The Flavour Wheel
Why make a wheel?
It’s fair to say most of us don’t know that much about coffee. Double Double. Grande mocha. Just black. Pumpkin Spice Latte. It doesn’t get much more complicated than that. When you get to that lineup of drip coffee options, and you have no idea how to differentiate these flavours, you take the medium roast and call it a day. But there’s an easy way to get better at selecting coffee you’ll like. Elevate your daily brew!
At its first-ever Symposium in Atlanta seven years ago, The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) formed an organization devoted to coffee research called World Coffee Research. The first task? Revise the SCAA’s Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel from 1995 and produce a Sensory Lexicon describing 110 flavour attributes. Hello, coffee is incredibly complex, varying by terroir, just like wine. The wheel is used by professionals to research and understand coffee flavour, and even to determine how and where to grow coffee. But it’s not just for professionals
How the wheel works.
The wheel is a comprehensive, kaleidoscopic picture of coffee flavour. Flavour is a combination of taste and smell. As you’re making coffee, start paying attention to what the beans and grind smell like, the aroma when the water hits the grounds, and of course the flavour when you sip the coffee.
As you taste, the wheel is designed for you to begin in the centre with the most general descriptors and work outwards towards more specific descriptors. For example, if you detect fruitiness in a cup of Ethiopian coffee, you move through the ‘fruity’ portion of the wheel. When you get there you have a choice: is this reminiscent of berries or dried fruit, citrus or something else? If it’s citrus, you can narrow further, tasting to determine if it’s grapefruit, orange, lemon, or lime. Once you identify one flavour, you move back to the centre of the wheel and start again, zeroing in on another flavour. You can even consult the Sensory Lexicon to better understand flavours. The colours themselves also help you psychologically sort out what you’re tasting. Even if you can’t pinpoint specifics, you might sense there’s red fruit of some kind, or something bright and green.
Coffee Culture also expanded on the Flavour Wheel, providing some language for the body of the cup, elaborating on light, medium, and heavy. For instance, a medium bodied cup might be smooth or syrupy or round. A heavy cup might be velvety or big, while light is silky or tea-like. It also introduces adjectives like crisp, bright, dull, balanced, complex, delicate, dry, lingering, and clean. This is all meant to help you talk about and understand what you like so that you can drink what you like. “Grande blonde” or “medium roast” doesn’t quite get at the complexity of coffee, that’s for sure.
Flavour & Place
Coffee grows in what’s called the Bean Belt -- roughly bounded by the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. This belt includes Papua New Guinea, Brazil, Sumatra, Honduras, Peru, Guatemala, Columbia, and Ethiopia. These different regions produce coffee that has different dominant flavours. Let’s explore!
Asia -- Earthy and Spicy
Papua New Guinea: Semi-sweet chocolate aroma, cocoa flavour with hints of cherry. Medium body, quick finish.
Sumatra: Aroma of dried fruit and nuts, full syrupy body, deeply sweet finish.
Africa -- Fruity and Floral
Ethiopia: Rich blueberry aroma, cocoa and spice flavour, medium body and clean finish.
South America -- Chocolaty, Nutty, and Sweet
Peru: Bright, fruity aroma, lightly fruity flavour with a clean finish.
Brazil: Slightly spicy, nutty aroma, nutty base, caramel notes. Full body, clean finish.
Columbia: Nutty aroma, caramel flavour. Medium body and heavy finish.
Central America -- Citrusy, Fruity, and Balanced
Honduras: Sweet molasses aroma and flavour, full body and lingering sweet finish.
Guatemala: Sweet, tart aroma, lightly fruity flavour. Light body and clean finish.
Now go get yourself some good coffee and start tasting! We know where you might pick some up!