One of the most important things you can learn to help you appreciate coffee, but something that is frighteningly poorly understood, is the difference between body and clarity.
What’s understood even worse than that, is what factors affect the body or clarity of your coffee.
As a quick answer, body is the thickness in texture of the coffee and clarity (more properly called flavor clarity) is the ability to pick out the flavor in the coffee. The two major factors are the method used to make the coffee and the coffee bean and how it’s roasted.
This article is going to explain how the method used creates different levels of body and clarity. When it comes to choosing how you make your coffee it is so useful to know what gives you good body or clarity. A french press tastes a world away from a chemex even if everything else if equal. And it’s something that’s hard to appreciate until you’ve actually taste tested it.
Read on, and you’ll be more knowledgeable than 98% of coffee drinkers.
(And 60% of coffee roasters… ha ha ha)
What is body and clarity?
Body. The thickness or richness of the coffee. At its most technical, body is the presence of dissolved solids and micro-particulates that are created when the coffee is brewed. These particles enrich the coffee with a thicker texture.
Think the difference between full-fat and no-fat milk. Or how a juicy steak compares to a lean chicken breast. The full-fat milk and the steak are thicker, feel heavier in the mouth and have an innate richness. That’s body.
- Synonyms: Thick, full, rich, good mouthfeel, full-bodied
- Methods high in body: French Press, Turkish, Pour Over with a mesh filter
Clarity. The ability to distinguish flavors and tastes in the coffee. At its most technical, clarity is the lack of dissolved solids and micro-particulates (usually because they are filtered out) that are created when the coffee is brewed. Removing these particles gives a clean tasting finish to the coffee.
When people say clarity about coffee they mean flavor clarity. The ability to notice differing flavors and notes. A way I like to think about it is with a spirit, bourbon, say. When you drink a great smooth-tasting bourbon you can pick out subtle flavors in a way you can’t with cheap-ass grocery store stuff.
- Synonyms: Clean, Complex, Flavor
- Methods high in clarity: Aeropress, Chemex, Siphon
The easiest way to understand this is to make two cups of coffee. One with a French Press and one with a filter like an Aeropress or Pour Over. The full body of the French Press will be unmistakeably fuller and thicker than the Aeropress. And if you made your coffee well, the Aeropress should have a cleaner taste that is easier to pick out flavors from.
An important misconception to avoid: actually, there is no extra flavor in a coffee high in clarity. It’s more that the particles that give coffee body kind of ‘muddy’ texture that creates a rich and pleasant mouthfeel but overpowers the palate. It is, and I stress, still very possible to taste all the flavor of a coffee bean using a method high in body. In fact, coffee cupping – the standard way taste testers try coffee – is just an immersion method with no filter!
Body vs Clarity
Ok, I hear you say, I understand body and clarity now, but why are you talking about them together?
The answer is they are two sides of the same spectrum. When it comes to method of making coffee you can have excellent body at the expense of clarity or you can have high clarity at the expense of body.
That’s to not to say you can’t have both to some degree. Quality of coffee bean, roasting process, brewing process will all affect the body and clarity. A well made coffee can have a superb balance of the two. It’s just another reason why the coffee beans you buy should be your biggest priority.
So why is this?
Well, it’s to do with how the coffee is filtered. Coffee that is full bodied contains the rich and creamy oils, solids and particles that are produced when coffee and water is mixed. These rich micro-particles are what hits your tongue with a full, thick texture. For example. the mesh filter on a French Press lets much of these oils through and gives you a full bodied coffee.
Coffee that is high in clarity has had many of these rich and creamy oils and particles filtered out. These rich particles blur the taste of the coffee making it harder to distinguish different flavors and notes. For example, a thick paper filter like the Chemex has very few of the richer particles and so gives you a very clean cup of coffee where the notes dance around on your tongue… So to speak.
What gives you body or clarity?
As I said above, body in a cup of coffee comes from the thicker particles, clarity comes from removing those particles. So the thicker the filter the higher the clarity and the lower the body. For example, a French Press which uses a mesh strainer with (relatively) quite large holes allows larger particles to pass through. You’ll notice the sediment of fine coffee in the bottom of your cup.
|Lets everything through|
|Lets many thicker oils and particles through|
|Examples||French Press, Able Kone|
|A balance, lets finer particles through and not thicker particles|
|Examples||Cold Brew, Siphon|
|Thick filter that only lets fine particles through|
|Examples||V60 Pour Over, Kalita Wave Pour Over, other Pour Overs, Autodrip, Aeropress|
|Thick Paper Filter|
|Very thick filter that only lets finest particles through|
Here’s a lovely visual I came across that shows you the concept.
Matching it with coffee
Darker roasts. Rich, full bodied coffee goes well with dark roasts. Dark roasts burn a lot of the natural coffee flavor out of the bean giving a smoky, burnt taste. Think of a quality steak that has been charred to near ashes – the flavor is gone. Some people love this and its inspired some interesting coffee roasts and goes great when your coffee is thick and rich.
Asian coffee. Coffee beans from Asia are known for their earthy and herbal flavors. These tend to taste good when paired with a full bodied coffee like that from a French Press.
Lighter roasts. Lighter roasts are known for bring out the flavor of the bean and tend to be lighter and more acidic. For this reason they are favored for methods with higher clarity.
African coffee. Coffee beans from Africa are some of the most flavorful produced in the world. It’s common to taste notes of blueberries, lemon or ____. A high clarity coffee like that from a Chemex tastes wonderful with a good Ethiopian or Kenyan.
These are broad brushstrokes. You can definitely have great times with your acidic blonde roast in a French Press. And that’s not even accounting for personal taste. Experiment!
The answer to which is better is that there is no answer. Neither one is ‘better’. They are different. You should try some and find which is right for you.
Coffee rich in body does not mean you can’t notice and appreciate the flavors of the cup. Likewise, coffee high in clarity does not mean you don’t get a drink with a pleasant texture.
I will always recommend having at least two methods. They say a picture paints a thousand words. Well, this article is over 1000 words and won’t give you as much of an idea of body or clarity than just having a French Press and a Chemex coffee one after the other. The difference is unmistakeable.
When I pop open a new bag of beans I’ll make a Pour Over then a French Press. This little ritual is one of my happy little pleasure. And also gets a lot of rolled eyes around the office. Either way, I recommend it.
Do you agree or have I got it all wrong here? Let me know in the comments.