Understanding Coffee Flavour Profiles and the SCA Flavour Wheel

Understanding Flavour in Coffee

Speciality coffee can be hugely diverse in flavour. Numerous factors influence this, from how it is roasted, to where it is from, to how it has been processed. for almost any coffee.

If you drink speciality coffee regularly, we’re sure you must be familiar with some of the flavour notes that are used to describe coffee. Some are relatively broad (nutty, chocolate), some quite specific (strawberry, hazelnut). Sometimes roasters try and make connections to make the description sound a little more fun (apple and sugar could be described as candied apple or apple pie). The later are based on truth even if they seem at times slightly exaggerated!

Why can coffee taste so different?

Different coffees have such versatile flavour for a number of reasons. To name a few there is roast profile, how the bean has processed, how the coffee is brewed, and origin.

Roast profile can alter flavour because of the processes that occur during roasting. The Maillard reaction is one such example. This reaction occurs between amino acids and reducing sugars, and gives way to dark and bitter flavours. The longer and darker a roast, the more pronounced these flavours become. Fruiter and sweeter notes on the other hand become less pronounced.

We have another blog on how beans are processed here. But in summary, honey, natural, and washed coffees can taste different because of the time the beans have to interact with sugars in the surrounding cherry.

How the coffee has been brewed may also impact the overall brew. For example, brew method can alter how the coffee feels. Immersion methods such as French press are more likely to feel denser than say a filter coffee, which in coffee we would describe as having a heavier mouthfeel.

Finally it worthy to note that coffee has over 800 substances (known as esters) that lend flavour. Some of these are actually identical, others very similar, to the taste we are trying to describe. Variations in these substances give way to a multitude of different flavours.

Do roasters add flavour to their beans?

We thought we should get this question out of the way. We never add flavour to our coffee beans! Everything that you taste comes from the coffee itself. This is generally the case amongst any roastery using speciality coffees. Adding flavour simply detracts from the natural intrinsic flavour.

We should note that some large commercial roasters do add flavour to their coffee. Roasted beans are sprayed with oils containing artificial flavouring. We personally think this a waste, as not only does this prevent the coffee being appreciated for what it is, but also because so much effort goes into growing, processing, and roasting coffee, only for its taste to be altered with unnatural flavouring.

How do we assign a coffee a flavour profile?

After we’ve roasted a new coffee, we must discover its flavour profile. This usually begins with a cupping. In brief a cupping is the best way to taste a coffee because it doesn’t pass through any filter or extraction process that may alter flavour. It is simply hot water poured over freshly ground coffee in a cupping bowl. The coffee is then cooled for a bit before being sampled from a cupping spoon (and traditionally slurped!).

This process usually involves our head roaster, other members of staff, and occasionally our coffee bean supplier who is able to provide further insight. We then use the SCA flavour wheel to give the new coffee a flavour profile.

The SCA flavour wheel- A Coffee Taster’s go to Coffee Resource

The Speciality Coffee Association (SCA) flavour wheel was introduced in 1995 and underwent a major revamp in 2016. This tool is designed to guide  tastings in a uniform manner, starting with broad flavour categories, and ending with specific flavours. Importantly the SCA define flavour as a combination of taste and smell. This may look slightly complex at first, but is meant to standardise coffee tasting and help guide flavour profiles.

Starting in the middle, tasters work outwards, beginning with broad flavour categories, and ending with specific tasting notes. Owing to its diversity coffee can often contrasting flavours, for example chocolate, with hints of fruit. The revised SCA also accounts for any flavour defects that may be in the coffee, for example an over-roasted coffee may taste too ashy, which would be undesirable.

Why can’t I taste the same flavours this coffee has been given?

Flavour profiles are created by people experienced in coffee tastings, so picking out the different flavours can at first be difficult. It generally becomes easier with time and experience. However, there is also a degree of subjectivity when it comes to how taste is experienced, and you might pick out different flavours to how the coffee bas been described.

It is also interesting to note that the SCA flavour wheel has largely been formulated with flavours we are familiar with in the West (Europe, US etc.), and is therefore not necessarily a useful tool universally. This is something the SCA is working on improving.

How can I get better at Coffee Tasting?

You may already be able to pick up differences between some coffees. Darker roasts may taste more bitter, or an Ethiopian coffee fruiter than a typical Brazilian coffee. Picking up more subtle, individual tasting notes may however seem more difficult.

Coffee tasting, as with wine, is not something that can be mastered overnight. Being able to distinguish different flavours takes time. As a starting point it can be good to familiarise yourself with the actual food that you think coffee tastes like. For example, really knowing what hazelnuts, dark chocolate, different berries taste like. This can better equip your palate to pick out the subtle flavours found within coffee.

Other pieces of advice are to cleanse your palate before tasting, and taste the coffee at 60-70C rather than straight after brewing. The flavour of coffee will often become more pronounced as it begins to cool.  

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