May 17, 2016

Universal Sensory Coffee Language: The Key to Fighting Green Bean Defects?


Your coffee doesn’t taste good. In fact, it almost tastes musty. Or is that earthy? Hm… or maybe it’s even mushroom-y. Frankly, it’s just not the peach notes and jasmine aroma you were expecting.

But how can you explain that to a producer or a barista without having the vocabulary to pinpoint the problem?

The answer is that we need a universal sensory language. And not just that, but we need one that’s dedicated to green bean defects.

Fortunately, we’re seeing great advances in this area. Read on to discover more about these languages and how they can help everyone in the coffee industry.

Lee este artículo en español Lenguaje Sensorial: La Clave para Hablar sobre Defectos del Café Verde

3 Reasons Why We Need a Universal Sensory Language

First of all, we need a universal sensory language for the coffee buyers. They travel around countries and regions in search of that magic cup, that one that will bring an instant smile to the consumer’s face.

But how are these buyers meant to discuss the coffee’s quality without it being completely subjective? They need to both recognise, and talk about, the positives and the negatives of the bean – and they need to do that with authority, certainty, and clarity, so that they leave no doubt in the listener’s mind as to their analysis.

But to do so, they need two things: universal training and a language that we all understand.

roaster Weighing coffee

So what notes will this roast have? Credit: Joel Smedley

The second reason is baristas, who throughout their professional lives may serve hundreds of coffees from different countries and different regions. Instead of racking their brains and memories for where they have experienced that taste or smell before, they need a go-to language to accurately describe it.

SEE ALSO: Coffee Science: What’s Acidity?

And the third reason is cuppings – whether between buyers and farmers, baristas, or the general public. Although I’m of the belief that cupping is not entirely objective, and that different people will sense different things, I believe it is important to create a language that can be used to communicate these experiences.

Cupping coffee at Horsham coffee roasters

Cupping the fresh roast at Horsham Coffee Roasters. Credit: Joel Smedley

What Are the Universal Languages for Coffee?

At current, there are a few universal languages. The SCAA has a protocol for grading green coffee quality, as well as assessing roast profiles. Yet this is a limited language: two coffees could both score 86, and yet have extremely different profiles… So while useful for explaining quality, it doesn’t meet all of our needs.

More helpful is the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon, on which the SCAA’s newly revised Flavour Wheel is based. This was created with a panel of sensory experts in the attempt to create, with a common sensory language, a hierarchy of flavour. And it has a variety of labels for bad coffee and coffee defects, including “petroleum”, “moldy/damp”, and “papery”.

Yet while an improvement, this language still has certain cultural barriers. One person may pick out notes of maple syrup – and yet the person across the table from them may never have eaten maple syrup.

So is there a universal sensory language fit for all situations?

SCAA’s revised Flavour Wheel

The SCAA’s revised Flavour Wheel. Credit: SCAA.

FlavorActiv: The Future of the Universal Sensory Language?

FlavorActiv, in conjunction with Square Mile Coffee roasters and Coffee Enterprises, are tackling the problem of a universal sensory language. They are working on sensory development kits, called FlavorActiv, that allow coffee professionals to work on improving their sensory skills in a way that creates a meaningful language for discussing coffee.

Javier Gomez Lopez, part of the team behind FlavorActiv, likened the creation of tasting kits to that of the Pantone Colour Chart. One person may think one shade of red is more red than another and the same applies to coffee – but the tasting kits would give us all the same reference chart. In other words, they calibrate our vocabulary for coffee defects.

Flavor activ calibrating coffee experience

Introduction to FlavorActiv with Square Mile Coffee. Credit: Matt Fury

Of course, we already have resources – but the current Sensory Lexicon, only uses words and brands. Just like how the Pantone Colour Chart allows you to see the different colours, FlavorActiv would allow you to taste and smell the different coffee descriptors.  

These kits manufacture the specific chemicals that create certain tastes and smells so that you can experience and compare them. They are fully natural chemical compounds that have been developed through significant amounts of research. We, the users, would simply have to mix the powdered compound with a small amount of filtered water in order to create a fluid that is safe to drink.

And through that process, we would be able to train our senses – enabling us to compare coffees and even pin down particular defects that previously we may not have been able to spot.

 ICO Green Coffee Defects tal

James Hoffman at the ICO Green Coffee Defects talk. Credit: Matt Fury

The aim is to produce multiple kits that will be manufactured for baristas and green coffee buyers, and currently FlavorActiv are focused on the beginning of the coffee chain: green coffee defects. They’ve released the first kit to help us become accustomed to tastes and smells such as “leathery” and “mushroom”.

In the words of Javier Gomez Lopez, “If you can replicate the chemical that causes a defect then you can train people to recognise the defect”.

Flavour compounds in coffee

Taking notes on FlavorActiv samples. Credit: Matt Fury

With all these recent releases, it’s apparent that the coffee industry is placing a lot of weight in scientific research for sensory development. This is great news! After all, the sensory experience is why we drink coffee, right?

Following on from the launch of the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon, we will likely begin to see changes in other grading standards – such as the cupping protocols from SCAA and Cup of Excellence. And, with the flavour kits, we will finally begin to have a way to actively train our sensory skills and set a base standard in the language being used to discuss coffee.

Safe to say the tastebuds are tingling.

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