I was so intrigued by the flavor wheel that I called on my old buddy Tim Hill, who is Counter Culture’s coffee buyer and quality manager, and who played a huge role in developing the wheel, for some insights about how the contemporary wheel was created, what inspired it, and whether it might be recreated yet again in the future.
Sarah: When did the idea for recreating the classic flavor wheel come about? Why did you feel it needed to be redone?
Tim: We have been talking about drawing up our own wheel for years, and finally just did it. Why? Well, whenever we had new tasters cupping with us, or even experienced tasters, we always had to qualify the SCAA wheel and it always brought more confusion that guidance. In our lab we actually have our cupping forms with our own quality tier benchmarks, and now our own flavor wheel, that are all meant to be intuitive, easy to use, and make sense throughout the supply chain.
Sarah: What about the original design did you want to keep, and what did you feel was out of date?
Tim: From the original we wanted to keep the idea of notes and of defects. And of course we kept the wheel design.
What we wanted to change:
¢ Use common descriptors that are used to describe and market coffee.
¢ Separate faults from descriptions commonly associated with speciality coffee.
¢ Add a tool for describing body, and add a set of common adjectives.
¢ Make it feel more hand crafted and less computerized.
Sarah: Did you create this wheel to be usable for more people (i.e. a more universal language)? Or to be contemporary? Or…?
Tim: Absolutely created to be more usable.
Sarah: Who specifically was involved in the creation of the wheel?
Tim: I will take 90+% of the credit. I hand drew and mapped out most of this, and Kim Elena Bullock Ionescu (Coffee Buyer and Sustainability Manager) and Hannah Popish (Coffee Buyer’s Agent) provided super helpful feedback and helped add descriptors.
Sarah: Do you intend to recreate the wheel again, say, 10 years from now? Do you feel that will be necessary?
Tim: 10 years!!!!! We plan on translating it into 3-4 languages (with cultural taste modifications) and updating it every 1 -2 years.
Here is also what I wrote for our Marketing department to use when talking about some of my thoughts:
The original wheel came out of a time when the industry was starved for scientific metrics to start be adopted and used instead of relying on anecdotal experience. A lot of credit has to be given to the original wheel and the science and thought process behind it. It is famously known for the color gradient of the wheel to be by molecular weight, and while that is more or less genius–it doesn’t lead to the most user friendly flavor wheel. The Counter Culture wheel is drawn simply based on our experience as cuppers and the descriptions that we have used–so I guess a throwback to a different mindset. The wheel is design to be very intuitive and a lot of thought went into that experience. The larger the category size and font size being used, represents the more we use that category and description when tasting coffee. The other goal with this wheel is to update it often, as the frequency of descriptions is based on what is popular in coffee at that moment. For instance right now a variety of coffee called Gesha, and washed Ethiopian coffees are extremely popular and gaining marketshare among the best roasters in the country. As those coffees tend to be very floral, citric, and fruited- this will likely mean those categories continue to dominate the wheel and potentially even expand. Coffees that are earthy and tobaccoy, are losing there popularity in the high end marketplace right now, so likewise those categories will continue to shrink in size and scope. Long story short this wheel is meant to be very dynamic so that it is always the most useful in the marketplace. This is also why we are actively asking for feedback, and are committed to translating it into 3 or 4 more languages this year.
–The CCC wheel has a chart for body and intensifiers that can be used to describe coffee.
— The fault wheel is designed to be more definitive with the defects we find and the cause of the defect.
— The hand drawn feel comes from the fact coffee and coffee tasting are still and industry based on the art of the craft, and this whole wheel came out of doodles the coffee department made by hand.
Sarah Allen (she/her) is co-founder and editor of Barista Magazine, the international trade magazine for coffee professionals. A passionate advocate for baristas, quality, and the coffee community, Sarah has traveled widely to research stories, interact with readers, and present on a variety of topics affecting specialty coffee. She also loves animals, swimming, ice cream, and living in Portland, Oregon.