“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.

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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.

 

As many of you know, Tiny Footprint recently sent me (Thomas) to Peru to get a first hand look (and taste) of the culture of coffee in Peru. We have been buying the same coffee from CenfroCafe in Jaén, Peru for the last four years, and we have good reason. If you are in need of a clean, balanced cup of coffee that you can drink all day long, the Peru APU is what you are looking for. Below is a glimpse into the Cenfrocafe warehouse. The blue bags are the APU, the coffee we buy. As you can see it’s a small percentage of the total amount of coffee they sell.

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Right now, the APU is among the best coffee coming out of Peru. Higher scoring coffees receive higher premiums, which allow farmers to not just subsist – but flourish. Not only do the APU lots give the farmer an incentive to take the steps necessary to increase the quality of their coffee (higher premiums), but it shows us as coffee drinkers that Peru is capable of producing high quality coffee.

Relative to their neighboring countries, Peru is a newbie in the specialty coffee world. There are a few main reasons for Peru’s slower climb to the speciality coffee realm. For one, there isn’t a national organized body to represent Peru’s coffee industry as a whole. Adding this body of organization has made a big difference on quality in other countries, such as Colombia. Such a central organizing body helps coordinate among different regions and stakeholders throughout the supply chain to make the processes more efficient.

 

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The coffee infrastructure in Peru is also still developing. Most producers are doing their own wet processing and drying on their own land, which makes consistency difficult to manage on a large scale. Adding to the difficulty, these farm locations are often many miles from the coffee drop off locations. The producer must either bring his coffee to town right after drying, which is often inefficient, or he must wait to fill an entire truck, resulting in an even longer waiting period. The coffee can sit out on the drying bed (usually a tarp on the ground) for so long that repeated wetting and drying occurs – degrading the potential of the bean.

 

These are not impossibly high hurdles, especially with the dedication of the farmers. The villages we visited on this trip were committed to investing in better infrastructure (namely, raised drying screen with rain covers) in order to improve the quality of the cup, which would ultimately raise the producer’s premiums. The coffee we purchase from CenfroCafe is Fair Trade certified but these quality premiums are essential to improving the quality of life for the producers that help us wake up in the morning.

 

Yet understanding the local culture around the coffee is just as important as understanding the industry itself. We were able to spend an entire afternoon with the people of Corrazon de Jesus – dancing and sharing a meal high in the mountain, 1850 meters up. While in the city itself—in between cuppings of course—we spent time at local restaurants and attractions— we even went the zoo.

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It was an incredibly humbling experience to see coffee from the other end. As a specialty wholesaler, we don’t often get to interact with the coffee drinker, but even less so the producers. Again, we are reminded that—despite the distance—we all play a larger role in each other’s lives than we may think, from farmer, to roaster, to you.