Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel: An Expert Guide

Published on 02/26/2024 · 8 min readExplore the nuances of coffee flavors with the Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel, our expert guide to understanding and identifying the complex tastes in every cup!
Levi Rogers, Coffee Expert
By Coffee Expert Levi Rogers

Photo by Maria Orlova

Tl;dr: Discover the intricate flavors and aromas of coffee with this comprehensive guide to tasting coffee. Learn how to fully experience, appreciate, and describe the complex flavors in your cup.

In order to fully appreciate coffee, it’s helpful to take note of the many different flavors and aromas present in the cup. By breaking down flavor attributes into specific categories, the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel helps create a vocabulary for describing and appreciating coffee.

Learning how to taste and describe coffee—just like wine, beer, cheese, or any other specialty food or beverage—can be a daunting task at first. Each coffee has a specific set of flavors and aromas that might be hard to define. At first, it might just seem like it tastes like, well … coffee? What’s the deal with all those notes of cacao nibs, honeysuckle, D’anjou pear, and bergamot? Do people really taste those things?

So, how do you begin to describe what you’re tasting? It all has to do with developing a new set of vocabulary.

Photo by onnyhiro

The Basics: What is the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel?

The Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel was originally designed by the SCA (Specialty Coffee Association) in 1995. It was redesigned and updated with the WCR (World Coffee Research) in 2016 using the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon, designed by leading coffee professionals, scientists, buyers, and roasters. This is generally what is referred to as the “official” Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel, although other companies and organizations have created similar flavor wheels that vary slightly in appearance and descriptors. The official tasting wheel can be purchased at the SCA website.

Understanding a New Lexicon

Even the most refined pallet would be useless without a way to communicate what flavor attributes that pallet is tasting or smelling. The coffee taster’s flavor wheel starts with basic coffee flavor categories like fruity, floral, nutty, spicy, vegetal, and so on, and then breaks them down to even more specific notes and attributes. It introduces a new lexicon or vocabulary with which to use to assess coffee.

The main categories of the flavor wheel are as follows: Sweet, Floral, Fruity, Sour/Fermented, Green/Vegetative, Chemical, Roasted, Spices, Nutty/Cocoa, and Other. From there, the wheel expands (or breaks down) into smaller categories and attributes.

Industry professionals, such as Q Graders (Coffee Quality Graders) or coffee buyers, rely on the universal industry standard present in the Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel to communicate regarding cup quality. This cup quality will often determine the price the coffee is sold for. Roasters will then roast the coffee and give the coffee their specific tasting notes–such as the ones you find on the outside of a retail bag.

How to Use the Wheel

Step 1: Taste

The first step is to taste. Most professionals will do this via cupping (an official qualitative way to score coffee). Cupping involves weighing coffee out on a scale and then evaluating the coffee in several different ways. Most coffee is prepped via small bowls or gibraltar glasses like these. but you can also practice at home with a basic pour over. Weigh and then grind the coffee and begin with the dry smell (fragrance), moving on to brewing the coffee and evaluating taste.

1. Fragrance

The fragrance of coffee is the dry smell of the coffee grounds before water is poured over them. The fragrance of coffee is often more appealing than the taste of coffee to some people. Using a notepad or cupping form, take notes on what you’re smelling. Does the coffee smell dry? Sweet? Savory? Nutty? Chocolatey? Use the flavor wheel to try and come up with three fragrance descriptors.

2. Aroma

After you smell the coffee dry, you’ll pour hot water over the grounds, wait for the coffee to “brew” (around four minutes if you’re cupping) and then break the crust of the coffee at the top of the cup to smell the “aroma,” or the smell of the wet coffee grounds. You can do this as the coffee is brewing on a pour over as well. How does the smell change from dry to wet? Better? Worse? What notes change?

3. Taste

After evaluating Fragrance and Aroma and letting the coffee brew, you’ll start to record your tasting notes. This is the overall “flavor” of the coffee for which we’ll use the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel. Coffee cup quality is then further broken down using the following assessments: Sweetness, Acidity, Aftertaste, Balance, Body, Clarity, Uniformity, and notes of any defects present in the cup. Each one of these terms can be explored in depth, but for general purposes here are some of the most common definitions:

  • Sweetness: Difficult at first to assess, the sweetness of a coffee is rather simple. Most quality coffees, even while having a certain bitterness, will still be sweet. If a coffee has zero sweetness and only bitter elements, then this would be bad.
  • Acidity: Often equated to brightness, acidity is not a bad thing; it’s a good thing. It means the coffee is lively or even puckering or bubbly rather than flat.
  • Body: Mouthfeel of the coffee. How thick or thin does the coffee taste? Full bodied? Or tea-like? Neither one is better or worse, just different. Creamy? Or juicy?
  • Aftertaste: Lingering? Or short? Pleasant or not?
  • Balance/Uniformity/Clarity: During cupping, you'll usually examine three different cups as to provide a varied sample of the coffee. Here, we can notice if there is variance within the cups of coffee itself. Usually, the coffee roaster will weed out any coffees that have a large variance in taste, but if you notice the coffee changing from cup to cup (and you're confident in your brewing ability), then this might be something to take note of. So, how do we do all this? By recording it!

Step 2: Record

As you taste, make a mental note of what notes you're experiencing. This is where the coffee-tasting wheel comes into play. If something smells or tastes "fruity," is it more of a berry flavor? Or tropical? Or is it more of a citrus fruit flavor? If citrus, then what kind? Lemon or lime? Orange or Tangerine? Is it a tiny bit of tart and mouth-puckering? Perhaps grapefruit? Or juicy like a mandarin? Thinking in this way helps to break down a common flavor into something more approachable and then elevated. If it's in the nutty category, what kind of nut? Dry like a peanut? Toasty like an almond? Or slightly sweet like a cashew? Continue to break down whatever tasting note you think you might be experiencing until you find the perfect term.

Having a notebook handy to take notes can help process and record the experience. Just taking general notes can help put words to evaluating coffee, but there is also a more official process to undertake. Most professionals will use an official SCA cupping evaluation form to grade the coffee and give it an overall score.

The flavor wheel can be used for both fragrance (dry coffee grounds), aroma (wet coffee smell), and flavor (coffee taste) of a coffee sample. These flavor references will be added to assessments of other elements of a coffee, like body, acidity, sweetness, intensity, and clarity.

Step 3: Evaluate Coffee “Defects”

The bottom of the wheel is reserved for defects in the “Other” category. These are split between “Chemical" and “Papery or Musty.” These flavor attributes are not appealing in the cup and often signify a “defect” which will often lower the cup quality and score of the coffee.

If something tastes medicinal, musty, moldy, skunky, rubbery, or like cardboard, we will mark this as a defect. A phenol defect tastes like chlorine–not super appealing. Sometimes, a coffee can have a "vegetative" quality that is appealing, like bell pepper, but often, it is a negative attribute. Other categories like "Sour" include both positive and negative elements such as "fermented" (often negative and a defect) or citric or malic acid, which is noting the type of acid present in the coffee.

Step 4: Repeat

Tasting requires time. Keep the flavor notes handy, and begin to use the coffee tasting wheel handbook daily. You can also start to evaluate other foods and fruits or vegetables you come into contact with on a daily basis. What’s the difference between a blackberry taste and a black currant taste?

Learning how to taste and describe coffee can be a lifelong pursuit. Take notes and be patient. Start with one extreme or category and move to another. Break each category into smaller categories until the perfect word reveals itself. Learning how to taste coffee will open you up to the wonderful flavors inherent in each cup and expand your vocabulary in describing other food and beverage items as well.

Reach out to a Curated Expert

Photo by Kristina Sorokina

Check out these tools if you're ready to start tasting and using the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel as your guide.

Chat with a Curated Expert to find out how you can improve your coffee tasting experience–whether it’s espresso or drip.

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