Coffee Flavor Wheel – Learning to understand Coffee

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The coffee flavor wheel by the SCA has become an iconic masterpiece. This brightly colored flavor wheel is now showcased in many a roastery, cupping room, cafe, and coffee nook. 

And for a good reason. The coffee flavor wheel looks incredible, results from extensive professional research, and has produced a universal language for coffee lovers to use.

So whether you are a general coffee enthusiast, a professional barista or grader, or just an inquisitive mind, the coffee tasting wheel can take your knowledge, expertise, and passion to the next level. 

It is worth noting that many cafes and roasters use the Counter Culture coffee taster’s flavor wheel to describe their coffees. However, this article will be exclusively dealing with the official coffee tasting wheel produced by the SCA in association with World Coffee Research (WCR). 

What is the Coffee Flavor Wheel? 

The Coffee taster’s flavor wheel results from a collaboration of the Specialty Coffee Association and the World Coffee Research. At the very heart, this coffee-tasting wheel is the scientific attempt to categorize and codify the flavors and notes contained in coffee. 

A flavor wheel is not unique to coffee but is also used with various wines, whiskey, and craft beers. A tasting wheel is a tool developed by sensory specialists to give accurate vocabulary to describe tasting notes. 

So, for example, my current filter beans are from Ethiopia and are described as having coffee notes of ‘milk chocolate, rhubarb, grapefruit.’ Now the coffee it makes is delicious, but entirely objectively, it tastes like coffee; it doesn’t taste like a bite of chocolate or having a spoon of rhubarb crumble or a bite of a grapefruit. 

So flavor notes are not flavors per se but instead, they are attempts to describe the sensory experience and distinctiveness of different beans. 

The coffee tasting wheel attempts to codify these sensory experiences across a universal vocabulary. The flavor wheel was initially published in 1995 and then significantly reworked in 2016 along with an accompanying lexicon. It was produced by a team of sensory scientists from Kansas State University who worked with industry specialists and the University of California to create the coffee tasters wheel poster.   

It is important to note that the wheel is NOT about the quality of different given coffee beans. The graphic is very intentionally descriptive rather than prescriptive (as opposed to the original 1995 tasting wheel). It does not tell you what beans to use but instead gives you language and terms derived by sensory scientists to describe the nuances of what makes your morning coffee special. 

It is also worth noting from the start that the different descriptors used refer to the sensory experience that unites both taste and aroma. So it is not just taste or smell but the sensory experience that comes from both together. And while this may sound technical, we do this intuitively all the time. For example, the smell of grilled steak is a vital part of the overall flavor and experience. 

The coffee tasting wheel can now be purchased in either poster or digital form. It has also been widely translated and, at present, is available in English, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Traditional Chinese, Simplified Chinese, Korean, Japanese, French, and Italian. 

Coffee Flavour Wheel
SCA Coffee Tasters Flavor Wheel by SCAA and WCR (©2016)

Understanding the Coffee Flavor Wheel Poster

When you initially see the coffee-tasting wheel, it is an almost overwhelming explosion of colors, shades, words, and descriptions. However, once you begin to assess it a little more closely, you see just how functional this comprehensive chart is. 

The tasting wheel is technically made of three tiers. Starting at the inside, they work their ways from generic categories to more and more specific descriptors. The inside tier gives the nine general flavors, the middle tier gives what are called umbrella terms, and the outer ring is made up of specific descriptors. 

The complete coffee tasting wheel poster is made up of 110 different coffee notes or attributes. If you look closely, you will also notice that there are different-sized gaps in the chart between the respective flavor notes. These are a deliberate addition. Where there is no gap 

The flavor is very similar; where there is a small gap, the flavor is less similar, and where there is a large gap, the flavors are least alike. 

Similarly, the colors are not simply a graphic designer’s nice aesthetic touch but are a very intentional part of the coffee tasting wheel. Our senses of taste and smell are closely connected to what we see. And so, the colors have been chosen to be evocative of the given flavor note. For example, dark chocolate is dark brown, lemon is yellow, and apple is green on the flavor wheel. So the more you use this chart, the more you will associate certain tasting notes with certain colors and shades. 

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.

SCA

It is also important to realize that the flavors represented were not just picked out of a hat but are distinctive notes ascertained in coffee by the sensory scientists. While there is always a subjective aspect, they represent objective notes that are codified and defined in the accompanying lexicon. 

So, for example, honey is defined as ‘Sweet, light brown, slightly spicy aromatic associated with honey.’ It can be referenced against the Busy Bee Pure Clover Honey and can be replicated by dissolving one tablespoon of the honey in 250ml of hot water. So it is essential to realize that these are very careful terms that denote a specific flavor note. 

So the professional using this chart ought to be aware of the careful nuance of each term and familiarize themselves with the flavor references. However, this careful precision doesn’t need to be followed to the letter for the general coffee enthusiast. 

It is also worth noting that while the coffee taster’s flavor wheel is not prescriptive, it kind of is. And what I mean by that is that basically all the notes you want in your coffee will be found in the top half of the chart. If you are consistently getting notes in the bottom half of the chart, you are either purchasing terrible coffee or making some pretty critical brewing mistakes. 

Finally, the coffee taster’s flavor wheel is by no means complete or finished. This is a superb start but will undoubtedly be edited and nuanced further in the years to come. One noted shortcoming of the chart is that it is pretty American. And what I mean by that is that many of the references in the Lexicon are to products that can only be purchased in North America. Similarly, these descriptive words may not be the best to describe, for example, what a Costa Rican coffee farmer loves about his beans. It is a living document, and there is still plenty of room for development.

Coffee Flavor Wheel

How to Use the Coffee Flavor Wheel 

The way you use the coffee tasters wheel poster will depend to an extent on your own expertise, sensory precision, and goal. Aka, a professional grader, is going to use it a lot more intensively and carefully than a coffee enthusiast trying to figure out the coffee notes in his espresso shot. 

In this section, I will give very general guidelines which will serve the coffee enthusiast. See also the official SCA guidelines for use here

Make yourself familiar with the Chart 

The first part of using the chart is familiarizing yourself with the content. This is a stunning chart that is built on hours and hours of careful research. And so make sure that you soak it all in. Look at the different colors and shades and how they correspond to the given descriptors; note where there are big gaps and where there are no gaps. Take it all in; even just getting familiar with it will significantly help its practical functionality. 

Brew and Taste some coffee

You are now ready to test drive it. Again, if you are doing this professionally or semi-professionally, we recommend brewing your coffee as you would for cupping. If you are just a guy or girl who loves coffee, then make your coffee however you usually would (although black is best as milk dilutes the flavor notes).

Now experience the coffee, don’t just skull it, but experience it and linger on it. Smell the aroma, sip the coffee. Try and think about what it is you are tasting and whether anything, in particular, comes to mind. Savor it. Notice what is distinctive about the coffee (whether pleasant or unpleasant!). 

Start at the Middle and Work your Way Out 

Now get out your coffee flavor wheel poster and start at the middle. What are the general notes you are picking up? There will usually be 1-3 of the general notes. Does it taste somewhat fruity, or is it more reminiscent of spices? Once you have picked up a note, work your way out to the middle tier. If it has fruity notes, is it reminiscent of citrus fruit, berries, dried fruit, or other fruit? Often you won’t necessarily be sure, but you will become better at picking up these notes over time. 

From there, if you feel confident, you can try and pinpoint the flavor note. If you went with berries, then which berry, in particular, most closely aligns. Again, the first step is just taking a shot. You won’t get in trouble if you get it wrong. Just try it out, and then compare what you got with what the roasters picked up. 

Once you have pinpointed one note, you might want to go back to the middle and try and pick up a different note. And if you want to get technical, then download the Lexicon and go nuts. Alternatively, if you have got this far but think the coffee tasting wheel poster might be a bit full-on for you, then you could try this simplified coffee drinkers flavor wheel here.

Tips for Making the Most of your Coffee Tasters Wheel Poster 

  • Purchase a print copy and stick it somewhere people can see it – There is no getting around that this is a masterpiece of aesthetics as well as sensory science. And it was made to be seen regularly so that you come to associate it with the coffee you drink. So don’t just get a digital copy, but if you can buy a print copy of whatever size and frame it in your kitchen or coffee nook or wherever else, you work your magic. 
  • Try and Go to a Coffee Cupping – If you want to get into coffee tasting and flavor notes, you will need some guidance. The best place to get this is at a coffee cupping. These are often held for the public (usually at a price) at specialty coffee cafes or roasters. The other advantage of cupping is that you get to try multiple coffees side by side, which is great for developing your precision in recognizing coffee notes. So google it, or ask your favorite barista if any cuppings are going on in your vicinity. If you come up empty, then James Hoffman hosts a digital global coffee cupping annually. The coffees are shipped globally and then tasted together via an online format. 
Coffee Tasting Wheel

Summary: The Coffee Tasting Wheel

So, in summary, the coffee tasting wheel produced by the SCA in association with WCR has become an industry standard for describing the nuances of coffee notes. This chart is built on meticulous research, and no doubt will continue to be edited and updated for years to come. 

It is beautiful, intuitive, and a superb tool to accurately describe what you love and don’t love about the coffee you are brewing. We highly recommend purchasing a copy of the Coffee flavor wheel poster and using it. It will only deepen your love of the good stuff. 

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