What Does Coffee Taste Like?

I recently had a reader comment, “I noticed most of your characters are tea drinkers. Is that because you are?”

I said yes. Here’s the expanded answer…

I’m allergic to coffee. So, I have no frame of reference for it. None. I’ve never stepped foot inside Starbucks. Wouldn’t even know what one looked like, never mind the sights and smells inside. When my son and daughter-in-law rattle off half-cap, blah, blah, blah, with a shot of blah, blah, blah, they may as well be speaking a foreign language. They’d gain the same reaction from me—a blank stare, my eyes glazed over.

Now, I’ve never serial killed, either, but neither have my readers (I hope). Coffee is too well-known for me to fake it. And let’s face it, we live in a coffee-rich environment, where it’s one of the most popular products on the market. Even if I researched the subject to death, I’m bound to screw up a minor detail. And nothing tears a reader out of a story faster than a mistake about something they know well. The few times I’ve ever even mentioned coffee, I got in and out in one sentence.

I’m not a wine connoisseur, yet Mayhem is. The difference is, I’ve tasted wine. Many wines. 😉 It’s not a favorite of mine, but at least I have some frame of reference. Mayhem is also well-versed in fine dining, and I’m not. But the average reader won’t spend $500-$1,000 on one meal, either. For those that do, I listen to my editor, who not only knows her wine but has made almost all of the fancy dishes I’ve included in my books. When she says that appetizer doesn’t go well with this meal, I change it. No questions asked.

I love how she handles it, too. The comment will read something like, “Mm-mm, sounds yummy… but you know what works better with that dish? Blah, blah, blah.” Or “Yum, but that dish isn’t typically made with cream. It’s made with blah, blah, blah.” Cracks me up every time!

Know your limits. It’s okay to include a detail you’re unfamiliar with if you’re willing to reach out to consultants to check your scene. If you get it wrong, don’t be too stubborn to fix it. We can’t know everything.

You might be thinking, “Why don’t you ask someone about coffee?” It wouldn’t work. I’d have to follow a coffee drinker around to figure out the tiny details they don’t even consider. Things like:

  • How do you order? In the movies it looks complicated.
  • How does it feel to wait in line for your morning coffee?
  • What if they run out of your favorite? Then what?
  • Does everyone have a backup flavor?
  • What’s the difference between flavor and brew?
  • When is the right time of day to switch from hot to iced?
  • Does iced taste different from hot? How so?
  • What do all those pumps do?
  • What do those cap things mean?
  • Do you get jittery afterward?
  • Do you get tired without it?
  • How many cups is enough? How many is too much?
  • What does it taste like? (Describe coffee to someone with no frame of reference)
  • Is it an addiction or pleasure? Or both?
  • How did you decide on half-caps and pumps? What did that transition look like?
  • Does everyone start out drinking it black?
  • Why is espresso served in a tiny cup?
  • Is espresso different from regular coffee? I know it’s stronger, but why?
  • Is coffee measured by caffeine? Quality of beans?
  • What about cappuccino? How is that different from regular?
  • How do they draw those little hearts on top?
  • Do baristas use special tools? What do those look like? Do they get hot? Cold?
  • Why are coffee shops so popular?
  • Why do people hang out in coffee shops? Is it a social thing?
  • Why do the sound of coffee shops soothe some people?
  • Describe the sound and smells of Starbucks.
  • How long would you wait in line for your favorite coffee?
  • Why can’t you make it at home?
  • How much do the fancy coffees cost per cup?
  • Is iced cheaper than hot? Or vice versa? And why.

I could go on and on. There are too many variables with coffee.

Anyone want to take a crack at any of my questions? Try describing the taste to me.

This entry was posted in #amwriting, #writerslife, writing life and tagged , , , by Sue Coletta. Bookmark the permalink.

About Sue Coletta

Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and Expertido.org named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net.” She also blogs at the Kill Zone, Story Empire, and Writers Helping Writers. Sue lives with her husband in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. Her backlist includes psychological thrillers, the Mayhem Series (books 1-3) and Grafton County Series, and true crime/narrative nonfiction. Now, she exclusively writes eco-thrillers, Mayhem Series (books 4-9 and continuing). Sue's appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion, and three episodes of A Time to Kill on Investigation Discovery. Learn more about Sue and her books at https://suecoletta.com

62 thoughts on “What Does Coffee Taste Like?

  1. I’m a coffee drinker but I don’t have the answers to all those questions. I’m a little intimidated in a Starbucks because I don’t know all the lingo. I have learned that “tall” means “small.” BTW, they also serve tea.
    Just like with alcohol, there will be some who are addicted to coffee and others who just enjoy it in moderation.
    And yes, too much can make you jittery.

      • Tall means small, Grande means medium, Venti means large and Trenta (only available for certain iced drinks) means huge. I read somewhere that all of those terms imply some degree of large-ness (is that a word?) in various languages, because God forbid you should get a small cup of coffee.

        I’ll answer, sort of, the question about time of day for switching from hot to cold. For me, it’s not the time of day but the time of year. It’s not a set date. I’ll be going along in the summer and early fall, drinking my iced teas and coffees, and then the day will come when I think, “Today. Today is the day to switch back to hot.” It’s actually kind of thrilling, a little reminder that time moves on and the world continues to spin. It’s like going back to school was for me as a kid, a new start. I’m in NC so it’s still pretty warm here and I’m still drinking iced drinks. But soon. Soon.

        • I enjoyed your comment so much, Karen! The sarcasm cracked me up and the explanation of when to switch from iced to hot was so perfect, I actually understood — a rarity today. 😉

  2. Hi Sue,

    I’m a lifelong coffee drinker and a long-time writer. I’ve never had occasion to describe anything about the coffee beyond the occasional Raymond Chanler-esque (I like to think) “The steam alone was strong enough to scald the eyelids off a bobcat. The coffee was even better.” That was about a tin cup of “cowboy coffee,” boiled in a beat-up tin coffee pot over hot coals and strained through a bandana.

    Too much coffee (caffeine) a person might be “jittery.” Not enough, maybe “bleary eyed.” etc.

  3. Can’t help you with these questions because unlike billions, I do not like the taste of coffee. Don’t even like the smell of coffee, which so many find invigorating. Not a tea drinker either. But fortunately for me, there were no Starbucks during the period I write.

    Now you’ve got me curious. I can’t remember if I’ve ever even mentioned coffee in a story. If I did, I’m sure it was briefly in passing.

  4. I don’t do caffeine, but I like the taste of coffee. My characters drink whatever they want, but I’ve never had to deal with any detailed description. In the police station, the coffee sits on the burner too long, and I’ve described it as “sludge” but that’s about it. They don’t frequent places like Starbucks. They go into the diner/restaurant and order “coffee.” Gordon’s not allowed to have more than 1 cup of regular coffee, so he brews decaf in his office which, because Angie’s in the food business, is a better blend than grocery store brews, but that’s all he says about it.
    Maggie, in my Pine Hills series is a fanatical tea drinker, and she’s modeled after my late sister-in-law, who I consulted to get it ‘right’.

  5. My dream job would be wine critic, because all you need is a thesaurus and the ability to juxtapose two words, as in, “This wine is conversational without being verbose.”

    I don’t know if Starbicks still has their Pike hiuse blend, but I once described it as the squeeezings of a Seattle welome mat after a rain.

  6. I’m also not a coffee drinker, Sue. I’m a tea drinker, too. I don’t like the taste or the smell of what one friend once called “the sacred bean.” I’m in the same boat with you about the details, but I’ve been around enough coffee drinkers that I can let supporting characters be coffee drinkers, like Sassy Neale in the Meg Booker series, just making a comment or two about how Sassy loves the smell and taste. Meg herself is a tea drinker, despite Sassy’s best efforts with coffee

    There was one year when I actually drank coffee,1991-1992. I was battling a sinus infection which had gotten to the point where it affected my sense of smell and I decided to give coffee a try, and ended up regularly drinking instant at home and also black coffee occasionally at restaurants, for the caffeine hit. Then, in June 1992, I had laser surgery on my sinuses, to open them up.

    I was back to coffee tasting foul to me and I haven’t touched it since.

    Fun post to start off this Monday. Hope you have a wonderful week, my friend!

  7. I’m over-sensitive to caffeine, enough that I can’t drink a full cup of coffee. I drink about 30 ccs after church or after a meeting, always with something sweet. Coffee, like tobacco before you light it, has a delightful smell. The taste is unique, thus hard to describe to a non-indulger. It primarily has a burnt, slightly metallic taste, with an aromatic undertone of brown sugar without the sweetness.

    Recently, some MBA in the Starbux hierarchy figured out they weren’t selling enough coffee, and determined that to be the fault of writers, and others, who order a single cup, then linger for an hour or more, writing, chatting, reading, musing, mulling, and cogitating over the empty cup and the crumbs of their extravagant scone. Now, under their new policy, they politely ask you to leave if you don’t order more stuff. I hear they actually got rid of some of their tables to discourage loitering. This may end badly.

    • Burnt, slightly metallic does not sound tasty at all, J. Isn’t the sweetness the best part of brown sugar? LOL

      Wow! I thought they catered to writers.

      • Well, it’s a matter of taste, haha!

        It appears that Starbux no longer is writer friendly:

        Aroint thee hence, Shakespearean lout,
        at Starbucks, may thou loiter no more!
        For management now will throw you out:
        Stay too long, and we’ll show you the door.

        Writers aren’t welcome at our table,
        So drink your coffee and disappear.
        Leave our store as soon as you’re able.
        No Poes or Lovecrafts may linger here.

  8. Great post, Sue.

    I spent three months in Costa Rica while in college, and that’s where I got hooked on coffee. My favorite memory was walking through the large central market in San Jose’ where the aisles were lined with burlap bag after burlap bag of coffee beans. The smell of the beans was enough to make me stop and take deep breaths.

    The Costa Ricans brewed their coffee strong, so strong that it was served half and half with hot milk and lots of sugar. Wow, it was addictive. It doubled my trips to the restroom, but it was worth it.

    Later I was introduced to Kona coffee from Hawaii, one of the most expensive coffees, but the best IMHO. One of the hospitals I worked in actually provided it for free to their employees and staff. Nothing better than Kona sweetened with honey. Alas, the hospital finally looked at the cost and stopped providing it. Interestingly, they switched to an African blend that was horrible. I told everyone waiting in the coffee addiction line that the strange flavor causing them to turn up their nose was camel dung.

    Wonderful post. Have a great day!

  9. You probably have an opportunity here like Harvey said above. Go wild.

    “The coffee tasted like liquid defeat.”

    “The coffee was hot disappointment.”

    “The morning coffee changed the oil in her soul.”

  10. Now this is a great Monday morning post, Sue!

    I am a coffee drinker, have been since my college days. I’ve tried a lot of different “coffee stand” coffees, especially when I had a 9-5. I liked some of them, too.

    These days, however, my fave brew is made from our own well water and Costco-brand coffee. I drink it black as the ace of spades. Boom!

    Describe the taste to you? I can do that.

    It tastes like coffee, Sue . . . 🙂

  11. It’s interesting, the things readers pick out of books. I don’t drink coffee or tea, but what characters drink or eat just makes them individuals. I bought some expensive instant coffee for a baking recipe and thought I would try it to see what the big deal was. Yuck! Bitter and nasty. I offered the jar to a friend who is never without a coffee in her hand and she said she’d never drink instant. Coffee snob, obviously. My husband, who was career law enforcement, never drank it, either. I’ve often wondered if my aversion to it is because my mother drank it all day long and smoked three packs of cigarettes with it. Even though I can’t smell anymore, I remember the slightly nauseous feeling it gave me, which is why I was never interested in trying it.

    • Isn’t that interesting, Becky. For me, cherry pipe tobacco sours my stomach for similar reasons (Dad, not Mom). So, I agree with your reasoning. Aromas invoke strong emotions and memories, which is why it’s such a great device in fiction.

  12. I like the smell of coffee but not the taste. I worked as a barista for about 6 months. I can make cappuccino, Frappuccino, and the rest, just never taste them.

    Now if you need some pointers on whiskies, I will be glad to help out.

  13. This was a hilarious post, Sue.

    Coffe tastes exactly as it smells. I’d call it bitter like chocolate. The darker it is, the more bitter.

    Caffeine doesn’t work on me, I once drank my sister’s super caffeinated drink that nearly knocked my mom out and it felt no different than water. Maybe once a year I’ll have an iced mocha something, but that’s it.

    And no, no one starts the process drinking black. It’s the exact opposite. Also, you don’t need to know anything about Starbucks to drink coffe. Starbucks is for the snobs, most who need the coffee to wake up brew cups at home or get from Dunkin/Tim Hortons.

    • Ah, good to know, Azali! Since many tea drinkers start with black, I figured the same must be true of coffee drinkers. What do I know?

      Starbucks is for snobs? Also new to me. LOL I buy Dunkin’ gift cards all the time for family. 😉

  14. Here’s a clip from a sketch I haven’t put into a book yet.

    “After countless bitter disappointments and scorched tongues at a neighborhood coffee franchise, I decided to go DIY. My subsequent study of the subject involved considerable browsing of web and reading of book—time better spent contemplating how to read dragon tree growth rings without destroying my prize flora.

    According to influencer and coffee purist Luwanda Lake (4,287 likes), coffee ground from beans is best. One minute per cup in the grinder, no earlier than the day before brewing. Mercy sakes, people, massage those beans, pu-leeze do not pulverize to the consistency of talcum powder.

    Thus armed and edified, I threw caution to the winds and picked up a not-hardly-used twelve-cup Hamilton Beach coffee maker from the thrift store down the street. When I didn’t haggle, Julio Santos thought I was loco until I paid with plastic, proof I was just another gringo cabrón flaunting his wealth.

    At Belinda’s Blends on Wilshire I found a boutique roast rated 4.6 stars by online coffee connoisseurs numbering in the low billions. The label said “Arabica” so I was pretty sure it wasn’t a Chinese knockoff. Belinda, if she existed, wouldn’t know Hamilton Beach from Malibu, as every product in the store was printed in Italian.”

    Thanks, Sue, for your blended roast. Sometimes writing about cofefe can be fun.

    P. S. – I’m sipping a cup of Major Dickason’s at the mo, thanks to Brother Jim Bell’s recommendation a while back.

  15. Sue, thanks for the chuckle over my morning cup of whatever’s on sale brew. There are coffee drinkers and coffee snobs, Same with wine, whiskey, food, fashion, shoes, etc.

    A relative is s Starbux frequent flyer. She rattles off her 14-step order with an air of superiority, as she side-eyes me as an ignorant pitiful outsider. That says more about her psychological need to be part of the IN crowd and her addiction to ritual than it does about the coffee. Fulfilling those needs makes millions (billions?) for the company.

    • I just learned about Starbuck snobbery, Debbie. Who knew? It’s so well-known, I figured it was The Spot for coffee drinkers. The comments crack me up today!

  16. I couldn’t get by without my coffee. It tastes the way an oak log smells when it’s heated to the point just before it flames up. The after taste is an intoxicating, earthy bitterness.

  17. Fun post, Sue.

    I love the smell of coffee. My fave is Peet’s French Roast. However, having worked in corporate America for many years, the smell of coffee that’s been sitting on the burner in the break room for hours is uniquely disgusting.

  18. I thought my allergy to alcohol was unusual.

    Science fiction writers have a technique called the black box which applies to all fiction. Your character doesn’t pull out his ray gun then think about all the science involved, etc. He pulls it out and just shoots it. The black box is the explanation that no one needs to know.

    I’d put Starbucks in the same black box. I’ve never been inside because I’m too cheap to pay that much, but, if I needed to write a meeting there, I’d search for some images of the inside and go from there. Even non-coffee drinkers would already have enough of a sense of coffee, etc., not to need very detailed description.

  19. I do mention coffee in my work occasionally:

    As Tenirax entered, he smelled something wonderful. Bishop Filippo was already seated on what could only be called a throne, behind a huge mahogany desk, reading a book and drinking coffee. Tenirax loved coffee, though his finances were rarely up to providing it. The aroma struck, nay, assaulted his nose, causing a cataract of saliva to wet his tongue. He knew the Bishop’s hospitality for penitents probably did not extend much beyond proffering a small whip with which to beat themselves bloody, but still he longed for even a very small cup of the dark, steaming, amber extract. He stared at the cup in front of Filippo.
    “What, Tenirax? You do not suppose I am going to offer you coffee, do you?” said the Bishop, amused.
    “No, Your Excellency—”
    “Good. Because I am not.”
    “Of course.”
    “You are here to do penance, not guzzle my coffee.”

  20. While the question of, “What does coffee taste like?” is not on the same level as, “What does wine taste like?” it’s similar. If you do a Google search for the latter you’ll get perhaps 600 million hits, while the former yields only 700 thousand.

    Having implied the question is impossible to answer, WTH, I’ll take a stab at one point (bitterness) anyway. Warning, this will quickly wander off into TMI territory. The human tongue has five categories of flavor receptors: bitter, sweet, salty, sour and umami (the latter discovered only 20 years ago.) Each of these categories can branch out like trees with each limb heading off the main trunk in slightly nuanced directions.

    The most common complaint from people who have tried coffee and decided to live their lives as non-coffee drinkers, is “It’s too bitter!” Could be the brew is indeed bitter to their taste or they confuse it with sour, which has a different origin. If the drinker experiences a dry, displeasing taste toward the back of the palette, it is bitter. If the experience comes from the sides of the tongue, it is more likely to be sour which is the result of excess acidity. Each requires a different approach to fix.

    The main cause of bitterness is “over extraction.” While brewing a cup of coffee seems simple (hot water + freshly ground coffee beans = coffee), it is remarkably easy to screw up if you don’t use an automatic coffee maker with coffee beans ground to its requirements. My grannie learned to brew coffee in the wild west, dump ground coffee into a boiling pot over a camp fire. Come back before the fire goes out. Her coffee could pick up the cup and run off with it.

    Even with the ideal water temperature of 200 +/- 5F, if the beans are ground too finely, it exposes more surface area and can extract too much, particularly the heavier fractions, of the many organic compounds in the ground coffee. If you grind your own coffee beans, you can fine tune this factor to your particular taste.

    If the water it too hot, the extraction process can be too fast to control reliably and lead to bitter coffee.

    If you want a really exotic cup of coffee, tell the barista you want your beans from the south end of a north bound civet from SE Asia. To impress others in line for their cup of java, just use the short hand version “kopi luwak.” Expect to pay about $80 for that cup. It is very smooth with an earthy flavor as you can imagine.

  21. I drink at least 4 cups of coffee a day from beans that come from Starbucks that I self grind and it’s Pike’s Roast blend. It does not taste like the coffee you buy at Starbucks–that I can’t stand. Since I’m ADHD, coffee calms me down rather than hypes me up. Kinda like Ritalin. Unfortunately, coffee doesn’t taste nearly as good as the bean smells when I grind it.
    My characters drink a lot of coffee, but I’ve never described the taste…fun post!

  22. Fun post. It reminds us as writers we have to pay such close attention to the senses when we describe something. Be it wine, perfume, rain, coffee…smell is maybe the most powerful sense! I had a character who wore Jean Nate bath wash (cheapo perfume stuff that I love). Could not think of how to describe it. Someone finally told me it was “buttery.” Which was perfect.

    • Buttery reminds me of a conversation I had with Graham Hetrick (Corner, I Speak for the Dead). He adds a half stick of butter to his coffee filter and beans. He swears it keeps the blood pumping and arteries clear. 🤷🏻‍♀️

  23. Ok, Sue. We need to go on a little field trip. You are allergic to coffee but not the smell of it, right? So, it’s time to go to Starbuck’s and just get a whiff of the place. So, if you can’t drink coffee, get yourself a chai latte. Smell is such a huge part of taste. However, a visit to local coffee shop will also give you a feel for the place.

    Now, if you want a drink that approximates coffee, I can recommend a “natural” drink that approximates it. It isn’t perfect, but there are some people who can’t drink coffee due to seizures. There are other people who prefer herbal blends for health reasons. There’s something you can buy called Teeccino Chicory Herbal Coffee Hazelnut. (There is no coffee in it.) It’s carried by health food stores and places like Vitacost online.

    I know a lot about this topic, because even though I am a tea drinker, there are still days where I “need” coffee, kind of the same way I need oxygen. I’ll answer more of you coffee questions later tonight. Btw, I think you should go to Starbuck’s and have a friend film your visit. Then post it on your website… lol.

  24. Hi,
    Starbux’s coffee is like McDonald’s hamburgers–ubiquitous and not very good. Most people I’ve seen there are drinking confections designed for people who don’t actually like the taste of coffee. In the local Starbux, I expect to wait five-ish minutes after someone has taken the order. Like McDonalds, the goal is to get you in, get your money, and get you out. In the local independent coffee houses, I’d expect to wait a bit longer..Most coffee shops will serve food of some kind, if only pastries. Like any watering hole, there are going to be regulars and the independents will develop a clientele. For instance, the patrons of one place in my area tend to be socially forward, inked up 20-somethings, probably because that one has a liquor license. Another, a few miles away, is a bookstore coffee shop with a large children’s section. It’s patronized in the morning by the mommies crowd. So, coffee shops are as individual as bars.

    Espresso is brewed from a finely ground coffee that is packed tightly into the container. Hot water is forced through the coffee under pressure (that’s what the pumps do.). This a very strong, somewhat bitter, brew. It’s to coffee what Everclear is to beer so you drink it in small quantities. If you want to brew it at home, the machines start at around $500. BTW-If you go to many parts of Europe and order a coffee, you’ll get an espresso. But, if you order a coffee around New York, you’ll get regular coffee black and sweet.

    How much is too much? It depends, you build up a tolerance to caffeine. I drink about four cups a work morning. Someone who hardly ever drinks coffee will be vibrating in place after drinking four cups.

    Coffee is like wine in that it has a terroir and a series of (silly) descriptors . Its flavors are a function of the land where it is grown and they are distinguishable, if the coffee –assuming the coffee is fresh, prepared in a clean coffee pot, at the correct temperature, and right grind for the pot. In practice, it means that at most places, it doesn’t matter whether they used Jamaican Blue Mountain (stupid expensive) or Chase and Sanborn

    Coffee in the pot goes down hill quickly, particularly if your using a standard Bun restaurant style coffee pot. It’s pretty good for the first half hour. After an hour, it’s going off. By the time it’s been on the heater for four hours, it has a burnt, acrid smell, and is best used for cleaning battery terminals.

  25. Ugh, Starbucks. I buy mild flavored ground coffees that the kids and I drink at home. It’s less “coffee” and more “chocolate pudding” in flavor. But I had a coupon for some Starbucks grounds so I got them. UGH. It’s super duper strong and bitter. I see why they add all the flavored syrups because it’s not very good at all. Have you ever eaten the burned meat off the top of a steak? That bitter charcoal flavor? That’s how it tastes. Like something burned. Loading it up with cream and sugar moves it toward more of a chocolate taste. My husband hates coffee, so he and I have taken to brewing and drinking that Crio Bru cacao in the mornings. Add cream and sugar, and it’s the best hot chocolate you ever tasted.

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