What if I told you that, although wine is known to have approximately 500 different aroma compounds, it is actually less diverse in flavour than coffee? In fact, coffee has double as many flavours than wine. Pretty impressive, don’t you think?
Within the field of sensory analysis, there are numerous tools and templates with which to taste and describe foodstuffs. When it comes to coffee, in particular to speciality coffee, the tool most commonly used is called the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel. With it, users can first roughly categorise their coffee according to its taste and flavours, then proceed to define these on an increasingly differentiated scale. The wheel was developed by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), which was founded in 1982 by a small group of coffee experts. In 2017 it joined forces with the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE), its European counterpart, to become the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA). Boasting around 2,500 members, the SCA is the largest trade association within the speciality coffee trade, and is dedicated to promoting growth in this sector.
Taste or smell?
But let’s get back to tasting. Make yourself a cup of coffee. Take a sip. Now try to describe the way it tastes. It’s not so easy, is it? In order for our taste buds to detect individual flavours in foodstuffs, we first need to examine our senses of taste and of smell. Our tongue can differentiate between only five basic tastes: sweet, bitter, salty and umami. We can therefore distinguish these tastes without using our sense of smell. To use a fruity example: the tongue will be able to recognise whether a strawberry is sweet or sour. But to pick up on the strawberry’s specific flavour nuances, we need our nose. The same is true of coffee.
We all know that when we have a cold, our food only tastes half as good. Our well-seasoned steak and our espresso chocolate, normally delicious, just seem dull and boring. But if you don’t happen to be suffering from a cold, which we very much hope, then hold your nose tight while eating and drinking and you’ll notice the same thing. This is because our nose is key to our ability to distinguish tastes, playing the central role in what is known as retronasal olfaction.
This differs from normal smelling in that the process of sensory perception occurs via the nose and back of the throat – in the so-called retronasal passage. It is here that the flavours (essentially gaseous compounds) released by the foodstuffs we eat escape from our bodies. And it is only during this process that we perceive the flavours specific to those foodstuffs – in our case, to coffee. The task of putting what we perceive here into words is not easy. Indeed, done well, it is a high art. Happily, we can avail of various resources to help us with this. We have our own memories of familiar tastes and smells, for example. And we have various sensory analysis tools, one of which is the Flavor Wheel.
The Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel by SCAA and WCR (©2016)
The Flavor Wheel – do it yourself!
The Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel isn’t just for professional cuppings conducted by licensed Q-graders; it is also perfectly suitable for use at home. The Wheel is structured so as to have us work from the inside out. Its core specifies coffee’s main flavour categories. These are then broken down and further distinguished as you move outwards. Before you begin tasting your coffee and describing its flavours, we suggest that you take a moment to familiarise yourself with the Flavor Wheel’s many terms. Then try to connect the words you see with specific memories. For example, does the word “almond” really conjure up thoughts of how almonds taste when you chew them; does the word “plum” inspire memories of you biting into a ripe plum? Possible side effects: you may find yourself overcome with nostalgic memories of grandma’s orchard.
From the inside out
But enough of daydreaming. Now it’s time to put the Wheel to use. Make yourself a cup of coffee. Allow it to cool down for a moment. Now take a sip. Before swallowing the coffee, briefly hold it in your mouth while at the same time breathing slowly out through your nose. Concentrate on the Flavor Wheel’s inner circle. Does the coffee taste more nutty or fruity, more spicy or floral? Take another sip, once again breathing out through your nose. Now try to describe the flavour more precisely. If for example you detected a fruity note on your first sip, you should now try to distinguish this further. Consider, for instance, whether the fruity note is reminiscent more of citrus fruits or of berries.
In this way you progress, sip by sip, from the inside to the outside of the Wheel. Of course, developing your tasting skills will take practice. This process is all the more engaging if you do it as part of a group and are able to discuss and compare your results with others. Remember that you don’t have to stick to the terms specified on the Wheel. You can, of course, use your own words and phrases. The Flavor Wheel is only meant to serve as an aid, after all. Use it regularly and, before long, you’ll be a sensory expert.