Roasters Rock

The New SCAA Flavor Wheel

If you were to travel the world, you would find the same thing in almost every coffee lab and roastery: The SCAA Flavor Wheel poster. Many (most) folks have no idea how to use this poster or the significance of it. But it is colorful, has lots of specific words and looks pretty scientific so it shows that you are serious about coffee if it is on your wall.

The SCAA finally put together a wonderful class dedicated to unlocking the mysteries of the wheel. It helps the cupper identify aromas and tastes and helps to identify where in the coffee process they are formed. It also tied in nicely with the Le Nez du Café kits by honing in on fragrance and aroma patterns and helping to place them into 4 groupings that are found on the wheel.

So if this wheel is so deeply entwined with SCAA course materials including being central to the Q-Grader protocol, why is a new one needed? What is the problem to be solved? How do we reconcile the new and the old wheel? WHY SCAA? WHY?

The answer is simple. Our industry is evolving exactly as we planned it to! The skill level of production both at the farm as well as the coffee counter is improving quickly. There are new flavors being produced and a more detailed and agile system for descriptors needs to evolve as well. The PURPOSE of the wheel is also changing and this needs to be carefully monitored and considered.

Purposes: Old vs. New

The Original Wheel: 

Coffee Tasters Flavor Wheel21 years ago there was a need to try and define specialty coffee and differentiate it from commercial coffee. The flavor wheel was developed under the direction of Ted Lingle as a way to assist in describing some of coffee’s unique fragrances and aromas that would possibly help differentiate a coffee as being specialty.

If farmers and roasters could anticipate where and how to highlight certain characteristics in their coffee they could put processes in place to create the characteristic consistently thereby increasing the quality and value of the product.

It had another important function as well; to help a cupper identify any characteristics that were ‘off’ in the coffee and to help identify where they might have been generated. This is a great tool to help origin countries and roasters identify taints and faults and allow them to fix their processes to eliminate bad practices.

Most of the Q-Grader protocol evolved from this thinking about how to differentiate specialty and commercial. It is a system for consistently defining both good and bad characteristics in coffee and using that identification to give feedback in the supply chain to help improve processes.

The New Wheel:

Roasters and Baristas are amazing. They are able to take a green bean and pull from it a vast amount of unique tastes and aromas. These awesome, and sometimes fleeting notes need a lexicon all their own. This helps the craftsmen show off what they were able to create with the coffee that was different from some other Roaster or Barista. These folks should be considered high level craftspeople or even artists. A problem with artists however is they often get carried away with language while describing their art! This makes it impossible to calibrate and compare between products.
This new wheel helps put a fine point on descriptors that are similar, and groups them in ways that an average consumer can understand. The descriptors were created using results of the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon.

The other brilliant thing SCAA did when producing the wheel was to develop a mechanism to add additional descriptors as needed moving forward. After all, who knew 21 years ago we would need Jasmine and Chamomile to describe a Geisha coffee from Panama? Coffee will change and the tool needs to be able to adapt.


Changing Your Poster

Don’t take the old one down just yet! It still fulfills a purpose of placing odors and tastes into useful groupings of Enzymatic, Sugar Browning, Dry Distillation and Aromatic Taints. This is still crucial information for producing countries and roasters. Until SCAA has class materials explaining how the new wheel meets this need, we can’t abandon the original wheel.

Coffee Quality Institute, the daughter organization of SCAA, and the producers of the Q-Grader Certification, will continue to use the original wheel for the foreseeable future while working with SCAA to integrate the new wheel into the Q curriculum.

It is easy to imagine travelling the world and finding the same thing in almost every lab and roastery: TWO flavor wheel posters!

Rocky Rhodes is an 18 year coffee veteran, roaster, and Q-Grader Instructor, and his mission now is to transform the coffee supply chain and make sweeping differences in the lives of those that produce the green coffee. Rocky can be reached at

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