We’ve got a third coffee flavor wheel now

Nicholas Cho
Jan 19, 2016 · 4 min read

My friends at the Specialty Coffee Association of America just dropped the new ‘Coffee Tasters’ Flavor Wheel’ this morning.

I’m a SCAA supporter for sure. Some of my dearest friends are on SCAA staff, but regardless, I believe in what SCAA does, what it stands for, and why we need it. I’m supportive that the SCAA put out this new wheel. I am fairly neutral on the question of whether the old Flavor Wheel was in need of a revision. On the other hand, I personally find it bittersweet that we have a new wheel, and I’m a bit bummed that our specialty coffee industry needed a new wheel at all. Yeah, I get that I sound like I’m contradicting myself. I’ll explain.

In a nutshell, the old wheel was, in fact, a pair of wheels. The left wheel was about diagnosing defect. The right wheel was about tastes and aromas. The tastes were split up into the (old) four basic tastes, and the aromas were split up into three sections, that were design to correlate with (my words) light-roast, medium-roast, and dark-roast characteristics.

The fact is, the old wheel had a lot going against it. Many of the terms were too technical or obscure to be widely and immediately useful (turpeny? cineolic? piquant?), and lots of people had trouble with the idea that certain flavors they were tasting in specialty coffee didn’t appear on the wheel. The most notable has been ‘blueberry’ and ‘strawberry,’ hallmarks of dry-processed coffees, especially from Ethiopia.

However, the biggest problem with the old wheel wasn’t the wheel at all. It had much more to do with the state of the specialty coffee industry, and the fact that while coffee people really like knowing things, almost nobody likes to learn anything.

The flavor wheel is a tool. The cupping form is a tool. The brewing control chart is a tool. With each of these, if you pay attention to the various conversations occurring throughout the worldwide industry, you’ll find people debating elements of these tools, dissecting the structures and parsing the terms, all without any demonstrated meaningful understanding about what they’re talking about. Why? Because so many dudes hate reading the instructions.

People debate why the cupping form elements start at a score of 6 (it really doesn’t), or that you can’t score wet-hulled Sumatrans well on it (you can). They’ll argue that the TDS unit on older versions of the brewing control chart off by a factor of 10. That’s true. 1000 (ppm) TDS should be 10,000 TDS. But it’s okay. Know why? Cuz it’s in the instructions.

Read the fucking instructions.

Yeah, R.I.P. old SCAA Flavor Wheel. We hardly knew ya.

The new wheel is both new and improved. It’s the product of taste scientists and coffee experts (with a little graphic design thrown in). It’s going to be more useful for certain applications, particularly allowing our industry to utilize scientific taste panels, which are groups of tasters who go through rigorous training in utilizing a lexicon and protocols to describe flavors and aromas. Taste panels could, for instance, help us learn more about the relationship between what coffees taste like, and the numerous variables, like bean variety, or altitude.

In its most common use, though, it’ll be a round-shaped word cloud for people to pick tasting notes from. Kinda like the old one, but with different descriptors, and it more resembles an iris.

If the old wheel was being used, used properly, and more popularly, I’m not sure World Coffee Research’s lexicon would have been adapted to develop a new flavor wheel.

If you’re a coffee professional and you’re interested in using the new SCAA Flavor Wheel properly, do yourself and the industry a favor and read the instructions this time. They’re posted right here. Read them, learn them, understand them. If you don’t understand something, reach out to someone who might be able to explain it to you.

We’ve got an industry that is super trend-focused and fad-obsessed. We’ve got our coffee luminaries ruminating about an industry “lull.” If we’re going to progress, it needs to be by building a coffee pedagogy and traditions (dare I say ‘trends’) of real knowledge and skill building. When sounding smart is more important than being smart, we’re not in a lull, we’re in serious danger.

Nicholas Cho

Written by

Coffeemonger at @wrecking_ball • inventor @decemberdripper • 3-time barista competition loser • Proud immigrant