The evolution of the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel

The Specialty Coffee Association (SCA)’s Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel is arguably one of the most iconic resources in the coffee industry. The poster adorns the walls of cupping labs worldwide and has become a backdrop for most professional coffee training courses.

Originally published in 1995, the wheel has been the industry standard for over two decades. It was reworked in 2016, when it became arguably the largest and most collaborative piece of research on coffee flavour ever completed.

The wheel has undoubtedly come a long way in the past 25 years. But does it still cater to the complex needs of the multicultural, ever-evolving world of coffee? I spoke to three experts to learn more. Read on to find out what they said.

You might also like our article on colonial inequalities in the coffee sector.

AN OVERVIEW OF THE COFFEE TASTER’S FLAVOR WHEEL: “DESCRIPTIVE, NOT PRESCRIPTIVE”

The eponymous Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel was designed as a tool for the coffee taster. According to the SCA, the Flavor Wheel can be used either in casual tasting or professional coffee cupping. In either situation, the SCA notes that the key is to be mindful.

The SCA defines “flavour” as a combination of taste and smell. It is important to distinguish between aroma (linked to smell), taste (linked to the mouth), and flavour (a combination of both). Ultimately, the wheel acts as a guide to the sensory experience of coffee.

Peter Giuliano is the Chief Research Officer of the Specialty Coffee Association and Executive Director of the affiliated Coffee Science Foundation. He was directly involved in the development of the wheel as we know it today.

He tells me that a common misconception about the Flavor Wheel is that it is about quality.

“It’s not. It’s descriptive, not prescriptive,” Peter says. “The SCA cupping methodology is subjective because it’s about assigning value to the coffee. The lexicon and sensory descriptiveness of the Flavor Wheel are not.”

The first version (1995) was a lot more prescriptive. It was actually made up of two “sub-wheels”: “Taints & Faults” (defects) and “Tastes & Aromas” (attributes).

Some 25 years on, the situation is very much different: we have one wheel and a lexicon. Both are the result of years of collaborative work, drawing on a combination of science, research, industry knowledge, and design.

A SENSORY ANALYSIS TOOL BUILT ON SCIENCE, RESEARCH AND COLLABORATION

The original Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel was first developed by the SCAA more than 25 years ago. Until 2010, the version in use was largely the same.

However, about 10 years ago, stakeholders started to realise that the wheel needed to be reinvented. The first step was building a lexicon. To do so, the SCAA turned to World Coffee Research for help.

The World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon: What is it?

To put it simply, Peter says: “You need a vocabulary, or lexicon, to train tasters.

“You then establish a reference. For example, for blackberry, you use a specific type of blackberry jam. That way even someone who has never tasted blackberries themselves can make the connection. The lexicon is about building a common language.”

The World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon is the product of a collaboration between dozens of professional sensory panellists, scientists, coffee buyers, and roasters. It was developed by World Coffee Research (WCR), the Sensory Analysis Center at Kansas State University, and the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA).

Peter tells me that there was a fair amount of scientific rigour associated with the process and methodology.

“They tasted around 100 coffees and identified their attributes over the course of a year,” he tells me. “It became The World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon, and the basis of the new Flavor Wheel.”

The lexicon identifies 110 flavour, aroma, and texture characteristics present in coffee, and provides references for measuring their intensity. This groundbreaking tool has shifted the way our industry thinks about and describes coffee flavour.

The SCA Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel

Now that a lexicon had been built, the SCAA needed to turn it into a user-friendly tool: a flavour wheel.

This time, they turned to the prestigious Food Science and Technology Department a thet University of California, Davis (UC Davis) for help.

The UC Davis team used a novel adaptation of traditional sensory and statistical methods to reorganise the new coffee Sensory Lexicon into scientifically valid clusters. This was the foundation for preparing a new, updated flavour wheel.

According to an article in the 2016 Journal of Food Science, it took 72 experts to sort the flavour attributes of the lexicon. The data was then compiled and arranged into a wheel.

Dr. Jean-Xavier Guinard is a sensory scientist and a consumer researcher at UC Davis. His research was instrumental in the design of the new Flavor Wheel. He explains that UC Davis was involved in the development of wine, beer, and honey flavour wheels, too.

“This one really hit the mark,” he says. “It’s comprehensive and well-embraced by an industry thirsty for scientific and technical tools to refine their craft.”

The final design, a kaleidoscopic picture of coffee flavours, was the work of One Darnley Road, a creative agency based in East London. Each colour and shade was carefully selected with the intention of best matching the corresponding flavour.

AN ICONIC DESIGN: “A SYMBOL OF THE GLORY OF SPECIALTY COFFEE”

With the completion of the Flavor Wheel and its new, vibrant design, the SCAA had turned an historically complex and technical tool into a fresh, marketable accessory.

“The SCA did a fantastic job with that,” Jean-Xavier says. “They succeeded in reaching all corners of the industry.”

Peter adds: “Suddenly, what was meant to be a tool became a symbol of the glory of specialty coffee, and of us as an organisation.” The poster went viral; people started taking selfies with it and even bought t-shirts bearing the design.

However, Peter notes that there is a flipside to this success: in some instances, the wheel has become more popular for its design, rather than its utility. He admits that in many instances, the poster has become decorative, rather than practical.

ARGUING SEMANTICS: “LANGUAGE AND CULTURE BIAS PERCEPTION”

The revised Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel and the associated lexicon have been an undeniable success. But success comes with its fair share of scrutiny. Some argue that the Flavor Wheel’s language is not inclusive enough.

Peter tells me that one of the problems with the first versions was the use of antiquated or obscure language that just wasn’t familiar. This made it much less accessible as a tool.

In comparison, Peter says that today’s version is meant to be far more inclusive in terms of language and vocabulary. However, he acknowledges that it may be a little too US-centric.

“Blueberry and maple syrup, for example, are very American references,” he tells me. “I think there will probably be some changes in the future, sensitive to more internationally accessible attributes.”

Jonathan Vaz Matías is a traveling AST trainer, a coffee consultant, and the CEO of Acuerdo Project. He has also developed the Fruits Flavour Wheel; Jonathan describes it as “a halfway mark between a wheel of aromas that is culture-specific and the generalised version developed by the SCA”.

For Jonathan, while the concept of the SCA Flavor Wheel and the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon are fantastic resources for the industry, they are not inclusive enough.

“The lexicon is super important. We need a scientific method and language to communicate,” he says. “But the problem is that we are using a language that many people don’t understand, with a massive cultural bias.

“Your language and culture biases your perception. You need to adapt descriptors,” Jonathan concludes, noting that the experience of flavour is “deeply personal”.

To give me an example, Jonathan tells me about the first time he tried Kenyan coffee. “It was very sour, acidic, and I could taste berries. I was told that I should say it tastes like blackcurrant, but that was not a taste reference for me; I had never had one!”

Ultimately, Jonathan argues that we can use a wider range of descriptors than those offered by the SCA and WCR.

WHO IS THE FLAVOR WHEEL FOR?

The wheel is intended mostly for specialty coffee professionals and researchers; people who have been trained to use a common vocabulary of scientific descriptors. In that context, it works.

However, Jonathan tells me that he thinks the wheel is more for coffee sector researchers than other industry professionals.

“It’s useful in a closed community where all speak the same language. But does it apply in the real world?” He asks. “We need to calibrate and reference according to [the] users.”

He argues that the way the tool is now is too limiting and exclusive. Baristas, coffee shop owners and roasters could end up being alienated, meaning that all the amazing research won’t have a real impact in the end.

On one hand, training a tight group of professionals to use a common language is what makes the Flavor Wheel work. On the other, we have to ask: is there a risk of creating an echo chamber, by training an elite group of people on one line of thinking?

Jean-Xavier says: “The Flavor Wheel doesn’t cover everything and doesn’t pretend to. But one of the pieces the SCA has perhaps not taken sufficient advantage of is consumer outreach. It could be promoted a little more extensively to consumer groups.”

At the end of the day, Jonathan says, what matters most is how many people can find the wheel useful, and how well it can serve the industry.

THERE’S NO NEED TO REINVENT THE WHEEL; BUT CAN WE IMPROVE IT?

While the Flavor Wheel is based on science and research, it is also a sensory tool and very much a human product, which makes it imperfect by its very nature. As the industry evolves and the geography of consumption shifts, the language of coffee will naturally change, too.

“We’ve always thought of this tool as a work in progress,” Peter says. “It’s open to revision. If there’s a better way to do it, we’re open to it. Flavour diversity is very important to us.”

Jonathan, however, suggests that the Flavor Wheel is too targeted and not inclusive enough. He says that his Fruits Flavor Wheel was designed in a response to this, and notes that other industry stakeholders and entrepreneurs have designed their own for the same reason.

“In the end, it’s about communication that is efficient and accessible to all,” Jonathan says. “[For example], the SCA wheel offers 18 descriptors for fruit; the Fruits Flavor Wheel offers 95.”

He goes on to explain that his descriptors are fruits that can be found on any continent around the world, and not centred around one particular continent or country.

Jonathan also points out that the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel balances flavour, taste, and aroma, noting that this can be confusing.

However, it remains important to recognise that despite these alternatives and improvements, there’s no space to evolve without the landmark that is the SCA wheel. The concept of a flavour wheel alone is, in the grand scheme of things, revolutionary and still comparatively young. It remains incredibly valuable for the industry, as does the research behind the WCR lexicon.

The SCA Coffee Taster’s Wheel might not be perfect, but it has come a long way since 1995. The most recent version marks a huge turning point for specialty coffee, and shows the sheer amount of interest in determining a common language for flavour.

No matter the criticisms, it’s important to recognise that developing a global descriptive language for the sensory experience of coffee is incredibly difficult. The SCA and its partners have done a great job in rising to the challenge.

But while their efforts have largely been successful, there is still work to be done. The coffee industry continues to evolve at a rapid pace, and the tools and language we use must adapt to remain representative, useful and inclusive. Just how things will change in response to that remains to be seen – but there’s no doubt that it’s an interesting challenge to observe.

 

Photo credits: Peter Giuliano, Specialty Coffee Association, Acuerdo Project

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Traditional Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

We were fortunate enough to be invited by one of our customers to experience a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. And what an amazing and enlightening experience it was.

Today we are looking at the traditional buna ‘coffee’ ceremony that is prevalent all through out Ethiopia.

It is more than just a cup of coffee. It is a cultural celebration of an Ethiopian staple.

Ethiopia’s coffee ceremony is an integral part of the social and cultural life in the country.

An invitation to attend a coffee ceremony is considered a mark of friendship or respect and is an excellent example of Ethiopian hospitality.

Coffee isn’t just Ethiopia’s national drink. It is had throughout the day but never consumed alone.

Unlike in cities like New York, London and LA where ‘coffee-to-go’ is almost a norm these days, in Ethiopia every meeting includes coffee and coffee always requires company.

Ethiopia is the largest coffee producer in Africa and the fifth largest producer in the world and accounts for 4.2% of the global coffee production. The coffee industry in Ethiopia contributes up to 10 percent of Ethiopia’s GDP and provides livelihood for approximately fifteen million Ethiopian farmers all over the country.

But coffee isn’t just a part of the economics of Ethiopia. It is one of the largest producers of coffee in Africa and only exports about 50 percent of the coffee that is grown. In comparison other coffee growing countries around the world like Kenya consumes only 3 percent of its coffee crop where as Colombia consumers 14 percent.

It is very clear that coffee is extremely important to Ethiopians in Ethiopia.

Buna tetu’ which translates to ‘come drink coffee’ is a famous communal tradition in Ethiopia. Families will send children to knock on their neighbors homes to invite them to come share some coffee. This bonding nature of Ethiopians is a key thread in the fabric of its society.

Traditional way of drinking buna

The coffee brewing tradition in Ethiopia has many special elements. The ceremony involves processing the raw, unwashed coffee beans into finished cups of brewed coffee. Before this event, the dining room undergoes some preparatory rites for the ritual. Firstly, the coffee cups are all arranged on a table along with snacks. Freshly cut grass is displayed on both the floor and the table. And sweet incense is burnt as a way to clarify the space.

Preparing a traditional cup of coffee or buna can take more than an hour and actually drinking it can be longer, especially during festivities and celebrations. Drinking coffee is sensory experience in Ethiopia unlike any other.

The process begins with washing and roasting the beans on a iron pan called mitad. The person preparing the beans is typically dressed in the traditional Ethiopian clothes called habesaha semis. When the coffee beans are roasted, the mitad is taken to the guests so that they can inhale and smells the roasting beans. This is a huge part of the Ethiopian Coffee sensory experience.

The coffee beans are then brewed in a traditional mortar before putting them in a jebena in which the water has already been set to boil. Jebena which is a traditional clay pot made specifically for preparing coffee comes in various shapes and sizes and hold essential value in every Ethiopian households. Jebena’s have one, two or three spouts depending on the region where they are made and used. Once coffee beans have been added to the simmering water, it is left to steep in the jebena. When the coffee foam discharges from the top hole of the jebena, it is removed from the heat and left to allow all the solid coffee particles to settle at the bottom of the pot. Once all the coffee cups are gathered on the rekebot – the coffee platter – coffee is poured into the first cup. This first cup is culturally not for consumption but to confirm the murky liquid is free of all coffee grind. The drinking ceremony can finally begin and coffee is offered with multiple seasoning options including sugar, salt, or rue.

Traditional cup of Ethiopian coffee served with aromatic incense, usually frankincense and myrrh. The incense is ignited by a hot coal to produce smoke that is said to carry away any bad spirits. Conversations starts flowing freely as sweet incense dissipates in the room. From abol – the first cup of coffee, to tona – the second cup and finally to bereka – the last cup of coffee, the jebena is refilled until the settles coffee bits squeeze out their very last taste and guests are finally satisfied. It is considered impolite to leave the ceremony without consuming at least three cups. Ethiopians believe that your spirit transforms when you complete all three rounds. Of course, you are free to take as many cups as you wish afterward.

It is clear that the coffee culture in Ethiopia is as much of a ritual as it is about drinking that cup of coffee – a great way to slow down and engage with your friends and neighbors.

Thank you once again Jerry and family for the invitation and your hospitality…

አመሰግናለሁ

 

 

Coffee, health & wellness: Exploring “the original superfood”

From doctors and medical experts to nutritionists and sports coaches, the health benefits of coffee have been well-documented over the years by medical and healthcare professionals.

Over the years, research has highlighted how the high antioxidant content of coffee can improve life expectancy and reduce the risk of certain diseases, including Parkinson’s, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Today, coffee is an important part of a well-balanced diet for millions of people around the world. Global health and wellness trends fuelled by younger generations have prompted many to embrace coffee as a healthier alternative to sugary soft drinks.

However, in recent years, there has been a lot of discussion about just how coffee affects human health. To learn more about coffee and its health benefits, I spoke with Bill Murray, the president and CEO of the National Coffee Association (NCA). Read on to find out what he said.

You may also like our article comparing soft drink and coffee consumption.

WHAT ARE THE NUTRITIONAL BENEFITS OF COFFEE?
Whether you drink it before a workday, after a meal, or as a pre-workout energy boost, coffee has a number of nutritional benefits.

Many of these are linked to coffee’s high levels of antioxidants. Antioxidants are important for health and wellness as they prevent cells from being oxidised by toxins, chemicals, and inflammation.

The process of cell oxidation leads to the production of “free radicals”, which are unpaired, reactive atoms or molecules. These can build up in cells and cause irreparable damage. However, antioxidants stop cells from being oxidised, reducing the number of free radicals in the human body.

As such, a diet high in antioxidants can reduce the risk of the many diseases associated with free radicals, including arthritis, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease.

For example, research carried out over a 13-year-period by the Journal of the American Heart Association found that moderate coffee drinkers (those who consumed between two and four cups daily) were 20% less likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease.

As such, in a number of European countries, such as Finland, Norway, Poland, and Spain, coffee is the single largest dietary source of antioxidants. In these countries, it provides more than 60% of the average consumers’ antioxidant intake.

One in particular, chlorogenic acid (an important antioxidant that supports the prevention of heart disease), is found almost exclusively in coffee.

In addition to the specific benefits from the antioxidants in coffee, there is also a growing amount of research suggesting that coffee has an impact on life expectancy.

A landmark 2012 study by The New England Journal of Medicine found that women who drank four to five cups of coffee per day were at 12% less risk of an early death. For men, this decrease was 16%.

Even low to moderate consumption – as little as one cup of coffee per day – was linked with a 5% to 6% decrease.

Bill Murray has been the president and CEO of the National Coffee Association since 2014. He tells me that through a great number of studies, coffee has been proven time and time again as having a range of health benefits.

“Coffee is the original superfood,” he says. “I think discussions like this on the health benefits of coffee, alongside high levels of research, are what’s really needed to drive the industry.”

HEALTH AND WELLBEING: WHY COFFEE IS BECOMING A GLOBAL HEALTH TREND
Over the last few years, a focus on health and wellbeing has been one of the defining trends among young people.

Consequently, attitudes towards food and beverages have undergone dramatic shifts. Consumers are increasingly swapping convenience and cost for quality and health benefits in the products they eat and drink.

A recent report on eating trends found that those in millennial (aged 25 to 38) and Generation Z (aged 18 to 24) age groups were 29% more likely to try new health food products than any other age group.

These groups are also more likely to spend time researching healthy products online before making a purchasing decision.

For many, coffee plays an important role in a balanced, healthy lifestyle. This has been particularly evident in the rise of cold brew and ready to drink (RTD) coffee beverages, which have been embraced by some as healthier alternatives to energy drinks.

Another advantage of coffee in this regard is that it provides the caffeine boost that energy drinks provide while also offering no sugar content (unless added), more antioxidants, and no artificial sweeteners or flavourings.

And while conversations about the physical and psychological effects of caffeine have been ongoing for some time, it is important to remember that tea, soft drinks, and chocolate all also contain it. It is not solely found in coffee.

In addition, coffee can also have benefits for those looking to cut down their calorie intake. The Harvard School of Public Health states that the average can of sugar-sweetened soda contains 150 calories. In contrast, an equivalent serving of coffee (340g) contains just 4.

Providing no sugar or sweeteners are added, swapping one can of soda for a 340g cup of coffee can save an average of 146 calories, making it a great choice for diet control and weight loss.

Furthermore, coffee contains important nutrients that are linked to improvements in energy and performance, such as magnesium, potassium, and B vitamins.

Studies reveal that higher levels of magnesium can boost athletic performance, while potassium helps maintain muscle mass and lower blood pressure.

However, these health and wellbeing trends are unfortunately not universally discussed or recognised. Bill explains that in particular, the conversation around health and wellbeing in producing countries is often limited.

“In coffee-producing countries where there are these rich coffee cultures, focusing on questions of health will contribute a new dimension to that culture and add huge value to the industry as a whole,” he tells me.

COFFEE, CANCER & PROPOSITION 65
Despite the sheer volume of research about the health benefits of coffee, there continue to be misconceptions across the industry.

Perhaps one of the most significant cases of misconceptions about coffee is the State of California’s Proposition 65.

Officially known as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, Proposition 65 was enacted as a ballot initiative in 1986. It requires the State of California to publish (and update) a list of substances that are known to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm.

The list currently contains more than 900 different naturally occurring and synthetic substances.

It also requires businesses in California to then provide warnings on any product containing any of these substances, meaning that they would, in theory, be more difficult to sell.

In 2018, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge declared that coffee roasters and retailers had failed to demonstrate that certain levels of acrylamide – a chemical formed when coffee beans are roasted – did not pose a significant risk of cancer.

This would mean coffee being listed as a potential carcinogen under Proposition 65, and that all coffee businesses in California would have to advertise it as such.

Bill says: “Proposition 65 was giving people the fear that coffee was somehow associated with cancer, despite all the evidence on the contrary.

“When the State of California puts a label on coffee that associates it with cancer, not only are you sending out a message that’s untrue for coffee drinkers, but you’re also potentially hurting coffee farmers who will experience a drop in demand.”

After a year, in June 2019, a ruling was made that stated that exposure to the chemicals in coffee did not pose a significant risk of cancer. This exempted coffee from a Proposition 65 cancer warning.

The case was also reviewed by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which supported the view that coffee is not carcinogenic and noted that it could even help protect against some types of cancer.

However, in spite of the ruling, some believe the media exposure of the case has already had an impact. If consumers maintain the belief that roasted coffee is a carcinogen, despite research and a legal decision to the contrary, this will cause coffee businesses across the supply chain to suffer.

Bill concludes by explaining that consumers need to approach the facts themselves.

“When consumers are looking at health information, what they really need to do is cut through all the noise and take advice from the overwhelming body of evidence,” he says.

Over the years, a vast amount of research into the health benefits of coffee has emerged. As such, in recent years, it has come to be promoted as a key component of a healthy, well-balanced diet.

Coffee provides a much-needed caffeine boost for millions of people every single day. Beyond this, it is also a rich source of antioxidants that can lead to lower risk for a number of serious diseases. And while misconceptions do exist, studies and research are broadly in favour of coffee’s nutritional and health benefits.

So next time you’re reaching for an energy drink or reconsidering your calorie intake, consider brewing a cup of quality coffee instead. You may find that you prefer it as a healthy and nutritionally beneficial substitute.

 

 

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