How To Use the Coffee Flavor Wheel

Tasting subtle flavors in our food is not something we often grow up doing. Rice is rice. Chicken tastes like chicken. That’s how most of us learn to understand flavor – on a very basic level. The idea of coffee tasting like anything other than “just coffee” sounds utterly ridiculous under this framework of flavor we grow into, but there’s a way to break out of it.

What if I told you that you could taste all sorts of things in your coffee? Blueberry, lime, jasmine, cashew, tomato – yes – these are all possible flavors in coffee that has been cared for from farm to roaster to cup.

Nothing  has to be added for these flavors to appear – the coffee just has to be grown and roasted with attention and discipline. Coffee beans that have been flavored with oils or additives are likely lower-quality coffee beans to begin with. As a general rule: coffee should be flavorful on its own. If it’s flavored with a separate agent, it does not fit within the specialty coffee realm.

To get a chance to taste these types of wild flavors for yourself, take a look at the Coffee Flavor Wheel and brew up a cup of coffee that has been sourced and roasted by a reputable specialty coffee roaster. One great coffee to do this with is our new Ethiopia Aricha Natural, which is bursting at the seams with flavor.


How To Use the Coffee Flavor Wheel

Take a sip of your coffee. Swirl it around all parts of your mouth for a moment and enjoy it. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What does it remind you of?
  • What does it taste like anything other than “just coffee”?
  • Does it have any particular feeling?

Take a look at the wheel, developed over three years with the help of over a hundred scientists. Start at the center. Is the coffee fruity at all? Nutty? Sweet? Does it taste green or vegetal? If you can get a sense of a direction that the flavor may lean towards, you’re doing it correctly!

Look at level two. Does that fruity taste you are experiencing remind you more of a berry or a citrus fruit? Maybe that sweetness you taste reminds you of brown sugar, sweet but dark.

Move to the final circle. Is that brown sugary flavor more like honey or molasses? Is that citrus fruit an orange or a lime?

For beginners, it can be quite difficult to move to the outer two levels. With time and more tasting comes confidence and clarity, so don’t give up. Perform this exercise every time you try a new coffee, and you’ll be tasting clove and peach and maple before too long.

Fake It Till You Make It

A large part of tasting is coming to realize that your palate can pick up on things more powerfully than you realize. When you fake it till you make it, you are actually learning to trust your palate. There then comes a moment when you taste something and realize that you don’t have to guess or try to stretch the description.

Learning to do this takes time, confidence, and some patience. It’s an exercise in focus and attention, but it comes with some great rewards.

Be Empowered

The wheel is meant to empower coffee tasters of all skills to find and discern flavors within coffee. It’s not meant to stretch reality – the flavors are based on identifiable chemicals in coffee – it’s meant to train us how to taste and understand new levels of coffee flavor.

Take this skill with you wherever you go. Soon you’ll know the difference in flavor and mouthfeel between jasmine and arborio rice, as well as light and dark chicken meat.

Happy brewing!

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