Walk into most specialty coffee shops these days, and your choice of black coffee won’t be limited to something so simple as “Would you prefer a light or dark roast?” Rather, you’ll probably find yourself having to answer questions such as “Do you like a fruity, acidic coffee?” and “Would you prefer something with more chocolatey undertones?” For those who are maybe unfamiliar with the complicated world of specialty coffee (and we’ve all been there at some point), this can be an intimidating or confusing experience (we’ve even used these sorts of descriptors on this very blog before without fully explaining them! Yikes!).
Well, fear not, because today we’re taking a step back and looking at something called the Taster’s Wheel, an excellent reference for specialty coffee veterans and newbies alike. This wheel serves as a guide to help us describe the things we’re tasting when we drink a good cup of coffee, much in the way that some might seek to describe the taste of a fine wine or craft beer, and it accomplishes this by visually representing the gradient of flavors that coffee can exhibit. It gives us very detailed, specific notes (like blackberry, mandarin orange, and dark chocolate), and more generalized descriptors (fruit, sweet and sugary). You can see the wheel pictured below.
Both detailed and general descriptors can be helpful for different reasons. The more general terms, for example, can be helpful for a specialty coffee initiate to make sense of what they’re tasting. They may not be able to pick out specific notes, but hearing something like “This coffee is fruity and sweet” or “This coffee is more spicy and nutty” can be a critical aid to understanding the sensations that are going on in their mouth. The inner part of the wheel, then, is a great entry point for people who aren’t used to describing the differing tastes in coffees, and it’s useful for differentiating coffees that don’t have many flavors in common.
The outer part of the wheel, where all of the specific notes are located, is helpful for roasters, green coffee buyers, and anyone who feels like taking their coffee tasting game to the next level. Roasters and green coffee buyers use these more specific terms because they help to give a better understanding of the exact flavor profile of the coffee they’re tasting, and specificity is important when you’re trying to figure out which coffee to buy for the year, or how to roast your coffee to bring out the specific flavors you want.
It’s also a good tool for the average coffee drinker to be able to differentiate between two very similar coffees. A natural processed Ethiopian and Kenyan, for example, could both be described as fruity and sweet, and so on the surface appear to be identical. However, if you move into the out layer of the flavor wheel, you can start to describe the Ethiopian as having notes of raspberry, lavender, and milk chocolate, while the Kenyan has notes of grapefruit, orange, and honey. All of sudden, these coffees aren’t so similar after all.
So, as with many coffee related resources, there’s something of value in the Taster’s Wheel for us all, both the aficionados and the newly initiated. Next time you drink a cup of coffee, try describing it using some of the notes found somewhere on this wheel. Happy tasting!