| By Savannah Phillips |
The coffee taster’s flavor wheel has perhaps been one of the most iconic resources in the coffee industry for nearly two decades. It also inspired our very own barista and amazing artist, Mary Jhun Dandan to paint her own beautiful interpretation in our roasting area (photo above). Even though the average coffee drinker has very likely never seen or heard of it, the flavor wheel plays an integral role in how the coffee industry categorizes the countless complex characteristics of specialty coffee.
In 2016, this valuable resource was updated in partnership with WCR (World Coffee Research) and dozens of other professional sensory panelists, scientists, coffee buyers and roasting companies. It was the largest collaborative piece of research on coffee flavor ever completed, inspiring a new set of vocabulary for industry professionals.
New Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel
Old Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel
Professionally, as a QC manager, I use the flavor wheel mostly to help calibrate with other coffee professionals. When tasting coffee (or cupping), calibrating with other coffee “people” helps us stay speaking the same language. For the consumer, think of the flavor wheel as a guide to developing language for flavor. To start, you want to stay near the middle and go for very general things like “fruity”, “nutty”, or “chocolaty”. Also, I find that as coffee cools, it changes a lot in flavor, so it’s important to enjoy it from hot until it cools.
There will be a vast range of flavors as the temperature drops, and certain things will intensify and diminish. I like to think of a “solid” coffee as one that maintains balance and harmony in flavor/cup characteristics (such as body, acidity, etc; things that aren’t part of the flavor wheel) from the time that the coffee is hot until it’s cooled. Imagine a rainbow of flavors, each component being equally important and complementing one another. Once you become familiar with generalized flavors, using the flavor wheel can become a fun way to help identify more specific notes such as apricot or plum (fruit>stone fruit>plum) etc. Or is it dark chocolate or more of a milk chocolate? If it has a drying sensation, you could identify it was being a baker’s chocolate, etc. This is how we become more specific at identifying flavors.
At the end of the day, I find that people like what they like. Something fruity and Ethiopian, or maybe a nice smoky, dark chocolaty dark roast? We all have our preferences, so it’s important to note that there is no wrong or right way to enjoy your coffee. The point is that there’s a coffee out there for everyone and there’s always something to find you can enjoy.
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A Level-Two Certified Barista, native Northwesterner turned So-Cal girl, Savannah is also addicted to yoga, hiking, meditation and long drives up Coast Highway 101. She doesn’t remember ever not loving coffee. Even as a child, when most other kids typically hate the taste, it was something she craved, which looking back, was unquestionably an early prediction of a career devoted to specialty coffee.