Better Communicating Flavor Notes in Coffee

Delving into specialty coffee, the importance of labels quickly becomes apparent. You may have noticed a change in how we describe our offerings; subtle as it is, the use of “flavor” in place of “taste” is an important distinction.

Taste is the interaction between substances and taste buds (i.e.  bitter, sweet, salty, acidic, and umami).

Aroma is the smell of brewed coffee.

Flavor is a cumulative experience produced primarily by taste and aroma.

One of the most chemically complex foodstuffs, variation in sensory experience coffee-to-coffee is the product of genetics, growing conditions, processing, and so on. 2016 saw the release of the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon and corresponding Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel, products of collaborative research between World Coffee Research (WRC) and the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) aiming to improve understanding. Feature-rich, let’s focus on the Lexicon’s flavor intensity ratings.

Our goal as roasters is transparency, such that all unique to a coffee is revealed in the cup. If accomplished, the challenge becomes communicating said uniqueness. Common methods include flavor notes and roast levels. However, if the roast is to be invisible (as is our goal) roast levels provide little value. Flavor notes, while useful, often appear illusory due to missing information and a lack of in-house perspective -- perhaps the ultra-delicate, ultra-unique flavor notes roasters pull are unrepresentative of a coffee? Thus, referencing the Lexicon and Wheel, we will now be including flavor intensity ratings as means of correcting these shortcomings.


Using our Ethiopia Amaro Gayo as an example, rankings will be implemented as follows.

A one-to-five scale will be used based on references in the Lexicon. In the Amaro, the blueberry ranks five -- incredibly prominent and near-universally identifiable. Rhubarb and strawberry rank lesser at two. The color used to represent each note is, if possible, pulled from the Wheel, which highlights one of the pair’s limitations: the list of traits is by no means exhaustive. Thus, certain notes (such as rhubarb) may not have a reference yet. We will do our best to properly represent such notes.

In making these changes we hope to provide clarity both in-house and -out. Keeping intensity in-mind will help us avoid being illusory. In turn, you will be better equipped to gauge our offerings.

Following the the WRC and SCA, our aim is for this project to be collaborative.  For questions and comments, you can reach me at For information regarding the Lexicon and Wheel, visit the WRC website.



Jacob Ryder



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