The Coffee Tasting Flavor Wheel
Oct 14, 2019
There are two kinds of coffee drinkers in the world — those who enjoy coffee for the taste, and those who drink it to boost their day. If you're like our team at Real Good Coffee Company, you're both types. We sip our coffee to start our day off on the right foot, and we love it when our cup is brewed to perfection with the taste we crave.
What does your perfect cup of coffee taste like? Like many coffee fans, you probably know a good cup when you sip it, but you can't exactly describe the flavors that really speak to you. Thankfully, there's an easy-to-use guide that helps you analyze and define coffee — the Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel.
What Is the Coffee Tasting Flavor Wheel?
In your opinion, how does a great cup of coffee taste? Do you love a citrusy or sour flavor? Do you prefer a sweet or burnt taste? Whichever way you define the perfect cup, your appreciation for it likely stems from its specific taste. Although you can simply say that the taste of coffee is bitter, smooth or flavorful, those with a love for the process and final product enjoy describing every hint of flavor in beautiful detail. This appreciation for taste birthed the Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel.
The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCA) published the original Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel in 1995. They created it to be the industry standard for quantifying the diverse flavors and aromas found in different cups of coffee. Likewise, World Coffee Research (WCR) created a Sensory Lexicon to define specific attributes by flavor, aroma and texture. Recently, the SCA and WCR updated the Sensory Lexicon and Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel to provide the most collaborative and descriptive reference on coffee's flavors and aromas in the industry.
There are nine broad categories on the Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel:
Within these nine groups are 29 subcategories that provide a more detailed description of the taste. Those 29 subcategories are broken down even further into over 70 additional attributes that provide an exact definition of the coffee's flavor. Using the Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel, you can identify every overripe and underripe, musty and dusty, phenolic or caramelized hint you taste.
If you're like our team at Real Good Coffee Company, the taste of coffee is a very important factor in your decision-making process. Whether you're brewing at home or ordering out, you want the best tasting cup of coffee possible. We suggest that all of our fellow coffee drinkers learn how to use the Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel to find the coffee flavor that's perfect for you.
How to Use the Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel
The coffee flavor wheel is a great resource but it can be quite difficult to navigate if you aren't sure of how to use it. Thankfully, this colorful and flavorful wheel is easy to understand once you learn how to interpret the different colors and categories. We've gathered this list of eight tips to help you learn how to use the Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel and describe your coffee like a trained connoisseur.
1. Don't Let the Wheel Overwhelm You
As you take a moment to examine the coffee flavor wheel, you may be surprised at just how many distinct flavors of coffee there are. For even the most enthusiastic coffee drinkers, viewing such a large spectrum of flavor profiles broken down into unique notes and tastes may seem a little overwhelming. Before you focus too intently on how to tell the difference between "smoky" and "ashy" tastes within the roasted-burnt category, take a moment to familiarize yourself with the wheel and how these profiles are broken down.
2. Sip Slowly and Thoughtfully
If you're interested in using the SCA flavor wheel, then you likely have a package or two of roasted beans in your kitchen already. Before you experiment with new beans and brews, take a moment to make a cup from your current supply and pay attention to your preparation. Take in the smells produced when you grind the beans or when the water first mixes with the grounds. The wheel uses smell and taste to define many flavors, so be mindful of both.
3. Use the Wheel Starting in the Center
Let's look again at the nine categories in the center of the SCA coffee wheel:
Although each of these categories is further broken down into subsets and unique flavors, it's best to begin your journey of coffee flavor discovery with the initial nine categories. As you taste different types of coffee, you will become comfortable with identifying the difference between broad tastes like Fruity vs. Roasted. From there, you can delve a little deeper into the subcategories and refine your description.
4. Get Familiar With the Wheel Colors Too
It will take a little time, patience and practice to master the coffee taster's flavor wheel. One helpful tip to use while you learn the basic flavor profiles is to try to associate the colors of each category to the taste. The color green indicates tastes from the Green/Vegetative category while pink represents Floral and yellow encompasses Sour/Fermented tastes. If you can't pinpoint the exact description as you get acquainted with the flavor profiles, you can at least recognize categories or subsets from visual descriptions via category colors.
5. Learn the Coffee Taster's Lexicon
Although knowing the category colors is useful to help guide you to the exact flavor you're tasting, you'll want to learn the standard attributes that coffee experts around the world use to describe each flavor profile. There's a reason why "ashy" and "smoky" are similar yet distinctive flavors within the wheel. Because the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon influenced the Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel, it's most effective to use both resources when describing and discussing coffee flavors.
6. Seek Out Assistance
As you peruse the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon, you'll notice that each attribute has a corresponding reference that helps you match a taste or aroma to those in your coffee. Many of these references are easy to order online or purchase in your local grocery store. You can also ask for assistance in your tasting descriptions by taking coffee tasting classes, visiting cafes that roast their own beans or seeking out helpful advice online from professional coffee tasters.
7. Revisit the Tasting Wheel
Now that you've waded into the center of the coffee tasting wheel, learned the different attributes used to describe coffee's taste and have a steady understanding of what each broad category will encompass, it's time to revisit the wheel and put your new knowledge to the test. Your goal should now be to move outward in the coffee wheel and attempt to describe your coffee's taste in as much detail as possible. Choose one or two broad categories and work outward from there before moving on to others.
8. Practice Your Descriptions
Like any other skill, you'll become more accurate and descriptive with your taste profiles the more you practice. Consider brewing a few different roasts at home or visit a cafe and order a cup of their specialty roast. Bring a coffee-loving friend with you and discuss the flavors together. You can download the flavor wheel on your phone and reference it when you get stuck. Over time, your nose and tongue will work together to home in on the taste and help you eloquently describe each coffee cup.
What Gives Coffee Its Flavor?
Now that you've reviewed the Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel and the Sensory Lexicon, you know just how many different flavors, aromas and textures can be described in every sip of coffee. But what exactly gives coffee its distinct flavor, appearance, smell and texture? How can flavor profiles so similar still be so diverse? Unsurprisingly, it all boils down to chemistry. Just as grinding, brewing and roasting methods produce different types of coffee beverages, the preparation in turning beans into brew also influences flavor.
To understand how flavors are unlocked, you need to know about the Maillard reaction. This chemical reaction, also referred to as browning, is the reason many foods possess a specific flavor and color. This process involves a reducing sugar and an amino acid reacting together under significant heat. The Maillard reaction typically occurs at temperatures of 285 degrees or higher. The amino acid-sugar reaction produces certain odors and flavors. The type of amino acid is the factor that influences specific flavor results.
The Maillard reaction isn't unique to one single food. The aromas, tastes and coloring of everything from caramel, beer and condensed milk to roast meat, chocolate and maple syrup are influenced by this chemical reaction. Coffee flavor is attributed to the Maillard reaction as well, but other factors are at play too. The variety, density and ripeness of a coffee bean when it's picked can be the first influence as well as how it's processed.
As you might expect, the roasting and brewing of the beans make substantial impacts on the taste of the coffee. When beans begin roasting, the Maillard reaction starts to occur, which is why dark, medium and light roasted coffees taste different. During the brewing process, factors like water to grounds ratio, the size of the grind, water temperature and extraction time also affect the taste, smell and color. In the end, over 800 different chemical compounds are involved in giving each cup its distinct characteristics.
How Do You Taste Coffee Notes?
Now that you know what flavors and aromas to look for when tasting coffee, it's time to learn about how to taste coffee. Once you're familiar with the Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel, you won't simply taste coffee. There's a specific term for coffee lovers who take a moment to sit down, sip, savor and describe the wealth of aromas, flavors and textures in every fresh batch of brew. This act is known as coffee cupping, and it's a favorite practice of those throughout the coffee industry.
The practice of coffee cupping, which is also called cup tasting, is used by producers, buyers, reviewers, connoisseurs and others to test the quality of a coffee batch. They'll often sip a spoonful of coffee and spit it out, similar to how wine is tasted. These professionals then score each coffee by a variety of factors including how sweet or acidic it is, its taste when sipped and its aftertaste. Cupping is a great method for quality control, but you can also use this technique for personal taste-testing.
Learning about the Coffee Tasting Flavor Wheel is an interesting exercise, but we must admit that applying this knowledge is our favorite part. Practice tasting the distinct coffee notes, smelling the aromas and discovering the flavor profile of your cup with these cupping tips:
- First, take a moment to breathe in the aroma of your coffee. Let your mind connect the smell to your own unique memories. Those memories may invoke a familiar taste or they may transport you back to a memory tied to that particular scent.
- Next, take a small sip and let the flavors touch your tongue.
- As you narrow down the flavors, take a large slurp and fill your mouth.
- Continue drinking and see if you can determine the flavor profile before the last drop.
Of course, you're welcome to taste test coffee any way you please. While it is enjoyable to sit back and try to identify the unique coffee notes that make certain batches absolutely delicious, you can also simply savor a great cup of coffee and appreciate the taste without delving deep into its flavor profile. Test your knowledge of the coffee flavor wheel on special occasions or skip the cupping and just enjoy the cup — whichever process you decide, make sure your cup is full of Real Good Coffee.
Taste the Difference of Real Good Coffee Co.
The SCA coffee wheel is a great tool that will help you pinpoint the exact flavors you taste in every cup of diverse coffee. Next time you sample a new roast from your favorite cafe or brew a batch of beans in your own kitchen, try to use the coffee flavor wheel to describe the unique notes you're tasting — you just may discover your favorite flavor profile.
Start your morning off on the right foot with a cup of Real Good Coffee. Browse our inventory and sample our whole bean coffee varieties. We also offer our delicious coffee in cups for Keurig and pods for Nespresso that are 100% recyclable. To learn more about our roasting process, home brewing tips and other interesting coffee topics, visit our blog.