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The Coffee Lover's Lexicon

Part One of Our Language of Cupping series

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”—Ludwig Wittgenstein

We’ve written before about the surprisingly complex process of coffee tasting, but many coffee drinkers are eager to learn more about the lexicon that has grown around the process. Recently updated to reflect the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon’s identification of the 110 flavor, aroma, and texture attributes present in coffee, the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel—the largest and most collaborative piece of research on coffee flavor ever completed—has been the industry standard for the past twenty years.

Some wonder how it can be possible to taste a panoply of flavors in a single cup of coffee; others think bothering to identify all these flavors just confuses the simple pleasure of enjoying coffee. But having a rich, descriptive lexicon for those flavors—one developed collaboratively by the industry’s leading professional panelists, scientists, and experts—actually creates order, not chaos. 

By defining a standard for coffee flavor, a lexicon makes it possible for Blue Bottle’s coffee experts to communicate flavor accurately, ensuring consistent deliciousness for our guests.

The Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel

The creation of a dynamic coffee vocabulary changed the coffee industry, but this influence can be felt at the individual level, too. When she was first introduced to the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon, Green Coffee Coordinator Carly Getz immediately recognized its value.

“It essentially broke down the flavor wheel, giving references for each flavor. For example, the reference for ‘Pineapple’ is one part Dole Pineapple Juice mixed with one part water,” says Carly. “Because everyone has a different memory and associations for what pineapple tastes like, this reference is the standard when referring to pineapple in tasting notes for coffee. It unifies our language and assures we're communicating effectively. I decided to make all of the references for my team of baristas. It was a little ambitious, but a great starting point in creating my personal cupping language.”

Our Green Coffee Buyer Charlie Habegger recalls his introduction to the language of cupping as equal parts science and intuition.

“There are two main forms of first-time cuppings—the evaluation and the description,” says Charlie. “The evaluative way would be if you're told to focus on the measurable differences between organic acids, defects, and basic taste categories to score correctly; whereas the descriptive way would be only focused on organoleptic expression (‘What comes to mind?’), where no description is really wrong. I very much started on the latter experience, where the chief cupper of the company put it this way: ‘You can say Christmas if that's what the flavor evokes.’”

Building a Personal Lexicon

The Lexicon is well established as a tool to better communicate with other coffee tasters. But whether or not it can actually help you enjoy coffee more remains up for debate.

“I hope that all experts appreciate a greater love for their subject as a result of having a larger vocabulary for it,” says Charlie. “I suspect in food that's totally true. It is for me.”

For Carly, experience factors more heavily than vocabulary. “Increasing or developing my vocabulary for cupping hasn't necessarily helped my appreciation of a great coffee," she says. “But cupping a wide variety of coffees has. The more coffees a cupper has in their memory catalog, the easier it becomes to distinguish if a profile is enjoyable or unique to them.”

Beyond the Wheel

Though they’re excellent, comprehensive starting points for those looking to master the language of cupping, the Flavor Wheel and Sensory Lexicon aren’t the end-all of this process by a long shot.

“Our team has shifted our focus on using more attributes or adjectives rather than the nouns you'll find on the wheel,” says Carly. “We feel that our communication is more effective this way. For example, we'll say a coffee has bright acidity, or that it has a syrupy body. Though it can be tempting to describe a coffee using flavor descriptors, our attribute-focused language is a slightly more objective for the very reason that the Sensory Lexicon was created—your definition of pineapple is not the same as mine.”

Charlie sees his analysis of coffee’s flavor as an extension of his own expertise, something that the official Sensory Lexicon informs, but doesn’t define. “You can use any word to describe what we're tasting as long as it is productive for our decision-making process,” he says. “Think of a cupping, for a team working on a coffee, as painting a landscape together. Everyone sees the original with slightly unique senses and experiences, and has a slightly unique way of recreating that experience for others. As a roaster-retailer, you're selling that interpretation—the painting, not the landscape itself—so your work is out there as much as the coffees themselves are.”

No Accounting for Taste

The language of cupping has helped our experts better appreciate flavors outside of coffee, although, as Charlie notes, this could be a matter of self-selection, what he calls “a chicken/egg scenario.”

“I remember the day I realized I loved white wines,” says Charlie. “Like, really loved them. I was like, ‘Acid!’ The acids were so different in each one, and I learned to appreciate that through coffee.”

As well as having her tastes expanded by her study of coffee, Carly has found that experimenting with other flavors has helped her build her cupping vocabulary. “A farmer's market for me is now an opportunity to try new fruits, veggies, nuts, and spices that I might not be very familiar with. I'm also much more fascinated with winemaking now, as there is a surprising amount of overlap between our industries.”

The Pleasure Principle

Analysis and creativity, science and intuition. Blue Bottle hires people not only for their skill, work ethic, and passion, but for the pleasure they take in exploring flavor.

“Some of my favorite flavors are sea salt, mangoes, za'atar spice, the water inside oysters, burnt toast, salmon skin, really good mochi,” says Charlie. “It's always changing. I will say that being a coffee taster has taught me to expect someone to have a good reason for their favorites, or I don't trust that they really know what they like. Because in coffee you always have to justify your reactions.”

“My preferences change all the time,” says Carly. “As I get accustomed to coffee profiles that growing regions typically have to offer, it's always exciting to come across a coffee that doesn't fit its stereotype, or when it's an incredible representation of what you'd expect from that region. Right now I'm loving delicate and floral profiles, so this week when we came across a Kenyan coffee (known for a syrupy body and bright acidity) that tasted like a jasmine-forward and tea-like Ethiopia, I fell in love!”


Brush up on the basics of coffee tasting with Training Manager Pele Aveau.

Read Part II of our Language of Cupping series.


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By Blue Bottle Staff

Published Apr. 27, 2017

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