The Coffee Flavour Wheel

The Coffee Flavour Wheel is an excellent tool used by coffee fans around the world. It standardizes words used for the various tastes in coffee.

The Coffee Flavour Wheel is a great, useful coffee tasting tool. It breaks down the tastes in your coffee into different categories. As a quick example, these can include sweet, sour, bitter and many others. This gives coffee tasters a tool to help remove barriers in what’s said versus what’s meant. This also makes it easier to compare what tasters each find in different types of coffee. By using the flavour wheel, coffee lovers can more clearly talk about the taste of coffee.

The Flavour Wheel is in the coffee industry to communicate coffee flavours. Coffee professionals use it to better understand the qualities of each coffee. Then they make informed decisions about how to roast, brew, and market it. It has broad usage in the industry to evaluate and market coffee.
But how did the flavour wheel come to be? What does it include and how does it work?

The Specialty Coffee Association of America's Flavour Wheel

The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) created the Flavour Wheel in 1995. This flavour wheel was the first attempt at standardizing different flavours. There’s a whole lot more going on with a coffee tasting wheel than you might think. It’s not *just* about drinking coffee.

The Flavour Wheel has three main categories: sensory criteria, flavour attributes, and defects.
  • Sensory criteria include aroma, taste, mouthfeel, and aftertaste.
  • Flavour attributes include fruity, nutty, and spicy notes.
  • Defects include sour, musty, and burnt flavours.
coffee flavour wheel uses tablespoons full of varied spices and a jar of honey on a teal wooden background

The original flavour wheel was a good start, but there was still a wide range of interpretations. How do you know what a flavour means to someone? For example, think of chocolate. Now, think about how many different kinds of chocolate there is. And what about regional differences? Or chocolate used for different purposes? Or grown and/or manufactured in different regions? That’s a lot of questions for only one common flavour!

The World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon

World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon cover, which is used for the coffee flavour wheel
To fight confusion, the SCAA flavour wheel uses specific words. These come from the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon.
In 2016, World Coffee Research (WCR) built a background tool for the flavour wheel. This tool was the Lexicon. It includes more detailed flavour notes and definitions. These clearer definitions help tasters identify specific flavour notes in coffee.
Professional cuppers use the Sensory Lexicon to describe flavours and aromas of coffee. The Lexicon is like a dictionary for coffee flavours. It breaks down larger flavour categories into more specific flavour notes. It also includes a specific example, amount, and ‘how to’ test each very specific flavour sample. In other words, the Lexicon tries to stop the chance for miss-interpretation. With it, you should know what a flavour descriptor means. The end result was massive. Who knew coffee had so many words to describe its taste?
The Sensory Lexicon was an important addition to the coffee cupping world. It provides a standardized language to describe flavour and aroma. Gone are the days of saying “this coffee tastes sharp” or “this coffee tastes sweet.” It’s important because these concepts mean different things to different people. And depending on circumstances, they can be a positive or a negative. That old ambiguity doesn’t make describing coffee easier!
To see how the wheel and sensory lexicon work together, try an interactive version. The good folks of Not Bad Coffee made this cool, online tool. And if you want to learn more about cupping coffee and how you can do it at home, check out our post Cupping Coffee: the Ultimate Taste Guide.

Problems with the SCAA Flavour Wheel

You may have noticed some issues with the SCAA flavour wheel. For one, the SCAA Flavour Wheel is SUPER complex. If you don’t work in the coffee industry this flavour wheel is often much more detailed than is helpful. Unless you’re training to be a professional coffee cupper, they are more than you need.

Another problem comes with the references used in the Sensory Lexicon. While it has excellent, specific examples, many of the examples are unavailable to all. Let’s use our previous example of chocolate. 

Chocolove bar of Pure 33% Milk Chocolate
Chocolove bar of Pure 55% Dark Chocolate
Chocolove bar of Extreme 88% Dark Chocolate

One of the chocolate flavours referenced in the Lexicon is Nutty/Cocoa -> Cocoa -> Chocolate. The exact taste reference is 1 chip of Nestle Toll House Semi-Sweet Chocolate Morsels. While available in some places, there are entire countries where this is not a product. How can you compare world-wide when some flavours are very locale specific?

Another issue is cultural bias and framing. In some cultures a flavour that is very appealing tastes terrible in another society. Another example is in how different cultures view the spiciness of foods. What is wild, over-the-top hot sauce to one group is quite mild to others. These factors definitely impact the wording used when tasting anything across different heritages.
The video below does a great job of explaining some of the barriers to access on the current flavour wheel.

Cupper’s Simplified Flavour Wheel

While doing tastings with our customers, we realized there was another problem. The original, updated coffee flavour wheel was just too darn specific and in-depth. And let’s face it, not everyone is or wants to be a professional coffee taster. Many of our customers are happy to enjoy a nice cup of joe without feeling like they need a PhD in coffee science.
So we set out to create a new flavour wheel. To start we didn’t completely throw out the traditional flavour wheel. But we simplified it and made it more accessible for the average coffee drinker.
Cupper's Coffee Flavour Wheel, complete

To get our final result, we considered several important factors. First, the information has to be understandable for everyday coffee drinkers. We wanted something to describe the flavours without needed a dictionary. No wild, rare or weird flavours here! Second, we wanted to it to be flavours that are local, known, and understood. We didn’t want to use obscure words that only professional coffee cuppers use. Instead we focused on simple, relatable flavours. Third, we wanted to keep it scalable. Much like the original flavour wheel, you can keep it general, or you can get as specific as you’d like.

Cupper's Coffee Flavour Wheel, complete

As a bonus, all Cupper’s coffees now have their own simplified taste wheel! This represents their taste profiles and is in their online descriptions. You can check these out in each coffee’s product info under the snazzy new bag photos. We also used our Flavour Wheel in Cupping Coffees: The Ultimate Tasting Guide.

We’re pretty proud of our simplified flavour wheel. It’s a great tool for anyone who loves coffee, but doesn’t want to get bogged down in technical jargon. Our flavour wheel can help you describe what you are tasting in a way that’s fun and easy to understand. So the next time you’re sipping on a delicious cup of coffee, give our simplified flavour wheel a try. After all, coffee should be fun, not intimidating.

To get your own downloadable, printable, sharable .pdf file of our full Cupper’s Coffee Flavour Wheel, simply press the button here. Sip and enjoy!

Final Thoughts on Coffee Flavour Wheels

At Cupper’s, it’s super-important to us that everyone have fun when they taste coffee. We don’t want people to feel like they need to be experts or have special training. The new simplified Cupper’s flavour wheel is a way for you to taste different flavours in your coffee.
The new flavour wheel is not meant to replace the old one or the work of professionals. It’s a tool that anyone can use to make coffee tasting more enjoyable. We want our flavour wheel to help more people appreciate diverse and complex coffees. So pull up a copy of Cupper’s Coffee Flavour Wheel, grab your favourite cup of joe, sit back, and enjoy!
The Cuppers layout for cupping coffee with mugs, ground coffee, water and a Coffee Flavour Wheel
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