Money & Business

How the Coffee Industry Cut Through Jargon With Color

By / May 25, 2016 (Specialty Coffee Association)

The Specialty Coffee Association of America uses its new flavor wheel to get everybody in the supply chain speaking the same language.

Every industry has its own lingo—terms that are unique to the mechanics of the business. Which is fine, so long as the conversation is limited to a small group of insiders. It’s not so fine for communicating with a lot of different constituencies.

That concern sparked the revamp of the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel, a colorful circular representation of the flavor sources for all those coffee terms that can sometimes make you feel like your barista is putting you on: papery, ashy, nutty, raw.

The wheel visualizes “the largest and most collaborative piece of research on coffee flavor.”

The formation of the wheel has plenty of research and rigor behind it. As SCAA Communications Manager Lily Kubota explained in a blog post, the flavor wheel poster is rooted in the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon, a book by coffee experts and researchers, produced by SCAA and the nonprofit World Coffee Research that establishes a common language of descriptors for flavors. That book is “the largest and most collaborative piece of research on coffee flavor ever completed,” Kubota wrote.

But at 50 pages, the Lexicon isn’t much to look at. To visualize it, SCAA revisited a 21-year-old color wheel and applied its new definitions of flavors to it. Plenty of lingo and science behind flavor had changed since the ’90s, SCAA’s research showed, so it was worth the update. And when SCAA hired a London design firm, One Darnley Road, to draft the wheel, it made sure the colors were as organically true as possible to what’s being described. “They studied all the colors that oranges [i.e., the fruits] can take, and they found the average orange [i.e., the color],” SCAA Senior Director Peter Giuliano told Wired.

That clarity of representation is important, because the wheel is meant to be easily grasped by everybody in the coffee supply chain, from farmers to roasters to baristas—to even the hard-core coffee achiever. And once everybody agrees on the terms, that frees producers to do more focused experiments with flavors: As the coffee-culture website Sprudge reported last week, “it opens the doors for controlled tests to determine whether the chemistry inside certain varietals is responsible for specific flavors, or if environmental conditions have a more substantial impact.”

And if you just think it looks pretty, SCAA sells posters of the wheel.

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. More »

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