A Coffee Drinker’s Guide to the Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel

The Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel was developed as a tool for professionals to help identify and describe coffee flavours. But it’s also a fabulous resource for coffee drinkers looking for a more informed approach to choosing beans.

One challenge for coffee drinkers is knowing how much they can rely on the descriptions of beans provided in stores or on packaging.  Some of it is very helpful, some less useful, and some downright misleading.  

Coffee Flavours in coffee shop

Professionals avoid this issue by judging flavours for themselves.  Expertise and training are important, but they are also helped by a more systematic, approach to describing flavours.

What we’ll show you in this article is how to use one of the best professional tools, the Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel.  It describes a simplified way of using the Wheel to define the flavours you’re looking for and recognise when you’ve found them.

How The Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel Can Help You Choose Beans

A description of the flavours you like in a cup of coffee is known as a coffee flavour profile, and is normally the preserve of professional coffee tasters. They use them to describe the flavours present in a particular coffee bean type, when deciding what to use in their stores and roasteries.

But here, we’re going to use the process in reverse, by creating a flavour profile for coffee you like, then choosing beans that match this.

The trick for regular coffee drinkers is learning how to create their own flavour profile and choose matching coffee bean, without the expertise and experience of a professional. The Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel can help do this.

Using the Flavour Wheel pragmatically allows you to follow a simplified version of the process a taster follows, and use industry standard terms. You can then use this to match the flavours you know you like to the descriptions of beans.

Even if this doesn’t change your bean choices, the process of using the Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel should make you more aware of the different flavours you experience drinking coffee, and hopefully enjoy it more.

An Introduction to Coffee Flavours – From the Professionals’ Perspective

How Professional Coffee Tasters Describe Flavours Objectively

Coffee flavours are richly complex mixes of taste and smell. The full range of flavour comes from an unsweetened cup of black coffee, made using freshly ground beans.

The addition of milk or sugar transforms the drink, and purists could argue this detracts from the flavours. The way you make your coffee also changes its flavour; beans that taste great as espresso may not work so well with a filter for example.

There are ways round these, but if you taste beans made using the method you’ll use at home, as a coffee drinker you’ll be fine. A bigger challenge is that, like all flavours, there’s subjectivity involved, and different people experience tastes and aromas in different ways. And so they describe the experience using different language.

The coffee industry has been around for centuries, but it was only in the 1980s that an industry-wide approach to describing coffee flavours first appeared. It came from the newly formed Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) – a trade association coinciding with the emerging coffee drinking culture in the US.

They came up with a set of definitions of all the different flavours that appear in coffee, and a way to recreate each flavour consistently, anywhere in the world. These become a set of reference points against which any coffee bean type could be compared.

The results have been put together in two tools – an official Lexicon of flavour definitions, and a visual guide to how these flavours work together. The latter is known as the Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel, and is the definitive guide to describing how coffee tastes.

A good taster or roaster can distinguish each of the dozens of possible flavours in a sip of coffee, and identify what they mean about the coffee bean type used to make it. If they use the SCAA approach, the terms they use will be ones from the Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel, and what they mean by those terms will be the same as in the Lexicon.

An Introduction to the Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel – for Coffee Drinkers

At first glance, the Flavour Wheel looks complicated. And if you’re using it professionally, that’s how it should be. Each part of the wheel is carefully designed, meant to be used in a specific way. The top and bottom do different things, the usage changes as you move outwards through different circles, and even the gaps between flavours convey meaning.

Tasters will sip a coffee, and identify the flavours and aromas present using the Flavour Wheel. They swill it around the mouth, making sure the drink has passed over every part of the tongue, and the upper part of the mouth too. Aroma is important, so they’ll also smell the coffee, separately from drinking it.

Other flavours emerge as or after swallowing the sip, and these are also recorded.

As a coffee drinker looking to identify what you like, you can ignore much of the work put into the wheel. Nor are you expecting to necessarily identify all the subtleties of flavour present. Later, we’ll run you through the parts that matter for non-experts.

But first, here’s how professionals typically use the Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel. There are differing views on some of the details, but this is how most go about things.

The Top & Bottom Halves of the Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel: Flavours vs Defects

The top half covers the positive flavours of a bean, while the bottom half is more about negative flavours that arise from problems with the beans. For example, if there were agricultural issues with how the beans were grown or stored, this might introduce unpleasant flavours from the bottom half, such as Musty. These are known as “defects”.

Coffee Flavours Wheel - General Flavours

When choosing beans for a roastery, or deciding which beans your store is going to buy in bulk to sell to consumers, it’s important to pick beans with no or few defects. So it’s the absence of some flavours they look for as well as the presence of others.

As a drinker, we assume our brand or roaster has done a good job, so we’re only interested in the inherent flavours of the bean. Hence, only the top half matters to us.

The Innermost Circle of the Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel: the “General Flavours”

The centre circle defines the broad set of possible flavours of a coffee bean, known as the “General Flavours”. These are the key to defining what you like as a coffee drinker.

The top half of the Wheel has 5 General Flavours, and most beans tend to have a flavour dominated by one or two of these.

Coffee Flavours - General - top

The 5 General Flavours from the top half of the Flavour Wheel are: “Spices”, “Nutty/cocoa”, “Sweet”, “Floral” and “Fruity”

Picking out the General Flavours should be straightforward to most coffee drinkers. It might take a few sips to be sure, but if you know you’re only choosing from these 5, it’s not difficult.

The expertise starts to come in the next level of detail, moving out from the centre circle.

The Middle Circle of the Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel: “Umbrella Terms”

The second circle is made up of the so-called “Umbrella Terms”. These are a breakdown of the General Flavours, and allow us to choose a bean we like from a group of similarly flavoured coffee bean types.

Coffee Flavours - Umbrella Terms - top

For a professional, these terms have specific, defined meanings, as opposed to being general, subjective terms. These are listed in the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon.

For example, the official definition of “Brown Sugar” is “a rich, full, round, sweet aromatic impression characterised by some degree of darkness”. The definition of its aroma is created by placing 1 teaspoon of C & H Pure Cane Golden Brown Sugar in a medium snifter. The reference flavour comes from mixing 2 teaspoons of the same type of sugar in 1 cup of water and serving it in a 1 ounce cup. For professionals, they also need to know this flavour has an aroma intensity of 6.0 and a flavour intensity of 5.0.

The expertise comes from training and certification in the ability to recognise each of the many flavours distinctly, and rate the flavours against these reference definitions. It takes a well-tuned palate to recognise the individual flavours within a complex overall taste.

These definitions matter to a professional, but for our purposes we can be more relaxed about exactly what they mean.

Some of the more obvious examples of Umbrella Terms are from the Fruity General Flavour, such as “Berry”, “Citrus Fruit” and “Dried Fruit”.

Less obvious ones include “Black Tea” from the Floral flavours, and perhaps confusingly, “Vanilla” and “Vanillin” are different terms from the Sweet group.

The Outermost Circle of the Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel: “Specific Descriptors”

At this stage, a taster will have identified a couple of General Flavours and a handful of Umbrella Terms that form the character of the coffee bean type they’re tasting.

They then take things one step further and repeat the process using the outer circle of “Specific Descriptors”. This allows them to identify the subtlest of the flavours present, which distinguishes similar beans from one another.

Again, as a regular coffee drinker looking to choose better beans for your palate, you can be relaxed about how you use these terms, as we’ll explain below.

Some common Specific Descriptors are “Honey”, “Caramel” and “Chocolate”.

Coffee Flavours Wheel - Specific Descriptors

Other Terms for How Coffee Tastes – “Character”

Many places use terms in their coffee descriptions that are similar to those above, but not part of the official lexicon. It’s usually obvious what they’re meant to convey, and are often unofficial variations on Flavour Wheel terms.

They’re useful but subjective, and tend to reflect the opinions of the roaster. So they’re most helpful when comparing beans from the same store or brand.

There are a few other terms you’ll hear about the flavour of a coffee bean, such as “clean”, “bright”, “big”, and “heavy”.

These are not really flavours, and are vaguer to pin down. But again, it’s usually clear what’s meant. They’re sometimes called the character of the bean, and are not part of the Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel.

Does it Matter How Beans are Roasted and Processed?

The way coffee beans are roasted plays a huge part in how they taste. Different processing such as “washed” and “natural” also affect flavour. The latter rarely makes as much of a difference as the roast, although there are a few exceptions, such as Ethiopian coffee. Some coffee drinkers refer to roast and process when choosing their beans.

Coffee Roasters

In practice though, there is usually an optimum process and roast for a particular bean, which brings out the flavours in the best way. That decision is best left in the hands of the growers and roasters, and anyway isn’t something you typically have any choice over.

If you want to keep things simple when choosing your beans, it’s easiest to pick based on how their flavours are described, and ignore roast or processing type. By all means consider them, and you’ll probably learn something more about what coffee you like. But it’s not a necessary part of choosing coffee based on flavour for regular coffee drinkers, and isn’t part of the Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel.