Nate’s Top 5 Misused & Abused #Coffee Terms

misused coffee terms

Misused Coffee Terms

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Strong coffee“…”Bold coffee” These as well as other coffee related terms have been misused and abused over and over, making it very difficult for new coffee lovers to break the code. Here my list of the top 5 most misused and misleading coffee terms. There are many more, so I invite you to share your own thoughts and favorites in the comment section below 🙂

  • STRONG coffee: The ‘strength’ of a coffee refers to the coffee to water ratio.  It is NOT a particular type of roast. Some people mistakenly refer to a dark roast as a ‘strong’ coffee. While certainly there are some coffees with stronger flavors than others, the actual meaning of STRONG coffee refers to a high ratio of coffee grounds to water. Conversely, ‘Weak’ coffee is coffee that is brewed with a lower coffee to water ratio.

  • DARK roast coffee: Sometimes also referred to as French Roast, Italian Roast, or Full City+, but can refer to any coffee roasted beyond the

    Showing the coffee bean roasting stages from green to charcoal

    norm. A coffee that is dark roasted is quite simply one that has been roasted for a longer period of time, or at higher temperatures. When a coffee is dark roasted, very little of its unique terroir (unique conditions of the growing region; ie soil drainage/makeup, precipitation, elevation) flavor remains, and nearly all of the flavor is from the roasting process itself. These coffees tend to be more bittersweet and smoky in their flavor. It is not appropriate to refer to a dark roasted coffee as ‘strong’ coffee.
    roast coffee: Some people think that lighter roasted coffee is weaker in flavor. This is certainly not the case, rather it is a different type of flavor. Lighter roasted coffee derives a large amount of its flavor due to its terroir. These unique flavors can range from a bursting blueberry Harrar to rooty/earthy Sumatran. Again, the strength of the coffee is determined by the coffee/water ratio. That being said the definition of ‘light’ roast is a bit subjective, and varies from roaster to roaster. I’ve seen ‘light’ roasted coffee that was dark as night and as shiny as a freshly minted penny. I have also seen ‘light’ roasted coffee that was light tan and barely roasted. Personally, I define a light roast as a coffee that is medium to light brown in color, has no shiny oil on the surface of the bean, yet is roasted hot and long enough to allow the chemical reactions inside the bean occur that produces the optimum flavor. My sweet spot is between numbers 8-12 on the chart.

    Green Mountain's "BOLD" can be light roasted

  • BOLD coffee: This can either mean dark roasted coffee, or an increased coffee to water ratio.  You will find different meanings of the term ‘bold’depending on what coffee shop or coffee company you are dealing with. It is important for you to ask the right questions to know what their particular definition is. If you walk into a Starbucks store and ask for ‘bold’, you will get a cup of super dark roasted coffee. If you order ‘bold’ coffee from Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, you will get a pack of K-cups with more coffee in each serving. Due to the varied meanings, I choose not to use the word ‘bold’ to describe coffee.

  • Acidity: When people hear someone say that a coffee has acidity, they generally think of it as a negative descriptor. This is likely due to the fact that outside of the coffee world, acidity is defined as ‘sourness or the state of being an acid’. Not really something you attribute to a great cup of coffee!  What acidity means in terms of coffee is the presence of a ‘tartness’ or ‘tingle’ on the tongue. That is also what is referred to as being ‘bright’.  A coffee’s acidity is graded when a coffee is evaluated, but the acidity is not judged on how bright it is, but how ‘pleasing’ it is.  It is quite subjective, and what is ‘pleasing’ to one judge is not necessarily to another. For its subjectivity and multiple definitions, I’m not a fan of scoring coffees based on acidity.
    • What great 'spro looks like

      Espresso: Newsflash folks…Espresso is not a variety of coffee bean or a special degree of roasting. True, you will find companies that market ‘espresso beans’ or an ‘espresso roast’, these are misleading.  Espresso is simply a coffee brewing method in which hot water is forced through a bed of finely ground coffee with at least 9 atm of pressure. You can brew espresso with light, medium, or dark roasted coffee. It is a common misconception that espresso is brewed with only dark roasted coffee. In fact, I prefer espresso made with a lighter medium roasted coffee.
      Sadly enough, properly brewed espresso is not a very easy thing to find.
      For instance, there are 5 coffee shops that I’ve ordered espresso from in my town, and they have all been very sub-par! They all used coffee that was ground some time before I even entered the shop, tamped at about 1lb of pressure, and used dirty portafilters, creating a wonderful imitation of ashtray water. If your idea of espresso is bitter nasty cigarette butt water, then obviously you know what I mean.  I challenge you to find a ‘real’ barista and try a shot of espresso. A good indicator is if there is a layer of creamy brown foam on top, known as crema.  Another hint will be the volume of the shot, it should be just an ounce or two…not 8 like one local shop here serves up!


    Nate is a special kind of coffee lover. He began drinking the same swill that most others do, but thought there must be something better out there. Sure enough, he was right, even more so than he ever dreamed possible. He soon found his way into the specialty coffee industry, and was tasting exceptional coffees from dozens of roasters from around the country. He is now committed to teaching others how they can appreciate coffee, and how they can make the best coffee in town and save money at the same time! Cheers c[_]

    Say something!

    Please leave a comment or ask a question

    • Jeff Burton

      I'm going to use this info at work. Thanks again Nate

    • mikecrimmins

      Great article! Sorry about your macbook, hopefully it's back up and running sooner rather than later. Great choices for abused coffee terms. I sometimes find it frustrating when I use acidic or read bold. When I'm writing, I feel like I have to add a definition every time….so I often don't use the world at all. When I see bold, when it really should be dark, well I just want to bang my head against the wall.

    • Tcashin07

      “For instance, there are 5 coffee shops that I’ve ordered espresso from in my town, and they have all been very sub-par!”
      Same thing with my city..
      Mind you, most here will grind to order (though i suspect most of what hits the portafilter has been left in the doser from last time), tamp, etc. but what comes out is poor indeed.. even the few who have freshly roasted beans cannot produce great shots because the baristas can't nail down a consistent shot on the machine (curious as to why one of them uses a rancilio classe 6 manual level machine with inadequate barista care..)

      I was also appalled at the volumes i was getting from different places..
      one was about 5-6 oz (pulled “lungo”), another a generous 3 oz…
      The ignorance of the average customer and the whole “more is better” mentality is preventing cafes from selling true traditional drinks in many cases…

    • “For its subjectivity and multiple definitions, I’m not a fan of scoring coffees based on acidity.”

      Just for clarity do you consider acidity at all when scoring a coffee? To me it's one of the main aspects of a flavor profile that can mean the difference between a good and a GREAT coffee.

    • Hey Jason! I still think that 'acidity' is definitely a factor to consider, but the ambiguous definition fact that a coffee may have an acidity that is pleasing to you but not me. I think you can describe what you are experiencing in layman's terms that are more universal. I've been guilty of this myself. It's not that using the term or judging based on acidity is wrong, I've just made the decision that I won't be personally using it. Thanks for dropping in Jason!

    • Piper Jones

      I have to agree with most you've said here. As being somewhat of a coffee educator – and I mean that only in that I try to bring my consumer base (or anyone interested enough to listen) up to a point where they can make more educated decisions of what to lay their hard earned money down for – I find that most of this base is fascinated by the 'real' information. I believe people want to dispel myths – it makes them smarter about what they purchase and they like passing that good information on.

      In Austin we're somewhat spoiled with talented roasters and baristas, so I don't have the local espresso problem. I do, however, have it when traveling and usually do my research before a trip to make sure I'm 'connected' rather than falling into the usual disappointment. Life is just too short to drink bad coffee. I'd rather go without.

      Thanks for the 'real info!

      Kohana Coffee

    • Your points about “strong,” “dark,” and “light” also have direct parallels with beer and the common misconceptions in that world.

    • Geordy

      I ALWAYS run into people thinking that espresso is a different kind of bean or something other than just a brewing process. It drives me nuts. Of course it's nearly always the same people that go to a popular coffee shop that tends to serve over-roasted coffee and dump a ton of sugary syrups into their latte to cover up the taste…

    • Hi Geordy I really appreciate you taking time to read and comment!! I know it is frustrating for those of us who know the real deal. I have learned so much, but I have so far to go. A large part of the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of ignorant coffee roasters and retailers. How can a coffee roaster not know about the product that they are creating?! I find it absolutely appalling. I have seen many bags of coffee suggesting that the beans should be stored in the refrigerator! Are you kidding me? Really? I've also seen bags of beans labeled “Espresso Beans”, or worse yet “EXpresso Beans” 😛 I guess my point would be that we should place more blame on some people/brands in the coffee industry, rather than on those customers who just don't know any better.

    • Thanks for sharing the parallel to beer! I bet there are many similarities, but I wouldn't even pretend to know what they are.

    • Thanks Piper! Most of the customer service in the coffee industry, whether you are a barista or a roaster, lies in product education! The masses have no idea of what to look for, and the majority are too embarrassed to ask you! It is the business' responsibility to assist the customer and lead them in the right direction. It is quite sad, but many coffee 'professionals' are all too haughty to teach their customers. These folks will eventually lose, no matter how good their product is. I'm happy to hear that you do not subscribe to such snooty views! 🙂 Way to go!!

    • There are many variables that go into pulling an acceptable espresso shot. You hit the nail on the head with the phrase “inadequate barista care”. While there are a few things to bear in mind when preparing espresso, it is not a very difficult task, but it does require 'care'. You have to care enough to clean the portafilter, dry it, grind the coffee precisely, dose it properly, tamp it evenly and apply the proper pressure, and time the shot well. If all of these items are not done with 'care', then your shots will be inconsistent at best, and likely taste like ashtray resin.

      I haven't even heard the grinders in the coffee shops around my place. For real, they might not even work! The dosers seem to be packed full of 'fresh' coffee though 😉

    • Hi Mike, I'm glad you could take time to read and post! I find myself falling into a trap of trying to sound like other coffee heads that know, or seem to know, what they are talking about. Using terms like 'body', 'acidity', or whatever. What I want to do is be a liaison between coffee lovers who are interested in learning more, or are just uneducated in coffee, and the rest of the specialty coffee world. I want to know as much as possible, and explain it to the gas station attendant in 5 minutes. Take care Mike!

      • ACAlper

        Well, I hate to do this, but, here goes anyway…Let’s add to the abused list things like: “These unique flavors can range from a bursting blueberry Harrar to rooty/earthy Sumatran.” (See main article above)

        Blueberries. Really?

        Anyone who can get blueberries from coffee can probably wrangle “delightful notes of chocolate and saltwater taffy” from pork sausage. Let’s get rid of the wine snob (or as I think of them: whiners) pretensions from our coffee-speak.

        I started as a coffee buyer/taster for Maxwell House in the late 50’s, opened my first of many coffee houses (not cafés, coffee houses, this is 50’s and early 60’s we are talking about) back then and was one of the first such to a) roast his own coffee beans and b) use arabica beans in place of robusta. Well, actually, it was a blend with both types of beans. Good robusta is good coffee just as a bad arabica is a bad cuppa. Adding arabica to a blend ups the overall flavor profile and also the caffeine content.

        I have been in the coffee trade in one form or another every since. To this day, I have yet to have a single blueberry assault me from any bag of beans or cuppa joe. I’ve never heard such pretensions with anything other than wine up until Starbucks introduced America to something other than Hojo’s hot black water in a cup, all you can swill. Then, with elite coffee came the elite coffee drinker. And suddenly notes of chocolate filled the air. Earthy and rooty you mentioned as well (were someone to feed me earth and roots, I would likely hit them.) So, what do you say we add these to the list.

        If such flavors, sorry, notes (musical coffee, anyone?) actually existed, given that something near 2/3 of Americans drink coffee with cream and or sugar (not to mention ground soy beans, almonds and for all I know pine cone ‘milk’, every type of milk under the sun, ground chalk dust labeled non-dairy creamer, white dust in yellow, pink and blue sachets and lord only knows what all else, do you really think that that hint of kumquat can survive, were it ever there to start with?


        • Thank you for taking time to share your experience with us! I do agree that there are pretentious and snooty people in the coffee world, rest assured that I am not one of them! In fact, the vast majority that I have had the pleasure of meeting are very down to earth, caring people.
          With that being said, I must take exception with some of your assertions. Robusta coffee contains a higher concentration of caffeine than Arabica. Robusta, for the most part, is a more bitter tasting bean. There are some great blends that do contain a small percentage of Robusta.
          If you haven’t tasted blueberries in your coffee, then you obviously haven’t tasted lightly roasted Harrar beans! I would never have believed it until I tasted it myself, but yes BLUEBERRY! Now of course other coffees don’t possess quite an overpowering flavor, but there are flavor differences from coffee to coffee no? How else do we describe these differences than by comparing those differences to other flavors that are familiar to us? That is what I do.
          Thank you again for sharing your opinion and for checking out my site. There is definitely room for more than one viewpoint in the coffee world…and there is. Take care.

          • ACAlper

            I had no doubt you would take exception to some of my comments, just as I had taken exception to some of yours in the original post. How boring the world would be if we all agreed about everything.

            Correction: Where I said, “Adding arabica to a blend ups the overall flavor profile and also the caffeine content. ” it should have read, “Adding Robusta to a blend ups the overall flavor profile and also the caffeine content. ” My own personal blend, which I’ve used in every coffee house and café I’ve owned has always had Robusta beans. Pretty much a fifth of the blend. And people love it. So yes, we both agree, Robusta ***CAN*** have it’s place. Dear readers, note the huge stress on CAN. It does have to be great Robusta and it will pretty much never be a large part of the blend. I use Brazilian Peaberry, for the record. The peaberry, a single bean rather than the usual twin bean that is the norma with coffee plants, itis generally lighter and brighter (I prefer brighter to acidy myself, another thing Nate and I agree on) than the non-peaberry version of the same bean. Most people will likely only know Tanzanian Peaberry, but peaberries are available from all coffees and from both arabica and canephora (robusta) plants.

            I’ve had plenty of cinnamon roast Harrar, my favorite morning coffee, nary a single blueberry has accosted me to date, whether drunk black or with cream and sugar. I have frequently taste various nutty tastes, citrus too, but other fruit, if you can taste it, more power to you, but not here, not me. On this we will simply have to differ.

            Finally, of course there are flavor differences between different coffees, when did I ever write or imply in my writing that there weren’t?

            • Thanks for stopping by again Alan! This was your first ever comment and I suppose I made the mistake of misinterpreting your intent, and I took offense where none was implied…or was it 😉 lol Really though, everyone has different tastes and that is what makes the world go ’round! I am in the middle of the road as far as the specialty coffee world goes. My intent is not to use all of the cool words that the elite coffee snobs use (doubt you will ever hear me say bergamot) but I will use commonly known tastes to relate the subtle flavors that I personally detect in a coffee. Whether our palates are in-line with one another is a whole other matter 🙂 Thank you again for sharing and I hope you come around again.

    • Glad to help you along your path to greater coffee knowledge! That is my main objective here 😀 Take care Jeff!

    • Most misused term (at least by shear number of times it must get ordered at Starbucks): Macchiato. Obviously Starbucks' caramel macchiato is not even close to a real macchiato.

      • Timmilatte

        I’m not sure if I’m right or if this is just a good idea I came up with, but I think the reason they are different drinks because they are only calling it by half of their full names. What I mean is: a macchiato, if I’ve been taught correctly, means marked; so a Starbucks macchiato is a latte macchiato(milk with has been marked, usually with espresso and caramel in my experience) and what other cafes call a macchiato is actually an espresso macchiatto (espresso marked with a little milk/froth).

        Anyway, whether I’m right or wrong, it’s food (or should I say coffee?) for thought!

        • Hi Timmilatte 🙂 “Marked” is like a small dab. What Starbucks does is not really marking…more like annihilating the espresso with milk and caramel and whipped cream. I just wish they could’ve invented their own term instead of using the work ‘macchiato’…I think vanilla latte with caramel and whipped cream is catchy 😉 Thanks for the coffee for thought though! Take care

    • Absolutely correct Joshua! I did address this a couple of posts ago in my Starbucks Controversy video. A Starbucks 'macchiato' and what the rest of the coffee industry considers a macchiato are two completely different products. It's like Starbucks decided to rebrand milk by calling it beer. Now people order a macchiato in a real coffee house and get angry when they receive an authentic one sans caramel syrup and a gallon of milk. 😛

    • Todd

      I myself hate it when coffee is advertised as expresso blend because you realy dont know what your getting.To me an expresso blend will have a the advertisers bean and up to 5 others. Most expressos will have a Brazillian bean or if its a single origin expresso I'm assoming its a darker roasted bean. I agree with Nate I like a light to med roast expresso.

    • Patsuriku

      Really appreciated this article. Since I am from Sweden and have started to review some coffee, I get lost in terms that are in English. This article really gave me some good pointers. And I really have to say thank you. Will for sure be helpful to me in the long run.

      Regards from Patsuriku /meandallaround

    • Lynn

      What a great run down of the misconceptions with coffee. I went to Hawaii for the first time with my in-laws and being a coffee fanatic we stopped at a coffee “factory” where they explained to us the differences between the roasts and the caffeine intake for each of the roasts. You are right on target.

    • Gvillota

      Excellent article, being a coffee producer I experiencie a lot the misuse of these coffee terms by consumers, it is our duty to help them learn more about our beloved product. Your comment about how a lighter roasted coffee results more loyal to the richness of the terroir its sooooo accurate. Its a shame how much dark coffee we offered, I tend to think they are hidding something…

      • I thank you Gvillota for reading and commenting on my article! It really means a lot that you did! Thank you also for the compliment. You are correct as well…dark roasted coffee is often a way for mass produced blends to hide the fact that they are blending a zillion different coffees that would not fare too well if left to stand on their own merits. The dark roasting is like a crutch to them.

    • Gvillota

      My bad… I ment Its a shame how much dark coffee we are offered, I tend to think they are hidding something…

    • Cynthia C

      Thanks for the education! I love that I can brew espresso with regular coffee and don’t have to buy a special kind.

    • Adrienne

      oh how i love you for this post. i am forever trying to explain this to people.

      • Thanks Adrienne 🙂 Happy to help!

    • Just came across this… great post Nate, keep up the good work!

      • Thank you Kevin! I am overjoyed that you found this post useful 🙂 Have a great weekend!

    • Thanx Nate. always enjoy your articles. What can you recommend I try in my french press! I like bold and full bodied taste.

    • Ok see I did it again..BOLD

    • Excellent article Nate. I had a giggle when reading it because it’s so true. It’s all about educating our clients.

      • Thank you for the comment 🙂  Too many shops put on an attitude of being annoyed when a customer wants to learn, and too many others don’t even know themselves! 

    • Delian

      This is great.  It makes me want to send this article to all of our customers.

      • Be my guest!  The more people that know the truth about these coffee terms, the better!  Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • Wow, I didn’t realize a lot of people thought espresso was anything but a certain type of brewed coffee. I also don’t understand how so many people put up with crappy coffee. I would die I think without my espresso machine and quality coffee.

    • Ellen Y.

      Thank you for your insight! I get so aggravated when people scoff at my Dunkin’ Donuts coffee-  “I prefer Starbucks- it’s much stronger and and I need the caffeine!”  Isn’t it true that the longer a coffee bean is roasted, the more caffeine it actually loses?

    • Sctbntly

      Great video, thanks for clearing up some of those misued terms