The coffee vocabulary, the coffee flavour wheel

Even coffee has an aroma wheel that helps with tasting, what is it? Created for professional tasters, today it can help all tasting enthusiasts: let's find out how to train ourselves to taste our coffee at its best.

Barbara Fassio
Barbara Fassio

The taste of any food is difficult to express perfectly in words; terms like ‘delicious’ and ‘aromatic’ only scratch the surface of a product’s true potential. Not to mention that each dish elicits different reactions in each person. To address this problem, chefs, sommeliers and food and wine experts over the years have worked to better describe the rich and complex flavours of food and drink. The result is the flavour wheel.

The perfect combination of taste and smell defines the flavour of a food and the flavour wheel was created precisely to collect all the flavour descriptors to help us best describe what we are tasting. It contains attributes ranging from basic tastes (perceived only by the tongue) to pure aromas (those that can only be smelled); most flavours, however, are a mixture of senses and reading the wheel helps us describe this complexity.

Each product, then, possesses unique and peculiar characteristics that have made it necessary to differentiate flavour wheels, creating specific ones for each category. And so you may come across flavour wheels for wine or beer, but also for cheese and certainly for coffee. Tasters and professionals use this tool on a daily basis, as an aid to better describe what they are tasting.

If you have ever looked at the tasting notes of a coffee and wondered how on earth they came up with them, well, it is not just pure imagination or marketing: tasters use the coffee flavour wheel to identify the aromas present in a specific cup of coffee. With a little practice, you can do it too.

The flavour wheel, a tool not only for experts.

The wheel is an invaluable tool for coffee professionals. Born to create a common vocabulary for tasters to use during cupping, it was based on similar wheels previously constructed for wine and beer. Published in 1995, the Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel was reviewed by the Specialty Coffee Association of America and became an example of the most collaborative research work on coffee flavour ever completed, inspiring a new vocabulary for coffee professionals. But what exactly are we talking about? A pie chart containing a coloured circle listing the variety of flavours that can be found in black coffee, unflavoured of course.

But the Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel is not just for experts who have to classify or define roasted coffees: familiarising yourself with coffee flavours can help anyone to buy better coffees and, more importantly, to discover which types you prefer.

Don’t be overwhelmed by all the colours and terms on the wheel, certainly some are easier to find in the cup while others are more complex to understand, but with a little training everything will be easier.

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There has always been a clash between those who trivialise taste and those who complicate it: on the one hand there are accusations of exaggerated imagination, while on the other hand it is thought that simplifying is a symptom of narrow-mindedness. Products like the flavour wheel give both researchers and ordinary people the opportunity to understand the products they taste at a deeper level, and the gap between taste ideologies narrows.

Reading the Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel

Tasting should always and above all be a pleasant moment, a multi-sensory experience made for the enjoyment of a quality product. However, if you want to go further and try to better define what you are tasting, you can use the various segments into which the flavour wheel is divided as a guide. 

We suggest you proceed in this way:

The centre of the wheel

Here you will find flavours grouped into very broad categories: they represent some of the main tastes (sweet, sour, etc.) to which rather generic but easily identifiable entries are added even if you are not very trained (‘spicy’, for example). Note the category for ‘other’, which includes some of the more unpleasant flavours that unfortunately result from coffee bean defects.


Proceeding outwards 

As you proceed outwards on the flavour wheel, you find more and more specific definitions on each level. Again, you may not be able to identify exactly what you are tasting, but proceed by comparison. Take a sip of coffee and evaluate the definitions you find: reading the terms listed will certainly bring back memories of specific scents you are familiar with, and you will thus be able to assess whether in fact, at that precise moment after tasting, that flavour will be present.

If you notice, the adjacent boxes on the graph are attached or separated by a space, more or less wide: this helps to easily visualise how similar two or more flavours are.


The more you taste, the more you will accustom your gustatory apparatus to recognising and separating aromas and thus finding them in coffee. Let’s do not just stop at the cuisine you are most used to, let us be contaminated by new products and recipes: each stimulus will enrich your sensory vocabulary.