• QA 104
    In coffee tasting: when, if at all, does 'fruity' pass from acceptable to unacceptable?
    Recently we received a comment that one of our coffees was rejected because it tasted 'fruity'. But a different buyer found that the same coffee produced a 'winey flavour' and bought it. This suggests that 'fruity' is acceptable to some but not to others - is there a firm standard against which we can measure this?
    Asked by:
    Exporter - Ethiopia

    The acceptability or otherwise of 'fruitiness' in a coffee is very much a subjective assessment, a personal preference that varies from buyer to buyer*. As with many tasting terms no firm standard exists and what may be heresy to some can be quite in order for others. The following may assist…

    Topic 12.10.03 of the Guide says that 'fruity' represents the first stage of sourness, caused by overripe and yellow cherry or by fermentation with too many skins. Winey on the other hand is described as 'a fruity taste similar to fresh wine, not necessarily unpleasant when taste is in the background'.

    Topic 11.07.04 makes it clear that there are varying degrees of 'fruitiness', going from acceptable to definitely not so. To quote: "Fruity or winey are a good example of less serious liquor problems because, within reason, such flavours can add something interesting to a coffee. But the next step down is fruity-sour and then sour, which is undesirable. Winey can move through oniony to onion, which is a relative of ferment". One needs to know the buyer's tolerance for these types of flavour: some will reject yet others will accept... But remember, the sample you submit usually is fresh whereas the shipment itself will take time to reach its final destination…

    Therefore you need to be able to assess whether the degree of fruity or winey is such that it could cause a problem: if not immediately then perhaps once the coffee has aged a little. To illustrate, if in doubt prepare and taste a sample as espresso: you will be surprised how the espresso process sometimes transforms that 'slight' fruity or winey experience into very different, intense and at times outright unpleasant taste sensations. This happens because, compared to drip or filter coffee, the espresso brewing process greatly concentrates, if not exaggerates the different flavours and aromas found in the coffee bean. 

    This type of taste or liquor problem is much more topical for coffees that are to be used as stand-alone (as in much of the specialty industry), than for coffees that are to be blended. In a stand-alone coffee the taste experience is undiluted and therefore has to be entirely positive, i.e. only a 'positive' fruity/winey taste can be acceptable and this is entirely the buyer's decision. It is for you to know his tolerance level if any…

    If the coffee is to be used as a blender, in a blend, then your buyer may have a very different view. He may even welcome some fruity or winey flavour because, under certain circumstances, this can add something to an otherwise dull taste experience. Blending is an art and truly experienced blend masters know how to combine such different taste sensations to achieve the desired end result. The trick is to know when such a taste moves across the line that divides 'useable' from 'potentially dangerous' …

    Generally, slight fruitiness is more acceptable in sundried and robusta coffee than in washed coffee. Sundried and robusta coffee is mostly used in blends and therefore the end taste result is not as defined as in washed coffee. But as already mentioned, the exact opposite applies for coffee destined to be used in espresso…

    To summarise: fruity/winey are descriptions that, like many others, cover a range of taste sensations. Experienced tasters know at which stage such a flavour tends towards becoming unacceptable, usually because a slightly unpleasant after taste, a lingering feeling creeps in that something is going ever so slightly 'off' here. For some the mere hint is enough to reject a coffee but others are prepared to make a judgement call. Therefore, if one is unsure where to draw that invisible line, then perhaps best not to touch this kind of coffee. Alternatively, make sure you only sample it to buyers known to have some tolerance: be selective when sending samples because unhappy cupping experiences may make potential buyers question the wisdom of doing business with you!

    NB: Chapter 11 discusses coffee quality matters in considerable detail. Section 12.09 reviews coffee tasting. Both are recommended reading.

    * We assume here you are referring to a washed or wet processed coffee.

    Posted 05 July 2006

    Related chapter(s):
    Related Q & A:
    QA 083, QA 088