Acidity in Coffee
For most people the concept of “acidity” is difficult at best and scary at worst. It would seem that most people aren’t fans of the concept of acid in their diets. While some folk love things that are SOUR most palates prefer sweet and salt far more, perhaps even bitter. But truth be told, acidity is the thing which gives most of what we love to eat or drink the zing, the sparkle, the vibrancy which makes it so darn tasty!
Wine without acidity is often boring, flabby (if also sweet), at best average. The food we love to eat is almost always balanced in terms of sweetness, saltiness, spice, and acidity. The same is true for the best expressions of coffee.
While we typically associate lemon, lime, or vinegar with the flavour of acidity, this really isn’t accurate. While citric, malic, or tartaric acid have nuanced flavours in and of themselves, they are more important in their roles as supporting actors, rather than playing a staring role. Our mouths are naturally an environment that works best in a “basic” state (a lack of acid). When we put something acidic into our mouths, our body reacts by activating our salivary glands to flush the acid out of the mouth. The average human produces between 0.5 and 1.5 litres of saliva a day, which serves two main functions. The main function is to secrete an enzyme which helps convert starches into maltose and glucose. The other is to serve as a lubricant to move food down our esophagus.
When we talk about acidity in our coffee tastings, we like to talk about paying attention to what goes on in your mouth when you encounter something acidic. How much do you start to salivate? This can give you an indication of how acidic something is. Also the character of the acidity can also be perceived in your mouth, when you pay attention to how you react to it. Do you pucker up, do you feel like your gums are trying to escape from your mouth, or do you experience a more pleasant sparkly sensation akin to that when drinking a great champagne?
Acidity in coffee is an important indication of quality. On the whole, refined acidity is a result of a longer ripening process, where the fruit has time to establish complex sugars and acids within the fruit as it ripens. If fruit ripens too quickly, sugars are typically present but desired acids are lacking. Coffee that grows at higher elevations tends to experience this lengthened ripening growth cycle (due to a lower average temperature) which produces more complexity in terms of fruit composition, and by extension more complexity in the seed as well. How the coffee is finally roasted obviously has an impact on how that acidity is expressed in the cup.
Another extremely important aspect of how acidity is expressed is a direct result of how ripe the fruit is when it is harvested. If coffee is picked unripe, it presents a severe and unpleasant astringent vegetal flavour and rough mouthfeel. Frankly speaking, it is why a lot of coffee on the planet is roasted dark, in an attempt to mask and obfuscate those astringent characteristics of underripe coffee (picking only ripe coffee is expensive).
With all of that said, we also understand that brighter coffees are not “everyone’s cup of tea”. And while we at Transcend might prefer bright fruity Costa Rican coffees or coffees from Kenya, we know that not everyone shares our preferences. That is why we strive to find a balanced offering of coffees from various countries with various profiles in terms of acidity. Lower elevation coffees, certain varietals, and different growing conditions all contribute to the amount of acidity found in coffee.
How does that saying go? Variety is the spice of life. We at Transcend believe this to be true. And we are always excited to share our sense of adventure in the world of coffee with our customers. That is why you