The coffee taster's flavour wheel

New Tread on an Old Set of Wheels

New coffee taster's flavour wheel
Posted on February 27th 2015 by Maddie

Last month, the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), released a new Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel. This is the first time the wheel has been modified since its inception twenty years ago. Just about, as long as Kicking Horse Coffee® has been around!

The Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel is an invaluable resource for coffee professionals. By creating a universal language, we strengthen the supply chain from the producers at source to our North American consumers. Calibration enhances the quality of the green coffee we purchase and ultimately aids the formulation of our Kick Ass® blends.

The Inception 

Ted Lingle, one of the founding co-chairs of the SCAA, published the first Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel in 1995. It was modeled on the Wine Aroma Wheel, which Ann Noble created in 1984. Noble’s Aroma Wheel was the first of its kind to provide a visual graphic of the different categories and aroma components found in wine. 

Motivated by the same desire to standardize terminology, the SCAA Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel has been immensely popular in the Coffee Industry. The original flavour wheel is everywhere! You can find it hanging in cafés, roasting rooms as well as cupping labs at origin. It has been printed in both English and Spanish. 

Lingle first wrote, The Coffee Cupper’s Handbook, in 1985, outlining the sensory evaluation done to assess roasted coffee. The Flavour Wheel was created as a visual tool to accompany the handbook.  

The updated Flavour Wheel is the result of a three-year collaboration with the SCAA and World Coffee Research (WCR). They have had coffee professionals from all over the industry involved, as well as sensory scientists. The amount of research that has gone into this has made this the largest and most collaborative completed piece of research on coffee flavour. 

The team of professionals first created the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon. The Lexicon then provide the foundation for the new wheel. The two go hand in hand. The Lexicon will serve as a supporting document elaborating on the standardized vocabulary with clear definitions.

Shared Vocabulary

Using tools from sensory science we are able to understand exact flavour compounds found in coffee. Coffee professionals and sensory analysts have worked together in creating an agreed upon vocabulary. It will provide a universal language for all those in industry. 

This new flavour wheel not only provides a common language for the industry, but also will help to quantify and measure chosen descriptors. Beyond definitions of attributes, the Lexicon also contains a 15-point intensity scale. Choosing any flavour component on the wheel, you can then score the intensity of the attribute. 

The Lexicon describes the flavours and aromas present in coffee and helps to measure their intensity. It does not judge good or bad. It is simply descriptive.

The World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon contains 110 flavour attributes. For the Lexicon, they evaluated over 105 coffees (all Arabica) from 13 countries. 

Each attribute had a reference to identify the level of intensity. 

For example, Grapefruit, ‘The citric, sour, bitter, astringent, peely, sharp, slightly sweet aromatic associated with grapefruit’. 

The reference assigned to grapefruit is Ocean Spray 100% White Grapefruit juice with an intensity of 11. 

What does the Flavour Wheel mean to us?

At Kicking Horse® Coffee, we use the existing Flavour Wheel daily. So, you can imagine how stoked we are for this evolution of the wheel. 

We use the wheel for internal training at the Horse. Calibrating our team on taste and aroma. 

The flavour wheel is an extremely helpful tool. Not only used as a resource when we are cupping and approving coffee samples to buy, but as well when we are examining our desired taste profile for our blends. 

It also plays a huge role in aiding communications with our importers and with our producers at origin. Calibrating for the flavour attributes we are after.  

A standardization of our vocabulary will only enhance quality and improve the supply chain.

It should be noted the Lexicon needs to be adapted. It is based on North American descriptors and will need to be massaged if it is to work internationally. Localized references will have to be chosen. 

Moving Forward

Having a more research based Flavour Wheel has increased the functionality of the tool, especially on the producing (farming) side. 

It will help coffee scientists to conduct research. Understanding why coffee tastes, smells and feels the way it does, is just the beginning. 

Some of the questions now being asked are mind blowing. If you could narrow down which molecules in coffee translate to which flavour component, then you could breed new varieties of coffee. Alternatively, how about more disease resistant crops? And, climate resilient? 

For producers at source some of the most important decisions they will make is what varietal of coffee to plant. Talk about an investment! It takes at least three years to see yields from new plants. Producers need confidence in their crop as their livelihoods depend on them.  

The New Flavour Wheel and the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon are tools essential to conducting research aimed at making coffee better, from seed to cup.