetness of a coffee bean is precarious.
It gets influenced by almost every step of the coffee-making process. Whether a roaster is trying to generate subtle sweetness or robust sweetness, they’ve got to process, roast and brew in specific ways to maintain that desired flavor profile.
Otherwise, most or all of the bean’s original sweetness will be lost or muddied by other flavors.
For example, the roasting process has a big impact on sweetness because it turns amino acids and sugars into new compounds. Lightly roasted beans tend to have a crisp, clean sweetness.
Heavily roasted beans can be sweet but they’re normally richer with a flavor profile closer to caramel.
What Is The Best Way To Taste Sweetness In My Coffee?
As with tasting acidy and bitter flavors, ask yourself what a coffee’s sensations and notes remind you of.
Don’t just say sugar though. It’s not incorrect, but it doesn’t give us much information. Of course, sweet things taste sugary, but not all sweet things are made of processed sugar. Stevia is a plant. It doesn’t contain any sugar, but it’s very sweet.
What I’m trying to say is think broadly. Honey, caramel, strawberries, molasses: they’re all sweet. Remember what we learned in our discussions about acidy flavors.
Describing a coffee as being ‘honey-like’ doesn’t necessarily mean it tastes like honey. It can be a description of its degree or intensity of sweetness. For example, ‘it’s much sweeter than a blueberry, more like honey.’
You’ll find many Central American coffees to be crisply sweet.
Naturally processed (and slightly fermented) Ethiopian varieties are lauded for their clean and satisfying sweet notes that liven up taste buds.
Don’t be afraid to shop around and try a bunch of different coffee varieties. This is the best way to explore and learn about the role of sweetness.
Plus, it’ll introduce you to some very fine blends indeed.
Slightly sweeter coffees have always been among my favorites.