Coffee-to-English Dictionary, Part IV: Decoding the Coffee Bag


Coffee bags can be confusing (especially before you've had any coffee). [Photographs: Meister]

Do you ever feel like you could use a little translation at your local coffee shop, or while perusing the bags of beans at your favorite market?

Here's the fourth part in our Coffee-to-English glossary, which will hopefully help you navigate the sometimes-complicated coffee lexicon. Today we'll decode all the terms you might see on a bag of coffee beans.

Acidity: Contrary to popular belief, this terms does not actually refer to a coffee's pH, or its presumed effect on sensitive stomachs. Professional tasters use "acidity" to describe the fruit-like characteristics a bean might have. If a coffee makes your mouth water like a green apple does, that is considered a sign of moderate to high acidity. If it is more subtle on your tongue, like a banana, that indicates lower acidity. (This is also often called a coffee's "brightness.")

Bird Friendly: In order to attain certification by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, an organic coffee farm must meet certain criteria that define it as being a protective environment for migratory birds. This includes but is not limited to pollution control, water management, and the planting tall shade-giving trees around coffee plants to provide habitat opportunities for the birds, as well as promoting biodiversity on the land. (See also: Shade grown)

Brewing parameters: Any recommendations a roaster or barista might provide about a particular coffee. This might include suggestions about coffee-to-water ratio, brewing temperature, extraction time, and grind size, among other things.

Certified Organic: In order for a coffee farm and its products to be certified organic, the farm must be inspected by USDA agents and meet a specific set of requirements. These requirements prohibit the use of artificial hormones, genetic bioengineering, irradiation, or antibiotics on a crop, as well as the complete absence of any materials that appear on the National List of Prohibited Substances. The certification also demands an amount of soil and water conservation from the organic grower on his or her property. The farm must be managed completely organically for three years before it can attain official certification, and all expenses related to the investigation and certification process are the responsibility of the land owner.


Direct Trade certified: A relatively recent evolution of Fair Trade certification, Direct Trade refers to the specific contractual relationship between a coffee grower and a coffee roaster or buyer along guidelines related to price negotiation, growing practices, transparency, communication among all parties involved, and coffee quality. Because this certification lacks national or international accreditation, several coffee roasters have developed their own set of requirements and standards; some submit evidence of compliance to an independent third-party certifying body (such as Quality Certification Services), which can award the Direct Trade stamp.

Fair Trade certified: Coffees with this certification must meet a set of standards as delineated and monitored by the nonprofit organization Fair Trade USA (formerly Trans Fair USA). For coffee, these requirements apply only to small-farmer co-ops, and relate to the democratic management of the collective, land and water conservation, labor practices, and pricing. Fair Trade certification was designed to enable small farmers to simulate economies of scale by uniting into cooperatives, which allows them to pool resources, vie for better prices, and share information, among other things; contrary to popular belief, the "fair base price" the certification sets on certain products was a secondary consideration to the idea of creating a more cohesive system for organizing growers into groups.

Rainforest Alliance certified: In the interest of biodiversity and the protection of natural tropical ecosystems, a non-governmental organization called the Rainforest Alliance developed this certification program to support farmers who do not partake in deforestation efforts to increase the size or productivity of their crops. Coffees achieving this certification meet a series of standards designed by the Sustainable Agriculture Network that relate to land, wildlife, and water conservation. Farmers must also provide proof of acceptable working conditions, community relations and interaction, and pollution control on their land.

Roast date: Quality- and freshness-focused coffee roasters will often fix a sticker or label to their retail bags, with an indication of when the beans inside were roasted. Ideally, coffee should be consumed within two weeks of its roast date.

Roast level: The degree of "darkness" to which a coffee is roasted, and often indicated using a set of somewhat colloquial descriptors. The most common classifications are the lighter, chestnut-colored City or Full City roasts; Vienna, which is the lightest of the "dark" roasts; the smoky and bittersweet French roast; and Italian roast, which is the darkest a coffee can be taken before it starts to become fully carbonized.

Shade grown: Coffee farmers in certain areas of the world, such as Latin America, will often plant "shade-giving" plants like cacao or banana trees around their coffee farms, for a number of reasons. For one, many of the most common shade plants are able to replenish nitrogen stores in the soil, which are essential to ensure and maintain productive coffee plants. Shaded farms also promote local biodiversity, and provide habitats for indigenous and migratory animals in the region. The protection from direct sunlight has the added benefit of slowing a coffee cherry's maturation on its plant, which can increase quality and sweetness in the cup. (See also: Bird Friendly)

Tasting notes: Just as a wine label might contain flavor descriptors, often a high-quality coffee will come with a list of particular flavors or characteristics recognized by the roaster when he or she is tasting the coffee. The list might include things that indicate the aromas, flavor, or fruit-like qualities present in the cup, in addition to body characteristics, or the tactile feel of the coffee in the drinker's mouth (e.g. creamy, juicy, heavy). This is sometimes also referred to as a coffee's "flavor profile."

Coming next, Part V: Brewing Methods Go back to Part III: Milky Coffee Drinks »
Part II: Espresso Terms You Should Know »
Part I: The Coffee Plant »