Coffee tasting has almost always been a matter of individual interpretation. If a coffee has a bright tang, it may remind you of an orange. If a coffee has a smooth, sweet flavor, maybe a gentle melon comes to mind. This exercise is fun and powerful for developing palates, but it’s not exactly scientific. This way of tasting has finally found a more scientific rival.
The Sensory Lexicon
Just over a month ago, World Coffee Research announced the release of a new document that could change coffee tasting forever, the coffee Sensory Lexicon. BuiltÂ by over 100 scientists in the last three years, the lexicon takes a mind-blowing step towards understanding coffee flavor through studying the chemicals that make up certain flavors and aromas, rather than memory associations. The scientists behind the Sensory Lexicon have built a tool for systematically tasting coffee and describingÂ measurable flavors and intensities.
The goal of the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon is to use for the first time the tools and technologies of sensory science to understand and name coffeeâ€™s primary sensory qualities, and to create a replicable way of measuring those qualities.
Each item in the lexicon contains a small definition and a series of samples anyone can prepare to identify and measure flavor and aroma elements within a second coffee beverage. For example, if you thought a coffee tasted like blackberry and wanted to confirm it, you could take an ounce of Smucker’s Blackberry Jam and taste it. The lexicon rates this jam at a flavor intensity of 5.5.
Then you would take a sip of the coffee, determine if it actually resembles the blackberry jam (now the industry standard thanks to the WCR Sensory Lexicon), and give it an intensity measurement. Does the coffee have a stronger blackberry flavor than the jam? It has an intensity higher than 5.5. If not, the intensity deserves a lower value.
SCAA Unveils an Updated Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel
The first of many advancements in the coffee world to come from this new Sensory Lexicon is the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s new Coffee Taster’s Wheel. This wheel, updated for the first time in 21 years, reflects the science behind the Sensory Lexicon, arranging all of the lexicon’s flavor items in their appropriate categories.
Who knows what’s in store for the global coffee industry as science begins to play a more significant and authoritative role in how coffee’s quality is measured and appreciated.