Tasting Coffee

The Coffee Tasters Flavor Wheel, a collaborative effort by the Specialty Coffee Association of America and World Coffee Research, is designed to be a tool for the coffee taster. As a tool, it is meant to be intuitive, enjoyable to use, and a benefit to those who seek to analyze and describe coffees. Here are a few tips on how to use the wheel properly.

Step 1: Take It All In

The wheel is meant to be beautiful, like the greatest coffees can be. It represents a comprehensive, kaleidoscopic picture of coffee flavor. Let the words wash over you, and soak it in. You might see some words you’re not familiar with. That’s ok, we’ll deal with those later. For now, just marvel at the possible complexity of coffee.

Step 2: Taste Some Coffee

The flavor wheel can be used either in casual tasting or professional coffee cupping. In either situation, the key is to taste mindfully. Prepare the coffee carefully, observing the coffee at different stages: the fragrance just after grinding, the aromas which escape the moment water hits the coffee grounds, and the flavors that fill the palate when the coffee is sipped. ‘Flavor’ is defined as a combination of taste and smell, and the flavor wheel contains attributes on the entire continuum between basic tastes (those things perceived only by the tongue) to pure aromatics (those things that only can be smelled). Most flavors, however, are a mixture of the senses: the sourness and unique aromatics of the lemon, for example, or the sweetness, bitterness, and characteristic aromatics of molasses. Notice the coffee and its flavors. Now turn to the wheel.

Step 3: Start at the Center

The wheel’s design encourages the taster to start at the center, and work outward. The most general taste descriptors are near the center, and they get more specific as the tiers work outward. The taster can stop anywhere along the way, but the farther outward the taster works, the more specific the description might be. As an example, the coffee taster might detect a fruitiness when tasting a coffee from Ethiopia. Moving through the ‘fruity’ section of the wheel, they are confronted with a choice: is the fruitiness reminiscent of berries, dried fruit, citrus fruit, or something else? If the taster decides ‘citrus fruit’, they then can sharpen the descriptor: is it ‘grapefruit’, ‘orange’, ‘lemon’ or ‘lime’? Having identified that flavor, the taster can move back to the center and start again, zeroing in on another flavor, and another, until they feel their description of the coffee is complete. This is the basic function of the wheel, and can be used very simply at that level. However, there is more to the wheel, and the expert taster can move further.

Step 4: Read the Lexicon

The Coffee Tasters Flavor Wheel is based on the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon, a standard set of attributes designed to allow trained sensory panels evaluate coffees for scientific research purposes. Although the vast majority of flavor wheel users will not be trained in this methodology, the lexicon can still be used to define the attributes represented on the wheel. Each attribute has a definition and a ‘reference’, which can be used to calibrate tasters who may seek clarification on specific attributes. The flavor wheel and lexicon therefore work best in tandem, the taster referencing the lexicon for attribute descriptors and references if needed. The lexicon is a tool for sensory panels trained in descriptive analysis, but offers a great source of information for the professional taster. There will be unfamiliar words to many- technical and chemical descriptions of flavors- but the lexicon explains them clearly and provides sensory references for all of its attributes.

Step 5: Check Out Some References

Every attribute in the WCR lexicon has a reference, and many of these references are readily available in supermarkets and from online sources. Keeping in mind that aromatic references (noted as such) should never be ingested, though flavor references can be, you can taste and smell the references to orient yourself to those flavors in coffee. Many references are suggested to be smelled from snifters, which concentrate the aromatics. Take notes. Work on your sense memory.

Step 6: Start at the Center Again

With a knowledge of the Lexicon Attributes in mind (perhaps even having referenced an attribute or two) taste a coffee and start in the center again, working your way out to a specific attribute. Now, look to the neighboring attributes. You may notice the attribute ‘cells’ appear to be a different distance from one another. If two attribute cells are connected, it means that the professional tasters in our research thought of these attributes as being closely related, and if there is a gap, that means the tasters thought of them as being slightly less closely related. The further the gap extends to the center of the wheel, the less closely related the tasters found the attribute descriptors to each other. This might be helpful when ‘calibrating’ coffee descriptors to other tasters’ experiences, or designing taste descriptors that are intelligible to the maximum number of people.

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