Ric Rhinehart, Executive Director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), has seen posters of the SCAA's iconic Coffee Flavor Wheel everywhere: "In Tanzania, in Colombian backwaters, at 3000 meters above sea level in Peru. It's become a visual symbol of specialty coffee," he told me. It's possible you've seen it, too—maybe behind the counter of your favorite coffee shop. But you probably haven't seen this exact wheel yet: Two years ago, Ric and the SCAA decided it was time to give the 20-year-old graphic an update, and today they announced its brand-new iteration.
The wheel is used mostly by folks in the coffee industry, people who need a lexicon to discuss what coffee really tastes like—specifically, people talking to distributors about what kinds of coffee beans they're looking for, coffee roasters, and professional coffee cuppers (a real job, yes, that includes careful tastings of many different kinds of coffee). In fact, hundreds of coffee cuppers were involved in the making of the new wheel: They tasted hundreds of kinds of coffee, from grocery store brands to super-specialty coffees, in order to come up with the descriptive vocabulary the wheel includes, like "grapefruit," "pea pod," "cardboard," "molasses," and "malt."
"These flavor descriptors are not just people waxing poetic," Ric told me. "They're trained professionals identifying flavors." Together, the wheel represents the sensory descriptions needed talk about the flavors of coffee, whether you're a scientist, a professional taster, or simply someone making coffee at home. The new wheel is much more precise than its predecessor, which featured identifiers like "nut-like" and "nippy."
The updates have tremendous advances in sensory science to thank, Ric explained. "When the first wheel was developed in 1995, there were things—umami, for example—that weren't recognized by the sensory sciences. We've learned a lot about how to taste, and how to identify tastes and aromas... There's a lot of new technology and learning—in general learning and coffee-specific learning."
The SCAA worked with World Coffee Research, a nonprofit research organization based at Texas A&M University, and teams of scientists to sort the different descriptive terms into categories, a process that took about three months. This sorting allows for a language that is both qualitative and quantitative; it helps people describe what they're tasting and, said Ric, "should be able to [help] sort data—specifically for developing new breeds of plants for the quality of the bean as well as other agronomic qualities."
Is there a part of the wheel that reflects better coffee than the other parts of the wheel? Not really, Ric said. The wheel tries to identify attributes—not necessarily positives and negatives. In the last few years, Ric says that the SCAA has noticed coffee drinkers gravitating towards flavors in the "12 o'clock to 3 o'clock" section, characterized by floral and fruit flavors. But coffee is traditionally thought of as fitting within the "8 o'clock to 11 o'clock" section: roasted, cocoa, and nutty flavors. "There's something for everyone," Ric said.
There are some descriptors that might be perceived as solely negative, like "musty" or "skunky," which, says Ric, accommodate for some of the chemical processes applied to coffee. (And the coffees given to the professional cuppers to test from were varied in quality, just as they would be in your daily coffee-drinking experience.) But coffee is hugely subjective: "Some people might see 'burnt,' and think, 'I don't really like burnt'—but some people really do!"
Where on the wheel do your preferences fall—peanuts? maple syrup? pear? whiskey? Tell us how you take your coffee in the comments.