Coffee Aroma: What in The Smell is Going On

Justin Goldstein • June 06, 2022 • 2 min read

Coffee Aroma: What in The Smell is Going On

My mouth literally waters when I first smell coffee in the morning. It’s an instantaneous reaction accompanied by a giant smile and general feeling of happiness. This got me thinking, what is it about the magical smell of coffee that the world needs to know?

Coffee Terms: Fragrance v. Aroma

smelling coffee

While both terms, fragrance and aroma, are used interchangeably by some, they actually describe two different types of smells. Aroma is used to describe the smell of brewed coffee whereas fragrance is used when describing dry coffee. Think of it this way, aroma describes the coffee in your cup and fragrance describes coffee in your bag, it’s that simple!

Why Aroma Matters

When it comes to coffee, what you smell is largely responsible for what you taste. Your ability to identify a specific coffee’s aroma will directly lead to you either liking or disliking that coffee. In my opinion, aroma is the unique fingerprint of each coffee that makes it so special.

What Impacts the Aroma in Coffee?

woman smelling coffee

Unroasted green coffee is essentially absent of fragrance. However, as we all know, roasted coffee is not lacking in the smell department. During the roasting process, chemical processes take place that alter the compounds found in each respective coffee. A few of these notable compounds include sugars, proteins, carbohydrates and chlorogenic acids. Each coffee is unique in terms of the concentration of these compounds based on the varietal, processing method, roast level and growing conditions. It’s also important to understand that as coffee loses freshness, the overall aroma of the coffee will rapidly degrade as a result.

How is Aroma Categorized?

Coffee aroma, as it is defined by the Specialty Coffee Association, falls into three different buckets - enzymatic, dry distillation and sugar browning. Without getting too science heavy, enzymatic category holds the floral, fruity and herby characteristic of coffee. Sugar browning produces the nutty, caramel and chocolate characteristics of coffee. Lastly, the dry distillation category is responsible for the resinous, spicy and carbony characteristics of coffee. These aromas all result from specific chemical processes that occur and subsequently produce these unique attributes.

Coffee Aroma: Final Thoughts

cupping coffee

Understanding coffee aroma takes time but is incredibly rewarding. Challenge yourself to think more about aroma the next time you brew coffee. Take it a step further by writing down everything your senses pick up as you sip that coffee as part of the coffee cupping experience. Also, use the flavor wheel to focus your categorizations of these sensory experiences. You will notice that in time you will be able to identify unique characteristic more easily and pinpoint specific attributes you are innately drawn to. The road to mastering coffee is never ending but the most important thing is to enjoy the ride! 

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