Body: what actually is it? It’s something we coffee-lovers like to talk about a lot, and it’s even included on cupping forms. But do we know what body really is? Why some coffees have more body than others? And how we can roast or brew to accentuate this quality?
If you answered no to any of those questions, don’t worry – I’m about to answer them for you.
An espresso, a drink known for its body. Credit: Edan Cohen
What Is Body?
Let’s start with the basics: body is a coffee’s texture. In The Professional Barista’s Handbook, Scott Rao defines it as “a beverage’s weight or fullness perceived in the mouth.”
While body is an element of mouthfeel, it’s worth noting that there can be differences. In The Coffee Dictionary, Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood writes, “It is interesting to consider that you could experience a light body with a sticky mouth feel or a big body with a juicy mouth feel.”
Body is not something we taste: rather, it is a sensation we feel. However, it can influence a coffee’s overall flavor. This is because flavor is a combination of many factors – taste, aroma, texture, sound, and maybe even sight.
And in my experience as a barista, body is one of the three things coffee-drinkers are always looking for (along with bright acidity and defined flavors).
Pouring brewed coffee. Credit: Estate Coffee Company
The Insoluble Science of Body
If we want to accentuate body, we need to know how it’s created. And that means talking about extraction. This is the process by which flavor and aroma compounds are extracted from dry coffee into water, becoming the brewed coffee we love to drink.
During extraction, substances can be divided into solubles and insolubles. The solubles are the substances that can be diluted in the water. The insolubles, on the other hand, are solids and oils that remain suspended in the liquid instead of dissolving. They’re things like protein molecules and certain coffee fibers. And these insolubles – especially the oils – increase body.
Brewing with a paper filter and a V60, a method known for reducing oils. Credit: Rojo Cerezo
Why Are Some Coffees Fuller-Bodied Than Others?
There are many factors that determine why one specific coffee has more body than another. Some coffee varieties are just more prone to body. So are specific coffee processing methods, brew methods, and filters. And roast profiles can be manipulated to produce more body.
Let’s take a look at some of these factors now, starting with the green beans and making our way through to the final beverage.
Some espressos are fuller-bodied than others. Credit: Rojo Cerezo
Green Beans With Great Body
Certain coffee varieties are more inclined to body than others. When I first started working as a barista, I was brewing a Maracaturra from El Socorro, Guatemala. It had a peach flavor with hints of whiskey as it cooled, caramel texture, and a round body that filled the mouth. And I fell madly in love with coffee because of beans like this.
On the other hand, you have the Pacamara: another early love of mine. For me, the Pacamara variety is outstanding. It’s distinguished by fruity flavors, mostly stone fruits, and outstanding chocolate notes. However, it often has a medium body.
And then you have Geisha, the industry’s most celebrated variety. This coffee is known for its delicate, tea-like body, making it a very different coffee experience from Maracaturra.
A Pacas variety from Honduras, ready for roasting. Credit: Metric Coffee Co.
If you have a low-bodied coffee lot, you have three options: accept that it has low levels of body; try to highlight body through the processing, roasting, brewing; or blend it with a coffee with greater levels of body.
Washed processed coffees are associated with a more delicate body: they’re more prized for their clarity and cleanness than their mouthfeel. As for naturals, you can expect a bigger, rounder body.
Honeys and pulped naturals are also associated with body. And generally speaking, the more mucilage left on the cherry, the more body you’ll get in the cup. A black honey coffee will stand out for its syrupy sweetness.
Freshly roasted coffee.. Credit: Gerónimo López
How to Roast for Body
Green coffee can be roasted to emphasise body or downplay it, depending on your vision for the particular beans.
First of all, let’s make one thing clear: darker roasts are often associated with more body. However, as Matt Perger of Barista Hustle points out, bean colour and roast development are not always connected. Roasting is a complex combination of multiple factors, and good roasters will control the heat all the way through the roast to accentuate their desired profiles.
In particular, the green coffee suppliers Sweet Maria’s highlights the ability to manipulate body by controlling the duration of first crack. If done right, stretching first crack can increase body. “A more syrupy mouthfeel is related to the perception of particular carbohydrates that are released in greater levels with the stretching out of first crack,” they say in a blog post.
What’s more, in Modulating the Flavor Profile of Coffee, Rob Hoos explains that if roasters also stretch out the Maillard reaction, this can lead to more melanoidins. In turn, this means more body.
However, remember that if you stretch out your roast too much, the rate of rise may stall and the roast will then bake. This will create a flat, doughy beverage. You need to balance all the different reactions going on inside your beans to create the best possible roast profile for each coffee.
Beans cool after roasting. Credit: Bo Smith
How to Brew for Body
Since oils create body, how much oil your brewing method and filter allow through into the final cup has a huge impact on body. And there are a lot of differences between these brewing methods.
Manual brewing methods are often depicted as sitting on a scale, with high body and low clarity at one end and high clarity but low body on the other. The French press, for example, is known for its body. On the other hand, pour overs are generally associated with clarity. The AeroPress is famous for its flexibility: you can brew it to enhance body or clarity, depending on your mood.
One of the reasons the French press is known for its body is its metal filter. Paper traps many of the oils in the coffee, while metal allows them to pass through. The Chemex, in contrast to the French press, is known for the cleanness of its brew, made possible by its thick paper filters. If you have both a metal and a paper filter to choose from, you have more flexibility over what your final brew will taste like.
Beatriz Macías brews pour over coffee, not traditionally associated with great body. Credit:Credit: Alejandro Escobar, Pare de Dormir Brew Bar
Then, of course, there’s the espresso. This drink has greater body because it has a much higher brew ratio (i.e. more coffee to water) than other methods, and also because it relies on pressure rather than gravity to make the water run through the grounds and extract compounds. This pressure creates crema, a golden-brown bitter layer filled with oils and melanoidins – those same things that produce body.
You can also manipulate the brew ratio/strength of manual methods to create more or less body. But be wary of under or over-extracting your coffee. An over-extracted coffee can taste, as Matt Perger of Barista Hustle says, “hollow and empty.”
And don’t forget that many drinks are made with milk as a base. The type of milk you use – full fat vs skimmed, soy vs dairy – can affect the body. The best milks will add creaminess as well as sweetness.
A barista pours milk into a latte. Credit: Mecca Coffee
Body: it’s a celebrated quality that sounds simple, but is actually far more complex. But one of the amazing things about third wave coffee is the ability it gives us to understand and control coffee flavors.
So go ahead: experiment with everything I’ve just told you. Play around with body. And create the perfect cup of coffee for you.