Floral, Fruity, and… Phenolic? Exploring Coffee’s Sensory Side

January 31, 2017


“I like my coffee the way I like it.” Coffee is a personal experience. Whether it’s your favorite brand of coffee, your preferred roast level, or even the special way you make it every morning, it’s not unlikely to have a specific routine.


So the questions is, how do we take all of those variables and discuss coffee in a meaningful and understandable way? Sure, there’s a “way you like it,” but certainly there’s a better way to express it.  In the coffee industry, we like to use two specifics tools– the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel and the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon.



The Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel, shown above, is a flavor map, including the different tastes one can find in coffee. Using both broad and specific wording, the wheel helps tasters identify the specific flavor notes in different coffees, helping us better diversify our offerings.


Since its creation in 1995, the flavor wheel marks the industry standard for many coffee professionals. But recently, in 2016, the wheel was revamped in conjunction with World Coffee Research, to construct a more accurate and updated vocabulary. The new wheel is a combination of its predecessor and the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon– the other guide of information in our coffee toolkit.


In the creation of the lexicon’s first edition, sensory scientists spent over 100 hours with 105 coffee samples from all over the world. These days, you can find it written in 6 languages.


(If you want to get really nerdy about coffee and the lexicon’s creation, check out this article about the conception and categorization of the information).

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Now the question becomes, how do we use these tools, both as coffee professionals and at home?


The first step is to take the time to make a cup of coffee, paying attention to the details, measuring carefully and using the freshest coffee. Tasting the coffee’s intricacies isn’t nearly as fun when you’re gulping before work or downing it in your car.


When looking at the wheel, the Specialty Coffee Association encourages you to work from the inside out. Is the coffee fruity? If so, work your way out to find a more specific fruit flavor. Is it more of a berry fruit flavor or a citrus fruit flavor? Continuing to move outward, the wheel becomes more and more specific, whether it’s grapefruit or blackberry.


If you look closely, you’ll see the gaps between different flavors differ. For example, the gap between the berry and floral notes is much wider than the gap between berry and dried fruit, indicating the differences in these flavors and the categories we generally put them into.

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But the wheel isn’t all floral notes and bursts of citrus. Directly opposite of fruity– and taste closely– there are pockets of less desirable flavors like “rubber,” “woody,” even “skunky.”


Additionally, the lexicon and the wheel both complement the other. For the words that are unfamiliar on the wheel, an entry in the lexicon exists to explain it. For example, the word “Phenolic” falls on the bottom left of the wheel, among “Bitter” and “Meaty Brothy.” In the lexicon, “Phenolic” is described as “the aromatic described as damp, musty, and like animal hide. Reminiscent of a tack room.” Though we hope you aren’t drinking any coffees that you might describe as “phenolic,” it’s always good to have the words.


The more you taste, the more you begin to realize which flavors tend to cling to various coffees and their countries of origin. Rather than preferring a roast level, you begin to prefer a flavor profile from a specific country.  Some people like a heavier, nuttier coffee in the morning (maybe some coffee from Brazil) but they like a brighter, fruitier coffee (perhaps from Ethiopia) in the afternoon.


And now, with the lexicon and flavor wheel at your side, you’ll have the words to describe your coffee– exactly the way you like it.