Understanding Acidity in Coffee

Justin Goldstein • April 04, 2021 • 3 min read

Understanding Acidity in Coffee

Take a Deeper Look Into What Acidity in Coffee Really Means

Acidity is a beautiful attribute of coffee that is revered by third wave coffee consumers but also masked in mystique. While preference in coffee acidity levels is quite subjective, there are a lot of factors that lend to one coffee delivering more acidity than another. Let’s dive into the deep end of a very confusing and contentious topic in the world of specialty coffee, acidity.

What is Acidity?

Acidity is not as cut and dry as it may seem. Acidity in and of itself can take on various forms and subsequently deliver an array of flavors and aromas that are quite distinct from one another. In simple terms, acidity is often referenced by tasting notes of bright, sparkling, dry, crisp, tart and fruity, but the full spectrum of possible attributes can lend to a bit of ambiguity when it comes to pinpointing acidy. Many find the easiest way to recognize a coffee’s acidity is by identifying a general sharpness. Sharper = more acidic.

Types of Acid Found in Coffee

The main reason for the confusion in the world of acidity is caused by the various forms of acid that can be found in coffee. Here are the most common ones.

  1. Citric Acid: The quintessential acid found in citrus fruits like lemons and limes. When it comes to coffee acid, this is the most common and regularly described as sour.
  2. Malic Acid: The type of acid found in apples and pears. Coffees described as juicy or crisp are often resulting from high levels of malic acid. In many ways it can be difficult to differentiate between citric and malic acid because of these similarities.
  3. Tartaric Acid: Found in grapes and other fruits like cherries and bananas, this acid can often be described as dry.
  4. Phosphoric Acid: Descriptors like sparking or tangy relate to this acid. Generally, a bit sweeter than some of the other acids and a defining attribute of many prized African coffees.
  5. Acetic Acid: This is usually the least favorable type of acid to be found in coffee and can be described as vinegary. For natural coffees, some find this enjoyable and can lead to pleasant wine notes when combined with other fruit-forward flavor notes.

How Acidity in Coffee Can Be Changed 

Understanding Acidity in Coffee

While acidity in coffee is a desirable trait, it’s important that it’s balanced just right to be the most pleasing to the palate. With that said, at every step of the process from farm to cup, there are opportunities to manipulate the acidity in the coffee.

  • Coffee Origin – Soil and elevation play a major role in acidity levels and the types of acid present. Specific soils have higher concentrations of certain acids. For elevation, higher, cooler environments produce more acidity while lower, warmer climates have less acidity.
  • Processing – Wash processed coffees tends to deliver a clearer perceived acidity while dry process coffees will do just the opposite.
  • Roast – As a roast develops, acids are broken down and sugars develop. For this reason, lighter coffee roasts will deliver a much brighter and clear acidity than a more developed dark roast coffee which will be more bitter.
  • Brew Method – Finally, as the coffee is being prepared, you can make adjustments that will enhance or reduce the acidity in your cup. If you find a coffee too acidic, try slowing down the brew process by making the grind size finer and do the opposite if you want to enhance acidity. Brew temperature also impacts acidity. Generally, the lower the temperature, the less extraction and subsequent acidity. Cold brew is a great example of how lower temp and longer extractions can lend to lower acidity.

Coffee Acidity: Beautiful Complexity

Acidity preference, just like most coffee attributes, is highly personal. You should know that acidity levels alone do not make one coffee objectively better than another. With that said, there is a coffee out there for everyone. If you were to eliminate acidity from your coffee, you would lose the balance and vibrance of your cup. For these reasons, acidity should be embraced as it is one of the most beautiful elements of coffee. It’s time we all take a moment to appreciate acid and the role it plays in our morning brew!

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