Using the SCA flavour wheel to promote your coffee

Jane Merchant
July 6, 2021
sca flavour wheel

Coffee is one of the most complex goods in the world: according to some estimates, a single bean can produce more than 1,000 different volatile compounds, many of which have a bearing on flavour and aroma.

To standardise the identification of each coffee’s various characteristics, the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) developed a flavour wheel with over 100 descriptors, from sweet and sugary, to floral and citrus.

Since its inception in 1995, it has become one of the most important tools available to coffee industry professionals, providing a shared language with which to define and label coffees from a wide range of origins.

For specialty roasters, it is essential to understand how to use the flavour wheel. Not only can it help customers identify their favourite coffees, it can also inform the various components of blends and guide packaging designs.

sca flavour wheel
The SCA Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel was first published in 1995

What is the flavour wheel & who uses it?

First published in 1995, the SCA Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel is an iconic resource familiar to all those in the coffee industry. Comprising a combination of colours and words laid out in circles, it identifies 110 flavour, aroma, and texture descriptors for coffee.

In 2016, the SCA worked with World Coffee Research to update the wheel and make it easier for people to connect the characteristics of coffee with everyday products. Alongside the flavour wheel, they built a database, named the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon, to help further standardise coffee tasting.

According to a 2021 survey, around 40% of Americans are trying new coffees.

The main purpose of the flavour wheel is to create a shared vocabulary around coffee tasting and training for industry professionals. The ability to describe the sensory characteristics of a coffee can help businesses make informed purchasing decisions, guide product development, root out defects, and track changes over time, among other things.

While it’s aimed predominantly at professionals, consumers have shown an increasing interest in the flavour wheel and the way in which it can be used to identify flavour notes in coffee. This has become even more pronounced since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020, as people have been forced to start making coffees at home rather than buying them out. 

According to a 2021 survey, around 40% of Americans are trying new coffees, while more than a third are attempting to replicate the coffee shop experience at home. As a result, specialty roasters often use the flavour wheel to entice curious customers and engender a greater appreciation for their coffee.

cup tasting
The flavour wheel has helped create a common language around coffee tasting

Using the flavour wheel to attract customers: What you need to know

Identifying flavour notes in coffee isn’t easy: it can take some people years to develop the necessary sensory skills, let alone the vocabulary. 

For cup tasters championships, participants will often train for months on end, trying hundreds and hundreds of coffees, and even then they can find it difficult to discern one flavour from the next.

The flavour wheel is a useful tool for not only creating a common language around coffee tasting, but also helping consumers identify the flavours and aromas they like best. 

For example, when a barista asks, “What’s your favourite type of coffee?”, customers can use terms like “nutty”, “floral”, and “stone fruit” to pick out the coffee they want. This is considerably simpler than learning about the different varieties, origins, and processing methods, which are factors that can take years to understand.

Roasters need to understand their audience before they use terms from the flavour wheel on their packaging.

Specialty roasters can use this to their advantage by including information from the flavour wheel on their coffee packaging. If customers are looking for an astringent coffee, for instance, roasters can include terms like “citric” or “malic acid”. The more customers see characteristics they recognise, the more likely they are to buy the coffee. 

However, while the flavour wheel has helped to create a standardised system for professionals, it wasn’t designed with consumers in mind. As a result, consumers may not be familiar with all the terms used, which may cause confusion if they’re frequently applied to coffee packaging.

Certain products, such as blueberries, are more widely available in western countries than they are elsewhere. Therefore, this descriptor wouldn’t help consumers who are unable to attach meaning to the flavour of blueberries.

Consequently, roasters need to understand their audience before they readily use terms from the flavour wheel on their coffee packaging.

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coffee packaging
Many specialty coffee roasters use the flavour wheel to inform their packaging design

Depicting flavour notes on coffee packaging

Packaging is a canvas on which specialty roasters can display a wealth of information about their coffee and its story, from roast profiles to processing methods. However, one of the details that consumers tend to look out for more than most when choosing coffee is flavour notes.

Flavour notes tell consumers what to expect from their coffee based on the roaster’s interpretation. This is typically based on the SCA flavour wheel.

There are a number of ways of depicting flavour notes on coffee packaging – with listing them out one-by-one undoubtedly the simplest. Some roasters may decide to blazen descriptors across the front or sides of the bag, while others include separate tasting cards, with in-depth descriptions of the “story” behind the coffee too.

Depending on your brand, one option is to design your entire packaging around flavour notes by using a combination of colours, symbols, and images. Morgon Coffee Roasters is a roastery that has used this to great effect.

In addition to its exciting range of coffees, Morgon has attracted attention on social media thanks to its quirky, eye-catching packaging featuring a range of objects to represent the various characteristics of the coffee.

For example, their Kenyan coffee is described as floral with flavour notes of rhubarb and wild strawberry. On the packaging for this coffee, they’ve used a photograph of several objects on a pink background, including a flower, a stick of rhubarb, and a cone.

Similarly, colours and shapes can be used to set expectations about factors such as acidity, flavour, and body. An experiment involving salty popcorn found that when it was served in a red bowl, participants perceived it as sweet.

sustainable coffee packaging
Coffee packaging can be used to depict everything from acidity to flavour notes

The SCA Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel has been an important resource for coffee professionals since its introduction to the public in 1995. While its main use is as a way of determining the characteristics of coffees, it has also become a useful tool to inform packaging designs for specialty roasters.

At MTPak Coffee, our team of expert designers can help you find the perfect packaging for your coffee. Using sustainable materials, recyclable degassing valves, water-based inks, and the latest UV printing technology, we can create packaging that will not only preserve the freshness of your coffee, but also attract attention on the shelf.

For information on our coffee packaging, contact our team.

MTPak Coffee

Photo credits: (
Bex Walton, Flickr, © 2016, Attribution 2.0 Generic [CC BY 2.0], original image), (Dennis Tang, Flickr, © 2012, Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic [CC BY-SA 2.0], original image)

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