This is our coffee tasting guide.
This article is not about coffee cupping; it's actually about how to learn to recognize different coffee flavors. If you're interested in coffee cupping, you can check out our coffee cupping guide.
In this article, you will learn about flavor descriptions and how to use the coffee taster's flavor wheel for coffee tasting.
Let's get started.
What Are Coffee Flavor Descriptions?
A description is a unit for describing the taste and aroma of coffee. For example, when a Q-grader (a coffee tasting specialist) finds notes of dark grapes, red apples, or dark chocolate in coffee, those are descriptions.
There can be an infinite number of taste descriptions: berries, flowers, herbs, fruits, nuts, and so on—even things like rubber, oil, and concrete.
Taste descriptions are not pulled out of thin air by professionals, as they sometimes seem to be. The notes do exist, but to feel them, a person must taste properly brewed coffee and have extensive tasting experience.
There is no connection between coffee's ingredients and its descriptions. For example, if you taste orange notes in a drink, this doesn't mean orange was added to the coffee. It only means that in this particular situation, similar chemical elements were formed in coffee and caused an association with the flavor of an orange.
You can feel a huge number of different notes in the taste of coffee, which is why coffee is considered the most complex product in terms of the number of flavoring substances.
How to Do a Coffee Tasting
The Flavor Wheel is the main tool for describing the taste and aroma of a cup of coffee. If you are just learning how to define and describe the taste of coffee, you should keep this flavor wheel close at hand.
The rise of specialty coffee has greatly increased the variety of flavors and aromas, but it has also caused difficulties: due to the different taste experiences of people in different countries, it was difficult for everyone to describe the same coffee.
For example, one person may have tasted anise, while another may never have heard of this spice.
To help people from all over the world understand each other when tasting coffee, the first coffee tasting wheel was created in 1995. Below we will explain how to use it.
Where to Find the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel
There are many variations of the coffee tasting wheel. You can find one simply by searching Google.
But we advise you to lean on the flavor wheel from the SCAA website.
You can also buy the flavor wheel in digital or print form, in English or other languages, from the official SCA online store.
Tasting Coffee with the Flavor Wheel
The idea is to visually go from the inner circle to the outer circle and select the most suitable descriptions.
1. Familiarize yourself with the coffee tasting wheel and imagine the full range of coffee flavors and aromas, from fruity and floral notes to chemical and musty notes. It's best to start at the center and gradually move outward. Some of the descriptions are likely to be unfamiliar to you—that's okay.
2. Study descriptions that are unfamiliar to you. If you are at a loss with a particular description, you can research online or find the ingredient at a grocery store. A brief description of the taste and/or aroma will help you understand how this note could appear in coffee.
3. Practice. The first step is to grind the coffee and smell the freshly ground beans. Then start brewing and pay attention to the aroma during the blooming phase and the brewing phase. These stages are just preparation, but you'll already be able to feel some descriptions, which you can then confirm during tasting.
The second step is coffee tasting. Taste the coffee, hold it on your tongue, swallow it, and check the flavor wheel. Recording the sensations you experience will help you develop awareness while tasting.
4. Learn to describe the taste. To do this, you need to start from the center of the coffee tasting wheel: first select a group of descriptions, then a subgroup, and then the description.
For example, you may taste coffee and realize that it has fruity notes. Using the wheel, you select a more accurate description of the taste from these options: berries, other fruits, dried fruits, or citrus fruits. Let's say you choose berries. Then you move to this subgroup and determine what kind of berry you taste: blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, or blueberries.
It is not necessary to describe the taste in such detail. You can stop at any stage if you cannot determine the description more precisely.
5. Gain more taste experience. To use the coffee tasting wheel and describe coffee easily, you'll need to practice a lot.
Try all sorts of foods and drinks so you'll recognize those flavors in coffee. For example, eat berries and carefully analyze the taste. Try to remember this taste for the future.