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. I remembering not understanding this and finding it really hard to get a straight answer.
Now I know, it really helps when evaluating the taste of a coffee and choosing a brew method. Hopefully, I can impart some of that knowledge here.
What do Body and Clarity mean in coffee? Body (sometimes called mouthfeel) is the thickness or texture of the coffee. Clarity (more properly called flavor clarity) is the ability to pick out the flavor in the coffee. In many ways they are opposite ends of a scale, obtaining a creamy thickness in your coffee usually comes at the expense of muddying the flavors somewhat.
This article is going to give you the knowledge that every coffee drinker should know. Among other things, I’m going to explain how the method used creates different levels of body and clarity. French Press, Pour Over, Moka or Espresso, your coffee making will approach a surgeon’s level of precision with the instrument you choose. Your choice will make a bigger difference to your coffee than perhaps you realize.
Read on, and you’ll be more knowledgeable than 98% of coffee drinkers.
(And 60% of coffee roasters… ha ha ha)
What does Body mean in coffee?
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 that is considered by many, although certainly not all, to be desirable.
It’s the difference between the rich viscosity of a heavy whipping cream when compared to a no-fat milk. Or how a thick and juicy steak tastes compares to lean chicken breast. The cream 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
What does Clarity mean in coffee?
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. Cheap-ass grocery store bourbon will taste strong, powerful and muddy. But when you pick up a glass of an expensive, smooth-tasting bourbon, subtle flavors of toffee, vanilla and orange peel will dance about on your tongue. That’s clarity.
- Synonyms: Clean, Complex, Flavor
- Methods high in clarity: Aeropress, Chemex, Siphon
How are Body and Clarity related?
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 the 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 between 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 are 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?
The two major factors are the coffee beans and what method is used.
The way the coffee bean affects the body of the coffee is much like how some coffee beans give tastes of lemon and some give tastes of blueberries, it’s down to the growing conditions. The climate, soil, farming techniques, sunlight, rainfall, shade, elevation and so many more factors play a large role in developing the inherent and often wonderful tastes of the coffee bean. These factors also play a role when it comes to body.
There is also the issue of the always complex roasting process. I’m no expert, but this article offers the insight that the longer the coffee beans have been roasted, and consequently the darker the roast, the more body the coffee bean will contain up until the second crack where it begins to thin out again somewhat.
If you want to learn more about roasting you can check out my article here, it’ll tell you what the second crack is at the very least!
The second way of controlling body in coffee is the one that most people have control over, the method of brewing. 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 that is used, 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.
Here’s a few tables that can hopefully illustrate the point a little better than mere words.
|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|
How can I test all this stuff myself?
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!
A Visual Guide to Body vs Clarity
Here’s a lovely visual I came across that shows you the concept. It was originally drawn on a chalkboard at a coffee house in Nashville, Tennessee but I believe the original idea for a chart like this was in Scott Rao’s excellent book Everything But Espresso. While this is probably an oversimplification it does a good job of showing the general idea graphically.
As an aside, I really recommend Everything But Espresso. It’s only available as a hard copy which is a pain and it’s surprisingly short, but the material contained in there is gold for anyone into home coffee brewing, beginner or expert. The chapter on body and clarity is a small part of the many misconceptions he unravels.
Don’t forget the coffee bean matters too
If there’s one thing I’d like any aspiring coffee nerd to realize, it’s that the method you use is not the be all and end all for the body and clarity in your coffee. An extremely important aspect is the coffee bean which can range
When you pick up a bag of coffee beans you’ll usually (hopefully, or get your beans somewhere else) have a small section on the tasting notes of this particular coffee. In addition to the acute flavors of vanilla, blueberry, licorice or lemon and as well as the more general terms like acidic or sweet or smoky, you will often hear words like ‘full-bodied’ and ‘creamy’ and ‘clean’ and ‘complex’. This gives you an indication of their body and clarity.
By the way, don’t think those little sections are made up like I used to. They are real tastes in the coffee (providing it’s made well) and are decided on by a rigorous coffee cupping session. Coffee is a wonderfully inexpensive way to develop your ability to recognize these tastes, read my article here for more on tasting notes. It’s certainly a lot cheaper than a collection of cognac or a wine cellar!
Matching it with coffee
What to drink with a full-bodied 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.
What to drink with a coffee high in flavor clarity
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 hyper-acidic natural light roast in a French Press. Personal taste is a strange thing so feel free to experiment and discover what your own are.
So what’s better…Body or Clarity?
The answer to this is there is no answer. Neither one is ‘better’, they are simply different. 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.
That said, everyone has their own tastes. Personally, I like to mix things up. I’m not happy sticking with the same old coffee day-in-day-out, no matter how delicious. After a few days, I’m liable to switch to something wildly different to what I’ve been drinking. That might be a different coffee bean, a move to espresso, making an iced coffee and it may even be switching up the method so I can enjoy the thick mouthfeel of a French Press one day and the crystal-like complexity of a Pour Over the next.
I will always recommend having at least two methods. They say a picture paints a thousand words. Well, this article is comfortably longer than 1000 words and won’t come close to demonstrating the difference between body and clarity than tasting a coffee made with a French Press and a coffee made with a Chemex. The difference is genuinely unmistakable.
In addition, when I pop open a new bag of beans I’ll often make a Pour Over and a French Press and enjoy them both at the same time. 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.
If you enjoyed this article then you are probably where I was a few years back – hungry to learn everything about coffee there was to know. If I’m right, here’s a few places to start:
The curious case of the Chemex
One last case which I learned of recently and I don’t really have a definite answer for is about the Chemex. You remember the photo above of the spectrum of body and clarity? Well on the very right was the Chemex with its gloriously thick proprietary filters that produce a gloriously clean taste, higher in flavor clarity than any other method? Well, things may not be quite as they seem.
This article on Home Barista paints the picture. One commenter references a remark by famed coffee entrepreneur George Howell that the Chemex has a looser weave than most other filter papers which would result in more of the thicker oils and micro-particulates finding their way into the coffee and resulting in a coffee more full-bodied than other Pour Overs.
To my tastebuds, Chemex still seems to get a cleaner taste than other methods that use a paper filter. This is possibly due to its thickness which is unusually thick. I don’t have the answers to this one, to tell you the truth, so weigh in if you think you know something!