Anytime you walk into a craft coffee shop, you will likely hear the baristas talking about the wild flavors they supposedly got from the coffee they have on pour over. But how did they come up with those things? Since when does coffee taste like anything other than…coffee? Well, thanks to the teamwork of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) and World Coffee Research, coffee snobs and baristas alike have a tool in which they can analyze and describe coffees, known as the Coffee Flavor Wheel. At first glance, it seems a bit overwhelming with the splashes of color, and the variety of appendages that seem to forever extend from the inner circle, but with a few hints to using the wheel, you’ll be a master taster in no time.
STEP 1: Master the Kaleidoscope
Much like art, the Coffee Flavor wheel was intended to radiate beauty in its own multi-faceted way. When you look at it, one of the first things you will notice is its eye-like shape. To me, this is helpful when remembering that coffee is subjective, and also helps me keep in mind that what others taste may not be what I taste, and that is okay. Coffee tasting is not a test!!! There are not right or wrong answers. The next thing you should notice are the prismatic colors. Make sure to take a moment to examine each of the sections. Take it all in. it sounds silly, I know, but it will help in the long run.
STEP 2: The Sacred Moment
Step two is where the fun begins because this is when we get to taste some coffee. A key point here is to be mindful of what you are tasting, and not just drinking it right away. Observe the coffee with as many senses as possible (minus taste until later) from the time preparation begins through the end of the brewing process. Notice the color of the beans. Assuming you have a light roast coffee, each bean will have a delicate shade of brown with a golden thread down one side. After selecting your brew method, it is time to grind your beans with the corresponding size. Can you smell the coffee a little better now? The fragrance at this point is still intact, but as soon as you add water they are going to escape and become aromas.
At this point, the coffee should be done brewing, Clear your palate by drinking water, preferably sparkling because the bubbles are more efficient. It only takes a sip. If given a clear serving vessel, hold the glass up to natural light and look at the colors towards the edge. Nothing special will necessarily happen with just one coffee, but as you do this more often, you will see different shades of red, orange, and amber. Now, the moment you have all been waiting for, the sacred moment. When you take the first sip, allow some air to come through as well. When coffee is sipped the flavor (this is a buzz word to pay attention to) you will be looking for will be a combined taste and smell function, which is why I suggested that you smell the coffee at every stage. The Coffee Flavor Wheel harbors many peculiarities on a spectrum from “basic tastes” to “clean aromatics.” To give you an example of what I mean by the taste-smell function, let’s say that you had sweetness paired with a fruity aroma, can you pin point each of these things more specifically? Maybe the sweetness comes from the chocolate tasting notes, and the aroma coming through is most similar to a blueberry. This is not necessarily easy to do at first, so I am going to break it down a little further.
STEP 3: Be at the Center of Attention
The wheel’s eye-like design that we talked about earlier serves its purpose by influencing users to start at the center and work outward. You will notice the descriptions at the center are very general, and slowly guide you to more specific elements. You are more than welcome to take your time, and it is certainly encouraged to do so. However, you will want to keep in mind that as the coffee cools down, the flavor profile will change little by little. For you wine drinkers, the cooling of the coffee’s temperature is much like the wine “opening up” with time. One you have identified an element from the center section, keep moving outward until you can no longer narrow the descriptor. It is okay if you don’t make it to the extension’s furthest point.
Pro Tip: Lexicons and References (*Totally Optional)
The World Coffee Research group has a sensory lexicon that the Coffee Flavor Wheel is based on. This lexicon sets a standard for the attributes created in order to help trained sensory panels assess coffees for scientific purposes. (How do you get that gig? Sounds magical to me) The majority of Coffee Wheel users will not be professionals, but the lexicon can still be helpful because its purpose is to define attributes to help people pick out the senses they are detecting. In addition, each attribute in the lexicon has a reference that can be found online or in grocery stores. (NOTE- aromatic references should not be ingested, but flavor references can be.) Tasting and smelling some of the attributes you have picked out can be helpful to orient yourself to those flavors in the coffee, but is not necessary by any means. By being extra familiar with these attributes in real life, it simply improves your sense memory for when you are tasting coffees later.
STEP 5: Please Mind the Gap
With a knowledge of the profile you have created, start at the center again, and work your way out to a specific attribute. Look now to the bordering attribute. You may see that some attribute blocks (also known as ‘cells’) appear to be a different distance from each other. The gap means that the professional tasters found either more or less distinction between the attributes depending on the size of the gap. If you are dialing in a coffee, this could be helpful to take note of.
Pro Tip: Be Colorful with your Words
As we walk together in our coffee tasting journey, the best thing to do is to continue to strengthen your coffee language. Since there is a Coffee Flavor Wheel, there is also a shared set of terms that are used in the coffee industry. The benefit to knowing the jargon is that you can walk into any craft coffee shop, and understand the language they are throwing at you. And finally, study the colors of the Wheel. Our visual sense is closely related to our senses, so if I describe a coffee as “bright” or “red”, then you may link those terms to a sense and have a better understanding of what I am tasting, but also be able to reference the wheel for that particular color.
Want to know more about the Coffee Flavor Wheel? Check out the link below.