June 14, 2021

Experiments with localised coffee flavour wheels in Taiwan & Indonesia

Most coffee professionals are familiar with the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel. It is an iconic resource in the coffee industry, and a visual guide that helps coffee lovers and professionals alike understand and explain flavour.

However, as mentioned in an article in May 2021, criticisms of the SCA wheel do exist. Chief among these is a perceived lack of inclusivity. This is because many of the flavours listed on the SCA wheel can be considered more relevant for those in major consuming regions (like Europe and North America) than those in producing countries.

In response, coffee sector stakeholders in Taiwan and Indonesia have adapted the SCA wheel, creating their own “localised” variants. To learn more about this and how we can create more inclusive flavour wheels as a sector, I spoke with three international coffee professionals. Read on to find out what they said.

You may also like our article on how we can help consumers understand coffee flavour notes

Understanding the SCA Flavor Wheel

Research shows that the human nose can identify more than 1 trillion smells, thanks to our 400 different olfactory receptors. However, in contrast, our eyes only have three receptors to distinguish up to 10 million different colours. And despite the vast amount of aromas we can detect, there is no universal “measurement” for smell and taste.

Originally published in 1995, the flavour wheel was designed by the SCA in 2016 alongside World Coffee Research (WCR) and UC Davis in 2016. This redevelopment was one of the largest collaborative research projects in the history of the coffee sector, and led to the creation of a new sensory lexicon.

When we taste coffee, our senses of smell and taste work together to register each stimulus. One of the biggest changes in the 2016 revision of the SCA wheel was the fact that aromas and and tastes were no longer regarded as separate – acknowledging that our senses work in unison.

The SCA Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel is designed to help mitigate subjective biases in the aromas and flavours we perceive. However, some consider it to be insufficient in working to the diversity of consumers’ palates around the world. Flavour notes like blueberry and maple syrup are very North America-centric, and might not cater to cuppers from East Asia, for example.

And while the SCA wheel has been officially translated into Chinese (simplified and traditional), Korean, Portuguese, and Spanish as of 2021, these translations still don’t account for local differences in palate and sensory perception. 

To learn more about some projects that have accounted for these differences, we looked at two more inclusive “localised” flavour wheels: the Taiwan Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel (by Taiwan Coffee Laboratory and COFE), and the Indonesian Coffee Flavour Wheel (by Seniman Coffee and 5758 Coffee Lab). 

The Taiwan Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel

Janet Chang is the manager at Taiwan Coffee Laboratory, an SCA-accredited training campus that holds classes with the Alliance for Coffee Excellence (ACE) and the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI).

“[We] realised that many terms on the SCA wheel differs wildly from our taste memories and flavour lexicons,” she says.

In the past few years, specialty coffee culture in Taiwan has started to grow. Historically, bubble tea has been the beverage of choice in the country, but specialty coffee is starting to gather speed. 

Taiwan Coffee Laboratory released its flavour wheel in 2018. It developed the resource in collaboration with COFE, a specialty coffee shop in Taipei. 

There are a total of 95 items on the Taiwanese wheel, including local references such as roasted minced pork sauce (a Taiwanese dish), ginseng (a herbal root), and Chinese fir (an evergreen tree, native to southeast China). 

The Taiwanese flavour wheel also builds on the dried fruits section of the original wheel. It includes dried longan (a tropical fruit), rosella (wild hibiscus flowers), smoked plum (commonly used in East Asian cuisines), and jujube (Chinese dates). 

In comparison, the SCA’s flavour wheel only contains prunes and raisins in their dried fruits section.

“Taiwan has enjoyed a pretty diverse culinary culture, so coffee cuppers usually have a lot of experiences to draw from for their discussions,” Janet explains. “We were mostly concerned with connecting local flavours with local culinary experiences when constructing the wheel.

“Terms like jujube, roselle, dried longan, sweet fermented rice, and osmanthus are commonly used by Taiwanese cuppers; they are familiar to us, but they appear strange to a foreign cupper.”

The Indonesian Coffee Flavour Wheel

Indonesia is the fourth largest coffee producer in the world by volume, and it has a rapidly developing specialty coffee scene which has grown over the past decade.

Mahdi Usati is a member of the Gayo Cuppers Team, which organises cupping sessions for local farmers in the Gayo regions of Aceh, Sumatra. The team uses coffee sourced from all over Indonesia to help develop farmers’ sense of flavour, and helped develop the Indonesian Coffee Flavour Wheel. 

Mahdi says that as specialty coffee has become more prominent in Indonesia, farmers have found an increasing need to share the same “language” when talking about coffee flavour. 

“That is why we organised this cupping team,” he explains. “[We wanted to] educate [producers] on how to process coffee so that it will meet the requirements of the buyers.”

As coffee has always been the most significant agricultural commodity in these regions, Mahdi says it is paramount that farmers learn more about quality standards and the language used by the specialty coffee sector. 

“However, the most challenging part in cupping sessions for our participants was to express what they feel,” Mahdi explains. “‘Indonesialising’ the flavour wheel was a way to bridge the gap and access this body of knowledge.” 

The Indonesian coffee flavour wheel includes 36 aroma references and 82 sensory descriptions, many of which are native to the country. This, Mahdi says, has helped to create a more accessible resource for Indonesian coffee farmers.

Developing a domestic flavour wheel

So, how do you create a flavour wheel? 

Both the Taiwanese and Indonesian wheels were developed first by listing commonly-referenced flavours during cupping sessions. The next step was shortlisting these flavours by broadly considering how the flavour wheel would be perceived by coffee drinkers from across the country.

“Some of the terms we deliberated on, but ultimately had to remove from our list because they were too nebulous or indirect,” Janet adds. “An example would be braised pork, which is a common dish in Taiwan. However, every region has its unique recipe. 

“It was a term many cuppers used in our database, but we couldn’t use it because it lacked a specific, consistent flavour connotation.”

Kristian Batafor is a Q grader from Seniman Coffee, and helped develop the Indonesian coffee flavour wheel. He tells me that they encountered similar issues, but notes that it led to some interesting discussions about coffee quality and which flavours cuppers considered to be “desirable”.

For example, Kristian notes that a large selection of flavour notes associated with spice are represented in the Indonesian coffee flavour wheel. 

“Indonesia is a big producer of spices, which helps Indonesian cuppers to identify more varied flavour notes in the coffee,” he says. “When we have limited references for spices, we automatically value those flavour notes even less,.”

While Kristian understands that spiced flavours in the cup can be problematic or overpowering, he thinks that it shouldn’t be immediately marked down for it.

“At cupping [sessions], it’s saddening when cuppers ‘punish’ the coffee for having spice notes, and subsequently put a low mark on its ‘flavour’ score, because it’s not an [inherently] negative characteristic,” he says. “If it’s overdominant, then you can put a lower mark for ‘balance’.

“If it’s not [something you enjoy], then you can put a lower mark on ‘overall’, but in the end, I think it’s a good thing if people can better appreciate spice flavour notes.”

Key takeaways from localised wheels

Despite positive feedback on both localised wheels, the creators have since come to realise that flavour wheels must change and evolve. This is because it encourages broader discussions about tastes that may otherwise be considered “undesirable”, and look at whether or not they can be enjoyed. 

For example, Kristian says that for the Indonesian Coffee Flavour Wheel, coffee pulp in the ‘positive fermentation’ section. The SCA-approved aromatic memorisation kit, Le Nez Du Café, classes coffee pulp aroma as a defect. This means a flavour of coffee pulp are generally considered a negative sensory attribute. 

“We think that this is mostly because Le Nez Du Café based it on washed coffees,” he says. “And that’s true; notes of coffee pulp from washed processing do not taste pleasant. It has a dirty mouthfeel, and gives off the impression that dirty water has been used.”

However, Kristian notes that different processing methods create different sensory impressions in this regard. “[With] natural coffee, which is common in Indonesia, when coffee pulp notes [are] present side-by-side with fruity notes, it brings a nice ‘edginess’ to it.”

This is just one specific example, but it’s evidence that flavour has a cultural bias. If localised flavour wheels pave the way for more diverse and inclusive conversations about coffee flavour, it could lead to greater education not just in specific regions, but across the wider specialty coffee market.

Janet says: “As producers diversify the coffee varieties grown in Taiwan and refine their processing, Taiwan Coffee Laboratory believes the Taiwanese Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel could help expand our understanding of coffee flavour.

“It’s like an open-ended experiment. We look forward to adding even more unique and local flavours,” she says. “Makauy, for instance, is a common native Taiwanese spice, [with] a flavour between lemon and pepper.”

Ultimately, localising flavour wheels and including a wider variety of global tastes helps to engage and challenge coffee professionals and consumers in a more imaginative, experimental, and inclusive way.

Above all else, these localised flavour wheels celebrate the increasingly broad reach of specialty coffee, and show that valuable conversations about inclusivity and diversity are happening. 

There’s no doubt that the SCA Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel was invented to help reduce misunderstandings about the nuances of coffee flavour. It is and will continue to be a key resource for years to come. However, it is becoming clear that domestic, localised variants will become more important as the sector moves forward.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on do different materials affect the flavour of your coffee?

Photo credits: Taiwan Coffee Laboratory, Seniman Coffee, Gayo Cuppers Team

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