We want our reviews to be fun, informative and easy to understand, so we put together some basic reference material about coffee, along with a quick explanation of the terminology and language that will appear in our reviews. For consistency sake, all figures shown on this site are based on a 12 ounce serving.
Know your beans: Arabica, Robusta or Blended?
Coffee Arabica is the higher quality bean and why ‘100% Arabica’ coffee is considered superior to Robusta or Robusta Blends. Generally speaking, gourmet coffee will be 100% Arabica, with many mass produced brands blending in Robusta to drive down cost. However, the bold (bitter) flavor of Robusta is often favored for use in specialty drinks like espresso, so 100% Robusta coffee is certainly not unheard of. The region of origin, growing style and elevation also play a huge role in the final product. These factors provide manufacturers with the ability to create many unique offerings. For the consumer, this means a wide range of flavor profiles are available to choose from.
Roast levels of coffee: Light, Medium or Dark, what does it mean?
Roast level is not an indication of how ‘strong’ the coffee is, but rather how ‘roasted’ (or cooked) the beans are. The roasting process is complex and plays a big part in determining the characteristics of a coffee. Lighter roasts allow the flavor of the beans to take center stage, where darker roasts generally produce a more robust, even ‘bitter’ taste some associate with a good cup. Medium roasts are often considered to be a balance of the two extremes, but your preference is just that, and you may enjoy a variety, so feel free to experiment. As a more precise indication of the exact roast level for a given coffee, we also include a number from 1 to 10, with 1 being the lightest roast, and 10 the darkest.
Our rating categories: Aroma, Flavor and Finish (or Aftertaste)
While personal preferences certainly play a role here, the basics of each category are fairly simple and straightforward, so we will deal with them using everyday terms. Often coffee reviews get very complicated, using descriptions that seem to have nothing to do with coffee. However, for someone who just wants to enjoy a cup of joe, we can break it down like so; does it smell good, is the overall flavor pleasing, and what sort of a taste does it leave behind.
Flavor terminology: A few common, everyday terms and their meanings.
Aroma: Smell plays a role in not only taste, but often the whole ‘coffee experience’. While many fine coffees do lack a prominent aroma, the pleasant aroma of brewing coffee can certainly add to the enjoyment and flavor.
Bitter: While it would seem simple enough, this can be a confusing term. Most coffee does have some level of bitterness, in fact darker roasts and stronger coffees are expected to be somewhat bitter, so it is not always a negative quality. However, for the sake of our reviews, the mention of bitterness means that (to us) the amount of bitterness we experienced was overpowering or unbalanced and considered unpleasant. Bitterness can be a component of flavor, finish or both.
Bland: Coffee that lacks flavor or uniqueness, often due to using low quality and/or robusta beans. Similar to ‘weak’.
Bold: A coffee with lots of flavor, generally a positive aspect if your prefer that in your coffee. Similar to ‘strong’.
Clean: Mostly related to the finish, but indicates the coffee that has no flavor issues and would generally be considered ‘smooth’.
Complex: A fairly generic term relating to a pleasing combination of taste and flavor characteristics.
Earthy: While not always considered a negative aspect, in our reviews the term is related directly to an unpleasant muddy or musty flavor that may or may not carry over to the finish. As the name implies, the characteristic taste is that of dirt in your coffee.
Finish: The sensation or flavor left behind after the coffee is swallowed, also called aftertaste.
Flavor: With respect to our reviews, this is a quick explanation of the overall characteristics and taste experience. Many terms (beyond those defined here) are often used to describe flavor, but we try to keep things relatively simple to reduce confusion for the casual coffee drinker.
Mellow: Often used to describe a well balanced coffee with a pleasant overall profile. Can Indicate the coffee is ‘just right’, or close to it.
Mild: Coffee that does not have a strong (robust) flavor could be referred to as mild. The term is used here in a positive way and is tied to higher quality, well balanced coffee that does not overpower.
Robust: When used here, it is generally referring to a darker roast, or strong coffee that may have bitter and/or bold qualities.
Smooth: When used here it denotes coffee that does not have a prominent bitter quality in flavor or finish. Similar to ‘clean’.
Sour: Indicates an undesirable quality similar to ‘bitter’, not used much here.
Strong: Coffee that has more flavor than average brews, can be both a positive or negative (‘too strong’ for example). Similar to ‘bold’.
Weak: Coffee that has a subdued, perhaps somewhat watery flavor that is not up to our expectations. Similar to ‘bland’.
What is a ‘Classic Cup of Coffee’?
We use this term to describe what we consider to be a traditional cup of coffee. In the United States, this would generally be medium roast (American roast) coffee with a familiar and somewhat predictable flavor profile. While we may be a bit liberal in the use of this term, a ‘safe classic cup’ is considered by us to fit the majority expectation of what coffee should taste like. A lot of adventurous varieties may fall outside this profile, and we feel knowing where coffee stands in this respect is important to selecting products that are right for you. We are also most comfortable reviewing a ‘classic cup’ because the benchmarks are fairly clear, and our expectations remain constant. Once coffee moves away from that standard profile, things can become complex and confusing, which is why we tend to avoid flavored coffee, and to some extent, dark roasts.
Caffeine levels of coffee: How much is in your cup?
The amount of caffeine in coffee can range from under 10mg in a 12 ounce cup for decaf, to some brands with extreme levels of over 600mg in the same 12 ounce cup! The ‘average’ amount of caffeine in coffee seems to vary from perhaps 120mg, to around 200mg for a 12 ounce serving; for the purpose of our reviews, we will consider any coffee within that range to contain an average amount of caffeine. It is also often difficult to find definitive information regarding how much caffeine is in a specific brand of coffee, plus that level may vary from batch to batch, and in the different forms it can be purchased. When it is available, we will provide caffeine information for the coffee we review, but it is important to note that it may not always be completely accurate. As additional information, the average 12 ounce can of soda contains about 50mg of caffeine, ranking coffee with energy drinks, which typically run from 100mg to 150mg, though a few do post high numbers. Just for the record, 400mg is generally considered to be a ‘safe’ daily allowance of caffeine for healthy adults.
The basic process we use to brew coffee:
For consistency in our results, 12 ounces of coffee is single-brewed using double-filtered water. The posted ratings are a balance of input from 2 people, drinking the coffee both straight, and with a tablespoon (3 cubes) of sugar. We generally consume a minimum of 3 cups each across several days prior to posting our results.
How much coffee do we use to brew a test cup?
Package directions probably indicate what the suggested amount of coffee is, but for consistent results in our reviews, we always use 2 heaping tablespoons of grounds to brew a 12 ounce cup of coffee. 2 heaping tablespoons is also the amount of coffee generally found in a ‘k-cup pod’, allowing us to offer consistent results across the board.
Coffee comes in many package styles and sizes, what exact type was used in a review?
As a general rule, the package size and style shown in the image on the review page was the type we used. Deviations would be noted in the review, since we want our readers to be completely clear about the product reviewed.
A final note:
Manufacturers of coffee love to give them all sorts of fancy names, and while they can be an indication of what to expect from the product, there are no standards they need to follow, so those names should be considered as much marketing as any sort of accurate product description.
DISCLOSURE & DISCLAIMER
You provide links to some of the products you review, are you being paid for these reviews?
Unless specifically stated differently in a particular post or review, the answer is no, we are conducting our reviews using products and equipment we have purchased ourselves. While it would be in conflict with our decision to provide honest and reliable reviews if we accepted payment in exchange for a positive review, this choice does not preclude us from receiving free products for review and discussion. Of course, we will inform our readers anytime compensation of any type is connected to a brand, post or review, so they have all the facts when making a decision about the product or service in question.