What’s That Flavor? Ask the Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel
THE SCAA COFFEE WHEEL HELPS PUT WORDS IN YOUR MOUTH (BETWEEN SIPS OF COFFEE)
How would you describe the taste of coffee? Off the top of your head, it can be really difficult to come up with the right vocabulary to translate taste. A lot of the common coffee adjectives we use have nothing to do with taste: Think hot vs. cold, wet vs. dry, dark vs. light. (That last one can affect taste, but it’s describing the bean, not the flavor.)
Enter the coffee taster’s flavor wheel from the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) and World Coffee Research (WCR). In one brightly colored graphic based on research from coffee industry leaders, the flavor wheel offers a valuable resource for anyone hoping to understand, describe, and better appreciate what they’re drinking.
WHAT IS THE COFFEE FLAVOR WHEEL?
The taster’s flavor wheel originally came out in 1995, two years after Red Rock Roasters started roasting coffee in our barn. In 2016, the SCAA and WCR partnered on an update of the wheel, based on the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon.
The lexicon is an incredible resource — it’s the “largest collaborative research project on coffee’s flavors and aromas ever done,” according to its website. Sensory scientists conducted the experiments that resulted in the lexicon, with vetting by coffee industry professionals.
Picture a bunch of scientific geniuses in a room, taking quick sniffs of coffee from glass snifters, then sipping the coffee to assess its flavor, texture, and amplitude. Finally, they pause for 15 seconds to see what kind of aftertaste it has. Sounds fun, right? (It was also scientifically rigorous, of course, with various phases of development.)
The researchers ultimately identified 110 coffee attributes, which they present in the lexicon in detail. If you look at the table of contents to the lexicon, you’ll see words like “fruity,” “nutty,” “floral,” and “green/vegetative.” Those words will look familiar to anyone who spends a bit of time studying the coffee tasting wheel.
Basically, both the lexicon and the tasting wheel it inspired provide a shared, science-backed way to describe what we’re tasting as we sip our daily brew.
HOW TO USE THE COFFEE TASTING WHEEL
The great thing about the coffee tasting wheel is that it’s based in comprehensive science but meant for every coffee drinker. And while it’s helpful for identifying flavors, it’s not snooty or pretentious. Remember in “How I Met Your Mother” when Lily and Marshall try to get into wine tasting, but everyone just talks about tannins and how the wine needs to breathe, and it’s the worst? The flavor wheel is NOT the equivalent of those wine tasters.
An important point to note is that “flavor” doesn’t just mean taste. As the Specialty Coffee Association explains, “‘Flavor’ is defined as a combination of taste and smell, and the flavor wheel contains attributes on the entire continuum between basic tastes (those things perceived only by the tongue) to pure aromatics (those things that only can be smelled).”
So as you drink your coffee and consider the flavor wheel, pay attention to the complete sensory experience.
Here’s how every coffee drinker can use the flavor wheel for an even more satisfying sip.
Start at the Center of the Wheel
That’s where the more general flavor descriptors are. For instance, you might note that your coffee has a spicy flavor. What spice is it, exactly? Moving outward on the wheel, you’ll see possibilities including pepper and brown spice. If “brown spice” seems right to you, look at the outermost layer: Nutmeg, cinnamon, anise, or clove could be the flavor you’re experiencing.
Remember that coffees can have complex flavor profiles. Your drink might have several general flavor attributes; it could be both spicy and sweet.
Pay Attention to the Spacing and Colors of the Wheel
The creators of the coffee wheel didn’t just feature all the attributes. They did so in a way that provides immediate visual clues for what you’re looking at.
Close companions on the flavor wheel. Photo by Kristaps Ungurs, courtesy Unsplash
Where there are gaps between cells, the professional tasters considered those attributes to be less closely related. Compare, for instance, “blueberry” and “strawberry” in the upper right of the outer layer of the wheel to “blueberry” and “raspberry.” The former two have no gap between them, while the latter two do have a gap. In this context, blueberry and raspberry flavors are not as closely related.
Colors are also a key part of the wheel’s visual indicators. According to the SCA, “We paid special attention to the colors on the wheel, trying hard to link the terms with colors that represent the attribute clearly. This might help a struggling taster find a descriptor: if they can only articulate ‘it tastes like a red fruit of some kind’, the taster can scan the red-colored attributes on the wheel.”
Understand the Different Terms
Some of the descriptors might seem surprising on a coffee flavor wheel, or they might be unfamiliar to you. We’ve all tried a coffee that tastes “roasted,” but what about one that has a “peapod” or “meaty brothy” flavor? Plus, some of the outer-circle terms, like “isovaleric acid” and “phenolic,” are pretty scientific jargony.
That’s where the lexicon comes in handy. It features definitions of each of the different attributes, plus a 0-to-15-point “intensity scale” ranking attributes’ aroma or flavor, with 0 being “none” and 15 being “extremely intense.” Each attribute also has flavor references — used as the standards for measurement — and preparation methods.
For example, “cherry” is defined as “the sour, fruity, slightly bitter, floral aromatic associated with cherries.” It earns an intensity ranking of 4.0 for flavor, and its reference is R.W. Knudsen Just Tart Cherry Juice. Preparation entails mixing one part cherry juice with two parts water and serving in a one-ounce cup covered with a plastic lid.
Everyday coffee drinkers don’t need all the information in the lexicon. Even so, it’s useful for anyone interested in digging deeper into the flavors in coffee.
By the way, “meaty/brothy” is “the aromatic associated with boiled meat, soup, or stock, with weak meaty notes.” Its reference: canned Campbell’s Beef Broth!
USING THE COFFEE TASTER’S FLAVOR WHEEL ON RED ROCK ROASTERS COFFEES
Here at the Red Rock Roasters roastery, we love using the SCAA flavor wheel when describing our Specialty coffee offerings. We also use a simpler flavor wheel during our tasting classes, with six categories instead of the SCAA coffee wheel’s 100+.
As a few examples of how we use the coffee taster’s flavor wheel on our own coffees, we would say that the Organic/Fair Trade Sumatra Permata Gayo has classic Sumatran vegetal spiciness and cocoa sweetness to boot. Our Ethiopia Guji Kercha Natural Coffee has big berry flavor with a delightful chocolate finish. For a coffee full of baking spice aromatics, look no further than our Guatemala Huehuetenango Palmira.
As for some of the flavor wheel’s more, uh, interesting attributes? Can’t say we can describe any of our coffees as “petroleum,” “moldy/damp,” or “cardboard”....
Let us know if we can answer any questions about coffee flavors. Happy tasting!