Decoding the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel: What’s the Deal?

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Let’s demystify the Coffee Flavor Wheel – that nifty guide coffee buffs use to decode the taste and aroma of their favorite brews. 

The current coffee flavor wheel was created by the Specialty Coffee Association in 2009 and revised in 2016. It gives coffee tasters the lingo to describe what they’re sipping and helps the rest of us know what to expect when we grab a bag of beans. 

So, next time you read about a coffee being fruity, floral, sweet, or nutty, you can thank the Flavor Wheel for the heads up!

So, What’s the Story Behind It?

Back in 1995, the Specialty Coffee Association dropped the first Flavor Wheel on us, and it quickly became the go-to tool for coffee lovers. But as the coffee world kept evolving, they craved more ways to describe the flavors they were tasting.

Cue the Specialty Coffee Association of America Symposium in 2009, where coffee pros called for a flavor upgrade.

The SCAA teamed up with World Coffee Research to revamp the Flavor Wheel. The result? A more comprehensive guide and a whole bunch of new words to describe our coffee adventures.

How Do You Use It?

Using the Flavor Wheel is like going on a flavor journey. Start at the center, where you’ve got your basic flavor categories like floral, fruity, and roasted. Then, venture outwards for more specific flavors. The further you go, the more detailed your descriptions get.

Don’t be afraid to stop anywhere along the journey.  It’s not a contest to see how descriptive you can be. 

As you become more familiar with your brew, you will naturally gravitate towards the outer edges of the circle.

How to Train Your Taste Buds Using the Coffee Flavor Wheel and the Sensory Lexicon

Not sure what you’re tasting? No worries! Coffee is like a chemistry experiment in a cup, so it takes time to get the hang of it. 

The new Flavor Wheel isn’t just for describing coffee; you can use the research behind it to train your taste buds. 

There are over 100 flavors, aromas, and textures to explore, and the Sensory Lexicon from World Coffee Research breaks it all down for you. It’s like a coffee dictionary, helping you understand everything from “blackberry” to “woody aromatic.”

Instead of blindly guessing what you taste, use the Sensory Lexicon to compare flavors against a recognizable standard.  For example, if you taste raspberry notes, you may compare it to Jell-O brand dry gelatin powder. 

How to Use the Coffee Flavor Wheel at Home

Ready to put your taste buds to the test? Here are the steps you can take at home to begin using the coffee flavor wheel to your advantage.

Step 1: Brew some coffee.  It doesn’t matter what type of coffee or what brew method you choose. Just remember, keep it black. No sweeteners or creamers!

Step 2: Give it a sniff.  Take time to smell your cup. Take in the aromas and try your best to identify scents.

Step 3: Taste the coffee.  Take small sips of your coffee. Be sure to let it sit in your mouth to draw out all possible flavors.

Step 4: Compare.  Use the Coffee Flavor Wheel to compare what you smelled and tasted. Try matching your opinions to the various options on the wheel.

TIP: Take it a step further and use the Sensory Lexicon to compare your thoughts against the references laid out by the pros!  If what you smell and taste matches the references, you have validated your opinions.

Things to Remember

Don’t worry if it takes a few tries to nail down this process. Tasting coffee is all about the journey, not just the destination.  The more you practice the better tuned-in your palate will become.  Once you start recognizing unique flavors and aromas in your cup, the more fun the coffee experience becomes!

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Neal Drown
Neal has been proudly wearing the label of coffee enthusiast for over a decade now. He has an M.A. in Research and a true passion for all things coffee. Let's Brew Coffee was created to leverage his skills as a researcher and deliver the best content available on crafting the perfect brew.