What The Coffee Flavor Wheel Actually Is

You may have heard of the Food Pyramid and color wheels, but the Coffee Flavor Wheel may not be something you considered when deciding on your morning cup of joe. The Coffee Flavor Wheel is just that — a giant wheel broken into multiple rings and sections within those rings. Closer to the center, you'll find a standard group of flavors for coffee such as fruity, sweet, spices, roasted, and several other identifiers. The wheel then breaks down these categories further, providing terminology for coffee aficionados to use when identifying the tastes of their drinks. Basically, it can be helpful in determining different types of coffee.

Based on the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon, the Coffee Flavor Wheel helps break down the sensory experience of drinking coffee with three identifiers — mouthfeel, smell, and taste. These three senses range on a scale of up to 15, giving drinkers a helpful notice of how intense a brew may be. The original Coffee Flavor Wheel has been around for a while, first invented by a team of researchers in 1995. However, only around a decade later, in 2009, the scientists at the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) realized that the flavor wheel was severely outdated. 

The SCAA and World Coffee Research combined forces to develop a new chart for specialty coffee. Both organizations debuted the new Coffee Flavor Wheel in 2016 to set a standard for coffee drinkers. But how does one use the chart? 

The ins and outs of the Coffee Flavor Wheel

Have you ever wanted to identify the individual flavors of your coffee but haven't had a good guide to help you? That's where the Coffee Flavor Wheel comes into play. Unlike other charts, you'll want to start at the middle circle and work your way outward. Just think general to specific.

Each ring of the wheel breaks down things further than the wheel before it, until you arrive at a specific taste. It sounds simple in practice, but it can be complex. For instance, while coffee may taste nutty or fruity, deciding which nut or fruit it is ultimately is a different matter entirely. If you find yourself stuck, take a deep breath and revisit the last ring on the wheel that you were sure about. 

It may seem like guesswork with extra steps, but the Coffee Flavor Wheel actually ensures a standardized flavoring system among brewers. Since it's drawing from the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon, these flavors should remain the same, no matter the brew. In fact, you should consult this database of flavors to see if the taste you guessed matches the descriptors listed there. Likewise, color also plays an important role in determining your coffee's flavor, so be sure to pay attention to the various colors on the wheel. With coffee blends becoming more and more complex, having a system in place to identify flavors helps keep things simple.