3 Reasons I Removed The Word 'Acidity' From My Coffee Labels

Without fail every week we have several customers - very smart people - asking the same question:  'what is your least acidic coffee?' 

For which I begin my subtle, (hopefully) educational, and not snobby, rant about why they should begin to reconsider the way they think about "acidity" in coffee. 

I have already considered using other adjectives such as "sourness" or "brightness" but one makes you think of spoiled milk and the other sounds like you're shopping for new lightbulbs. 

My reasoning when it comes to removing the word "Acidity" from our coffee label descriptions is as follows:

1) It's technically inaccurate - Keep in mind, coffee on a pH scale - no matter how it is brewed - is something like a banana (~pH 5, with 7 being neutral and 1 being our own stomach acid). The confusion likely comes from a great deal of people experiencing indigestion and upset stomach is correlated to drinking coffee. But health experts would agree, this is likely due to the caffeine content of coffee not its acidity. Other factors can contributing to stomach problems such as drinking coffee on an empty stomach, undiagnosed lactose intolerance (if you're using milk) or another type of metabolic response due to the other foods you are eating while consuming coffee. This is complicated by the fact that coffee is an agricultural product that can vary widely in its caffeine content from cup to cup according to this study by the UF College of Medicine.

2) It's confusing - When quality control professionals refer to "acidity" in coffee and other (non-acidic) beverages they're referring to what's known as "perceived acidity". Lay coffee drinkers who choose "low acid" coffee based on the acidity level described by the roaster, are unnecessarily limiting themselves to arguably dull coffee. Objectively speaking, the highest quality coffees in the world would be ranked 'high' in perceived acidity simply because this is a desirable quality in coffee. An apple wouldn't taste like an apple without (perceived) acidity. It is a flavor attribute that is universally associated with freshness. 

3) It really doesn't matter to most people - My estimation of the perceived acidity of a coffee and how that relates to its overall balance and flavor profile only matters to about 1% of coffee drinkers. The vast majority of my customers are just looking for 'good coffee' or something to add a little variety to their day. These people often opt for coffees on our menu with a decently high, or what I would call 'balanced' acidity, in that the acidity is balanced with other foundational flavors such as sweetness, bitterness and fruit. 

Some other things to consider

Acidity is a product of roast level (but not the way you think).

One way that I can see this information on a label being somewhat useful is to give the customer a way to further discern roast level. "Roast Levels" are extremely subjective, and are really only useful once you've had a chance to try the majority of the coffees from a particular roaster. What is "dark" for me may be "medium" or "blonde"(yeah, I said it...) from someone else and vice versa. Or maybe we could make a mention of the equally confusing "city" or "full city" roast levels? Does anyone know what that means? Please, tell me, I digress.

Anyway, acidity may be able to give you insight into the actual roast level of the coffee by way of the fact that lower perceived acidity can come from darker roasts. Though, not always true, you can often gauge lighter roasts as being more acidic and darker roasts as being less acidic and more bitter. Sweetness may also be more perceptible with darker roasts as more sugars are caramelized with longer roast development times. 

Acidity is a product of objective quality 

The flavor compounds that make up what we think of as 'freshness' are volatile and fleeting. They only hang around for so long and are not only a factor of time but that of the care and attention given to the product. The objective qualities of coffee are a big part of what every great coffee roaster and purveyor is after. These qualities include:

  • Coffee Bean Density - more dense typically means better coffee
  • Drying/Processing Method - was it mechanically sorted or sorted by hand, was it dried on a patio or by a machine in a controlled environment?
  • Bean Size - sometimes called 'screen size' 
  • Number and Type of Defects
  • Growing Altitude - this ultimately contributes to density

There are a lot of things that complicate this part of the discussion because grading and scoring of coffee varies from country to country, but for the most part, we can say that, apart from the roaster, these objective qualities have the most contribution to the overall flavor - and price at market - of the coffees we buy. It is important to know that coffee is not often priced subjectively based on a person's flavor preferences but objectively based on these qualities. 

If this is something you've been guilty of in the past, fret not. There is value to what you have perceived, I'd just like to make the point that this single attribute should maybe not hold so much weight in your coffee buying decision. If you want to try some really great coffees, just keep in mind that they may be "acidic" tasting but that doesn't mean they will actually 'be' acidic. You may be unnecessarily limiting yourself to lower quality coffees from a strictly objective point of view. Happy coffee drinking.