172 Words to Describe Coffee From the Official Taster’s Flavor Wheel

Specialty Coffee Association of America
Specialty Coffee Association of America / Specialty Coffee Association of America

Most people would describe their coffee fairly simply: hot, black, sweet, expensive. But there’s an organization, the Specialty Coffee Association of America, that takes the art of explaining what a cup of joe tastes like very, very seriously. The SCAA was established in 1982 by “a small group of coffee professionals” who felt a set of standards were necessary for the growing specialty java market. And given today’s astonishing range of options, from hand-roasted civet-processed beans to instant grounds perfected by 250 years' worth of trial and error, those coffee pros were probably right.

The SCAA’s Flavor Wheel, which offers a full descriptive glossary for both good coffee and bad coffee, is standard-use for modern coffee cuppers. What was once merely “strong” can now be “warming, with notes of cedar and clove.” And bad coffee, which gets the lion’s share of excellent adjectives, can be “sweaty,” “horsey,” “mildewy,” or reminiscent of wet wool, kerosene, or iodine.

(Click the image to see a larger version.)

Image via SCAA.org.


The Flavor Wheel glossary is used in training coffee growers, roasters, sellers, and brewers who join the SCAA. And now you can pretend to be a 'coffee sommelier' at fancy parties or, perhaps more realistically, at the office to annoy coworkers. If you’re interested in becoming a better coffee cupper, the organization also has a list of standards for brewing a perfect cup. You can purchase a poster or high-res digital download of the Flavor Wheel from their website.