Beware the Acid

Why Are Some Coffees More Acidic Than Others? A Brew & Roast Guide

Acidity: one of the most revered but also the most contentious attributes of a cup of specialty coffee. Loved by third wave consumers and prized by competition judges, it’s also often a cause for confusion.

What is acidity and why should you be able to taste it in coffee? Is it good or bad? And how do you accentuate or minimize it in roasting or brewing?

Never fear: I’m about to answer all these questions and more. Let’s get started.

You might also like Why Are Some Coffees Sweeter Than Others?

Ready for brewing. Credit: The Japan Coffee Man®

What Is Acidity?

Lively, tangy, sharp, bright, fruity, sparkling… these are all different words that have been used to describe acidity. But while we have plenty of adjectives for it, none of them really explain it.

Acidity isn’t easy to define.

This is mainly because it takes so many different forms. It affects the flavor and the aroma, taking on the characteristics of stone fruits, sweet nectarines, or juicy apples. It can be understood as a mouthfeel – Mané Alves, Founder of Coffee Lab International, Q instructor, international tasting judge, and the former Director of SCA Technical Standards Committee, tells me that “a cupper (Q grader or not), can define acidity by the sharpness the coffee leaves in one’s mouth. No sharpness: no acidity or very low acidity.”

But acidity is also a chemical compound, and the exact type of compound will affect the coffee’s taste – for better or for worse. Understanding a little bit of coffee chemistry can help roasters (and even brewers) to get the best possible flavors in the cup.

Because, as Mané says, “acidity can complement or unbalance the harmony of a coffee cup. If the acidity is too pronounced and becomes sour, people don’t like the coffee.”

And without acidity? “Then the coffee will taste ‘flat.’”

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