Coffee Flavor Wheel Featured Photo By: The Specialty Coffee Association of America

Tasting subtle flavors in our food is not something we learn to do as children when we’re stuffing our faces with fried chicken and french fries. Enchiladas taste like enchiladas and steak tastes like steak – that’s how many of us are taught to understand flavor. The idea of coffee tasting like anything other than coffee – especially raspberries or chocolate or flowers – is outlandish according to the tasting model we adapt at a young age.

There has always been a struggle between those who simplify taste and those who complicate it. One side believes the other has a wild imagination, while that side believes the other is narrow-minded. New leaps into sensory science are giving researchers and ordinary people the ability to understand the things they eat and drink on a deeper level, and the gap between the flavor ideologies is closing.

Sensory Science Meets Coffee

One of the most refined studies in the modern sensory sciences aims to understand the flavor of coffee. The Specialty Coffee Association of America, in partnership with World Coffee Research, recently launched the new Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel, a document containing a colorful circle that features a variety of flavors that can exist in black, unflavored coffee.

Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel

Coffee Flavor Wheel – Photo By: The Specialty Coffee Association of America

A quick glance at the wheel may intrigue you, and a deeper one may leave you confused. If you have doubts about whether coffee could possibly have flavors of jasmine, rubber, or cherry, you’re not alone, but you may want to reserve judgement for a moment longer.

The Scientists Unite

In 2009, at the first annual SCAA Symposium, the professional coffee industry’s need for a standardized, yet approachable method to identifying flavors in coffee was made known throughout the conference. It was widely voiced that the older flavor wheel, published in 1995, was not adequate or descriptive enough to meet the needs of the rapidly evolving global coffee industry.

The SCAA listened and began working with World Coffee Research to construct an updated, standardized way to taste coffee and identify its flavors without the need to grasp at straws or explain what a bunch of chemicals and acids are to the common man.

A long three years provided over 100 scientists to build a database for standardized coffee tasting. This database, named the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon, connects everyday products to coffee flavors carefully and methodically.

Instead of tasting a coffee and guessing at the flavors present, anyone can now test their senses by comparing a coffee’s flavor to an actual standard. Blackberry flavors in coffee, for example, can be very closely identified with Blackberry Smucker’s Jam, as determined by the researchers on the project, and users of the lexicon can even evaluate the intensity of these flavors.

To build the updated wheel, the SCAA invited professional coffee tasters and sensory scientists from UC Davis to participate in the final construction stages by organizing the flavors. These volunteers took the items in the Sensory Lexicon and sorted them by flavor categories and subcategories. A program then finalized the project by creating a “similarity matrix”, which was then simplified into the new flavor wheel, colors and all.

So, How Does It Work?

The items on the flavor wheel are not grabbed out of thin air or wishful thinking. They are documented flavors that can be identified by coffee professionals and sensory scientists, made accessible to readers.

To use this powerful tool, brew some fresh coffee and start at the center of the wheel. As you become intimate with the coffee you’re sipping on, think about the broader flavors you are tasting. Is it earthy and nutty, floral and sweet? These general observations help you narrow down your search, even if you’re not very confident in your diagnosis.

As you continue to identify more flavors, you naturally move toward the edges of the wheel and get more specific with your descriptors. This is what is wheel is meant to do, enable anyone to work their way into coffee tasting without a formal training or a complicated process. If you wish to make it more complicated and reap more benefits, however, you can.

To take your tasting journey to the next level, pull up the Sensory Lexicon and perform the test associated with a flavor attribute you’ve identified to see if it’s a match. If it’s not quite the same but not wildly different, you’re probably pretty close and should stay within the same category and colors as your original guess to find a closer match. If the coffee attribute and the item in the lexicon taste the same, you’ve accomplished the mission of both tools.

Go Forth and Taste

The most important thing anyone can do to understand and utilize the new wheel is to taste coffee. Whether it’s your morning brew or a special visit to the coffee shop, give the flavors and aromas of that coffee a moment of thought. Before long, you’ll be a natural at tasting coffee and understanding its flavor components.

About The Author

When I'm not slinging espresso and serving great customers at Yellow House Coffee, I'm writing articles for Coffee Brew Guides and beyond, dating my wife, and reading everything I can get my hands on.