Now we know: When does coffee taste like tea?

Championed by baristas, beans grown at higher altitudes and then washed have flavour notes of citrus and berries

Have you noticed a trend in specialty coffee for coffee that tastes a little bit like tea? Some packets of single-origin beans boast flavour notes of citrus and berries, promising a silky, tea-like mouthfeel. Beans that can provide these flavours have become increasingly lucrative for growers and brokers as their popularity has grown, thanks to their championing by baristas and coffee experts.

"Today, people are looking at their coffee in a couple of different ways," says Shane Kelleher, a barista and coffee roaster at Red Strand Coffee ( based in west Cork. He brings his Red Strand Coffee van to markets in Kinsale, Clonakilty, Bantry, Skibbereen and Schull, and he supplies cafes and restaurants in Cork city and county.

“Customers know that there is more to coffee than just the traditional French or Italian roast, or light, medium, or dark roast. People can see the potential in different flavours, and buyers are increasingly looking for coffee that can bring out those flavours.”

One of the world’s most expensive coffees is the Geisha (otherwise known as Gesha) variety grown in Panama. This variety has become prized for its distinctive tea-like profile, jasmine aroma and floral notes.


When I’m buying coffee, how do I know what to ask for if I want a brew that’s tea-like or something that’s a little more familiar? “Very generally speaking, you’ll often find that coffee with the more traditional notes of nuttiness and chocolate, and a rounded syrupy body are natural processed beans that come from locations with lower altitudes,” explains Kelleher. “The more fruity style coffees tend to come from higher altitudes and go through what’s known as a washed process. I’m generalising here but it’s a good starting point to think about location and processes.”

Washed process

The washed process, explains Kelleher, is when the bean is removed from its cherry and is allowed to ferment in tanks of water before being dried. It’s completely removed from the cherry before it dries. The natural process is when the cherries are left on the bean when they’re dried, so that the fermentation part of the process happens when the bean is still in its cherry. This can impart more sweetness onto the bean but it can also have a less clear flavour, says Kelleher. Natural coffees tend to have a more buttery, creamy mouthfeel, while washed coffees can have a cleaner, more crisp and tea-like feel.

If you’re looking for that crispness in your coffee, try a washed bean from Kenya, Burundi or Rwanda. Look on the packaging for tasting notes of floral and citrus. If you’re in the market for a more buttery, full-bodied brew, go for natural processed bean from Brazil, Colombia or El Salvador. Keep an eye out for tasting notes like chocolate, dried fruits and jam.