April 19, 2023

Coffee Aroma

Smelling delicious coffee wafting toward you may be one of the most promising ways to awake on a regular day. One of many coffee drinkers’ favorite aspects of coffee is taking in the aroma. It may arrive from afar while a pot brews or waft up from a mug in your hand. It’s the world’s second most consumed drink after water—which means it is the most often smelled beverage. 

Exploring coffee’s aroma is beyond interesting. Hundreds of organic compounds exist in roasted coffee. The smells and tastes of different coffees can wander from fruity to caramelized to wine-like.

A Complex Blend of Smells

With so many compounds influencing coffee’s flavor and smell, trying a new coffee can be an exciting endeavor. Hardly kidding with the adjective “interesting” used above, would you believe that sulfur-containing compounds are partially responsible for coffee’s aroma? Anyone who has visited hot sulfur springs knows how pungent sulfur can be. Most coffee doesn’t smell like sulfur, and coffee tastings produce diverse notes about the smell. So the explanation about sulfur being involved is that coffee has a complex set of aromas melded into one. Each coffee is different. Complexity is real, and so is the intrigue different coffees bring. To energize a reader or two before looking at the science behind aroma, let’s first look at why people love the smell of coffee.

Why Do People Love the Smell of Coffee?

Smell and emotions are connected in our brains. So it’s no surprise that coffee drinkers come to love the smell. That’s because just smelling café can remind them of the positive effects of it and the flavor itself. 

The positive effects can transform a person. The smell of coffee promises energy to those feeling sluggish. Relief from morning heaviness and fogginess can’t come soon enough for some. Hot coffee seems to warm from the inside out. Cool coffee can revive you after wading through a hot day. People love the smell of coffee for the possibility of feeling more alive, empowered…or just normal.

On a deeper note, coffee can evoke memories of good conversation. Caffeine can intensify fun or cathartic time spent with friends and family. Many friends love visiting coffee shops together, where they can each get their own special brew. Coffee is commonly associated with books, magazines and art, which people enjoy at many coffee shops.

Coffee components may actually relieve stress. Does having more energy makes us feel less stressed? It really depends. It wouldn’t be fair to leave out that caffeine can also increase stress or anxiety. Nevertheless, the fact that coffee can propel a person out of an energy slump in the morning or later, and relieve stress for many people, adds insight into why so many people love coffee on an emotional level. It’s also easy to see the reason many people love the smell of coffee in the morning!

Coffee reminds us that when work, a project or school seems daunting, there is an option for powering through. A cup of joe gets us ready to be productive, thoughtful or social. Deadlines are met and deep research is conducted through coffee. On that note, onward to the specifics of coffee aroma.

Coffee Aroma Unpacked

When picturing how coffee comes to emit its strong smell, keep in mind that coffee is brewed with water so hot that it penetrates the ground parts of a dense seed. Many people think a coffee “bean” is a bean that grows on the ground. It’s actually the pit, or seed, of a coffee cherry. When we think about how hard and dense a seed or pit can be compared to a fleshier bean, it’s unsurprising that there is a lot going on chemically when steaming hot water hits coffee grounds. 

Most people wonder about caffeine when it’s isolated. Although very bitter when tasted alone, caffeine is odorless. It has still easily become a component of manufactured energy drinks with varying flavors.

Compounds Present in Aroma

Below are some of the compounds in coffee that contribute to its aroma. Some of the smell descriptions should look familiar, like “fruity” or “caramel.” These adjectives are not only what people love about coffee, but they’re also some of the notes that distinguish between different coffees’ flavors. Diving deeper into coffee compounds can be fun.

Compound Associated Smell
2-furfurylthiol Pure “roasted coffee,” (contains sulfur)
Methanethiol Similar to rotten cabbage
 3-mercapto-3-methylbutyl formate “Catty” odor (contains sulfur)
Aldehydes Fruity, green aroma
Furans Caramel-like
Pyrazines Earthy scent
Guaiacol & other phenolic compounds Smoke and spice


Some of these compounds are unpleasant when smelled alone. However, when smells are in harmony with surrounding ones, the results can smell better than the sum of their parts. Fruity scents are some of our favorites since they evoke the coffee’s origin as seeds inside a fruit. Also, sweet citrus and black cherry are flavors of our favorite coffee from Honduras. 

Roasting’s Effect on Aroma

The roasting process is actually what most directly affects the aroma. The roast profile of a coffee is a topic unto itself. The sugars and proteins in a coffee bean interplay when roasted. Other compounds become detectable by smell too. Solubility, or how well one substance dissolves (breaks down) within another substance factors into an aroma. In the case of coffee, the parts of the bean get dissolved in water as it’s brewed. Coffee continues to smell as it sits in a pot or mug steaming. Polarity also comes into play. During the brewing process, non-polar molecules aren’t being taken out as much as polar molecules.

Coffee Tasting and Smelling

Having a good memory for flavors is one of our strong points, although our sense of smell, which collaborates with taste, is much less developed than other species’ smell. The best way to learn to distinguish coffee tastes is to try many different ones. Better yet, trying multiple coffees at once helps the most. By comparing coffees one right after the other, like with wine or a flight of beer, the differences and individual flavors stand out.

Aroma is one of several components of trying different coffees. The aspects of coffee you’ll find compared against one another are many. After detecting the aroma, the texture of coffee is often the next easiest quality to notice and process into an opinion. Is the texture diluted or thick? Several factors can affect the body, including the method of brewing. The filter can change the experience of texture.

Acidity is a part of coffee tasting akin to the experience of tasting an acidic fruit. It’s not necessarily the actual pH, which is a measure of acidic vs basic. More generally, coffee tasters ask themselves whether the acidity is more interesting or calm.

After developing your coffee palate and senses of taste and smell, which work in combination, determining the clarity level may be possible. Clarity pertains to the ease of detection. How clear are the flavors? Are they too mixed up to identify? Forming an opinion about balance also needs developed perception.

Well-Balanced, Aromatic Coffee

Subida Coffee Co. produces single-origin coffee in historic Santa Rosa de Copán. Two of Honduras’ finest roasts offer well-balanced flavors whose wafting aroma can help you start each day with a satisfied palate. Notes of chocolate and citrus characterize the medium roast. Meanwhile, brown sugar and black cherry dance in the dark roast. Best of all, this gourmet coffee’s proceeds contribute to a great cause—empowering and educating youth. 

The coffee of Subida Coffee Co. is grown by the team at the Moses Project, a 120-acre commercial farm and agriculture training center in a small community outside of Santa Rosa de Copán.
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