If you’ve come to read this post, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of the Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel. Perhaps you’re quite familiar with it? It’s one of the industry’s most widely used resources, designed by the Specialty Coffee Association of America and World Coffee Research to help coffee tasters depict flavour in coffee. It’s gained a tremendous amount of popularity, and not just limited to coffee tasters; but baristas and enthusiasts alike.
It’s been an invaluable tool, but since its release in 1995 – there hasn’t been a great deal of development around flavour, particularly around perception of flavour. So we’re very excited to share with you today the Coffee Flavour Pyramid by Simon Gautherin. It’s a new, intuitive way to look at flavour in coffee and can be useful in a variety of ways. Before we get into the details, let’s quickly recap our knowledge of taste and flavour.
Taste is a human sensation that is produced by our brain when receptor cells in the mouth come into contact with certain molecules. Our cells can detect five basic tastes independently of each other; bitter, sweet, salty, sour, and umami. These are primarily detected by the tiny little bumps on our tongue called papillae. The surfaces of our papillae are covered with thousands of microscopic tastebuds. You might think that these little receptors are responsible for perceiving flavour entirely, and it’s intuitive to think so. But oddly enough, they are not.
Flavour is the impression or perception of a substance produced by our sense of smell, taste, and touch. It can be attributed to a number of different stimuli such as temperature, texture, and pungency. However, flavour is primarily perceived by our olfactory system (aka sense of smell). There are two ways that the olfactory system works; retronasal and orthonasal. Retronasal olfaction is the reception of flavour from eating or drinking food, whereas orthonasal olfaction is the reception of flavour from smelling our external environment.
Together, (taste and smell) allow us to perceive flavour. Our interpretation of flavour is often associated with different feelings and emotions—pleasures and displeasures, which vary from person to person. We don’t all interpret flavour the same way. It’s common for some of us to like certain foods, and for some of us to dislike certain foods. A positive flavour attribute for one person, may be a negative attribute for another person.
Coffee is interpreted in much the same way, it’s very subjective. While we may agree on certain flavours being ‘good’ in a coffee – for example; most of us would enjoy flavours of strawberry, we may not agree on flavours of cinnamon. Based on this principal, it’s incredibly difficult to judge, or determine the flavour quality of a particular coffee or quality of a particular flavour.
Earlier in the year, Simon was preparing for his Brewer’s Cup competition, and as a result began thinking about which flavours are more desirable in coffee. For those of you that don’t know – the Brewer’s Cup is an annual international coffee brewing competition that involves showcasing the craft, skill and service of manually brewing coffee by hand. It’s a highly regarded competition, that takes months of practise and dedication.
As Simon continued on with his preperations, he realised that maybe the coffee that he planned to showcase in Brewer’s Cup (which he loved), may not be as well received by the judges. This got him intrigued. ‘What if you could standardise flavour desirability in coffee?’ So he reached out to his friend, whom he ranked a heap of flavour notes with, and ‘Voila!’ – the Coffee Flavour Pyramid was born. The Coffee Flavour Pyramid aims to establish a heirachy of flavours found in coffee, from most desirable (Tier 1), to least desirable (Tier 5).
The following day, he posted the flavour pyramid on social media, and the response was extremely positive. People were really interested by the concept, and were already starting to think of different ways to make use of this tool. There was just one problem though – there wasn’t quite enough data. Two people cannot possibly standardise flavour desirability in coffee for everyone.
So he quickly got to work, and set up a google survey asking people to rank different flavours most commonly found in coffee, on a scale of 1 (Least desirable), to 10 (Most desirable). He collected the results over the following week and put them in a graph form as below, and the results were very interesting. The graph is interactive – click or tap to highlight information.
Are there any flavours that you thought would rank higher, or lower? The score for banana (5.99) was certainly unexpected. A total of 138 people from 26 countries participated in this survey, with 76% of them being coffee professionals. Even with that number, the sample size is still too small to form any kind of conclusive version of the Coffee Flavour Pyramid.
Simon is still collecting more data, and hopes to one day have enough to create a final version of the Coffee Flavour Pyramid. The survey is still open for people to submit their answers. If you’d like to participate, just click on this link – Flavours in Coffee – by Simon Gautherin.
Firstly, this doesn’t mean that certain flavours are good or bad, it simply means they may be more or less desirable, or polarising for people. You are allowed to like flavours that ranked low, just as you are allowed to dislike flavours that ranked high. But as a coffee professional, it’s incredibly valuable information to have. Here are some instances why.
Let’s refer back to Simon’s initial dilemma during his Brewer’s Cup preparations. He wanted to know more about his judges preferences for flavour in coffee in order to improve his chances of winning. By having this information, he can now make a decision based on probability. He can choose a coffee which inherently has more desirable flavours, he can tweak his brewing recipe to highlight certain flavours, and he can also roast his coffee to highlight certain flavours. The same principal can be applied by coffee companies when choosing their coffee offerings, and baristas when dialing in a coffee.
There have also been suggestions that the data could be used to create an algorithm which can predict your ideal cup of coffee, based on variables such as; as origin, processing method, variety, etc.
You want flavours ‘A, B, and C’ in your coffee. The algorithm will tell you to pick origin ‘X’ because it gives flavours ‘A’, processing method ‘Y’ because it gives flavours ‘B’, and variety ‘Z’ because it gives flavours ‘C’.
It’s certainly opened up a very big can of worms which Simon is very much looking forward to exploring further. What are your thoughts on this so far? Do you think this data can be used to improve coffee experience? We’d love to hear what you think, and so would Simon. You can contact us here directly, or if you’d like to get in touch with Simon personally – don’t be shy, he’s very approachable. You can find him on Instagram with the handle @simon_barista.
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