What do localised coffee flavour wheels mean for the industry?
Matt Haw speaks with Andrew Hetzel about region-specific coffee flavour wheels, and how developing localised language around flavour might not be as simple as it seems.
It’s long been argued that the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel does not comprehensively represent the increasingly global spectrum of specialty coffee consumers. While it has been an iconic resource for some time, it is now being deconstructed by coffee professionals from around the world.
At first, the Flavor Wheel was a guide for talking about the flavours found in coffee.
Andrew Hetzel is a former board member of the SCA and a coffee market expert. He explains: “We needed some sort of common terminology to describe a complex sensory experience, a vocabulary that identified specific sensory traits that could be essentially calibrated between different cuppers.”
As such, the Flavor Wheel was created in the early 1990s by Ted Lingle of the Coffee Quality Institute and the Specialty Coffee Association of America.
It created a standardised language for talking about coffee flavour, as well as a visual guide that could be used to codify the complex sensory experience of tasting.
In 2016, the Flavor Wheel was substantially revised in collaboration with World Coffee Research (WCR).
The original was largely developed by coffee industry professionals, while the updated version incorporated the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon, itself a product of the largest piece of research on coffee flavour completed to date.
As specialty coffee has increased in popularity, the coffee flavour wheels have become ubiquitous – making their way out of the cupping lab and into cafés and the homes of coffee enthusiasts.
However, this was not the original purpose of coffee flavour wheels. Instead, it was intended to be a guidance tool for sensory assessment within the industry.
“The Flavor Wheel was never really designed for cuppers, it wasn’t intended to be consumer-facing,” says Andrew. “The idea was that someone independent of the coffee industry could evaluate coffee coming from different breeds.”
However, with this new purpose, there is an argument that the Flavor Wheel now needs to adapt.
Not fit for purpose?
The Flavor Wheel’s role in the industry has led to it attracting scrutiny in recent years. Perhaps the biggest piece of criticism is that the descriptors used are tied to words and flavours that are more identifiable for Western palates.
“Each flavour on the wheel has a standard in real life that can be purchased, tasted and compared to what you’re seeing in the cup,” Andrew says. He goes on to explain that the products were selected through the commissaries on American military bases to make sure flavours were as accessible as possible.
But in spite of this, many of the flavours remain unfamiliar to consumers beyond Europe and the United States.
“They’re not wrong,” Andrew says about those who criticise the flavour wheel as Western-centric. “The Flavor Wheel was created by Western institutions with the participation of Western tradespeople and academics.”
Having led coffee cupping courses in Africa and Asia, Andrew has direct experience trying to explain Western flavours to people who have never encountered Western foods before.
He explains his attempts in Uganda: “If you’ve never tried an almond before, it’s something that you can’t really recall and define very clearly.”
Furthermore, some have argued that the position of certain flavours on the wheel is not truly neutral – giving them an implied “value” based on where they sit.
For example, “earthy” is an appreciated flavour in much of the Indian subcontinent. However, as Raghunath Rajaram explains, its position between “musty/dusty” and “animalic” suggests that it describes something inherently undesirable in coffee.
As a result, people are calling for localised versions of the Flavor Wheel to reduce cultural bias and improve inclusivity.
Communication is key
In response, people around the world have started to develop their own coffee flavour wheels. In doing so, they have decided on the terminology that best describes what they are tasting based on foods and flavours from their region. Several region-specific coffee flavour wheels have appeared in recent years.
Seniman Coffee and 5758 Coffee Lab in Indonesia have developed their own flavour wheel with 36 aroma references and 82 sensory descriptors. Elsewhere, Taiwan Coffee Laboratory released its own flavour wheel in 2018.
However, localised coffee flavour wheels do more than include under-represented regions on the global stage. They also help to create more accessible resources for coffee farmers in the region.
Using regional flavour descriptors can help develop a farmer’s sense of taste, and help them gain a better understanding of the value consumers assign to their coffee. In turn, producers can develop coffees that are more suitable for buyers.
“There needs to be some sort of conversion chart though,” says Andrew. “It’s the buyers who are going to pay for those flavours so I think there’s more power in having some sort of a common vernacular.”
While localised coffee flavour wheels can give regions outside of Europe and the US their own terms of reference, it would be counterproductive to exclude purchasers from the global market.
For example, the Indonesian Coffee Flavour Wheel categorises coffee pulp as “positive fermentation”, while the SCA-approved aromatic memorisation kit, Le Nez Du Café, classifies it as a defect.
Andrew believes that working closely with farmers will help to reduce the gap in interpretation. “A short answer is that cupping together makes all the difference,” he says. “That is, I think, why a lot of buyers continue to work with their producers, certainly on the upper tier of quality.”
There are clear benefits to developing region-specific coffee flavour wheels. It makes the sensory lexicon more global, as well as improves representation on the global stage. But to truly drive improvement across the supply chain, we must remember that no flavour wheel is a substitute for good communication between farmer and buyer, or buyer and roaster.