How About a Meat-Like Cup of Joe?

Ryan Ludwig, of Counter Culture Coffee, prepares a coffee cupping, or tasting, at the company's training center in lower Manhattan. Leslie Josephs/The Wall Street Journal

Ryan Ludwig, of Counter Culture Coffee, prepares a coffee cupping, or tasting, at the company’s training center in lower Manhattan. Leslie Josephs/The Wall Street Journal

Calling the Industry Standard Guide Too Technical, Timothy Hill Brews Up a New Flavor Wheel

For WSJ.comLeslie Josephs writes: Coffee buyer Timothy Hill has reinvented the wheel, and it is causing quite a stir.

The 31-year-old purchaser for Durham, N.C., roaster Counter Culture Coffee has rolled out a new version of a tool long used by coffee tasters to elicit the adjectives that may be on the tip of the tongue: a flavor wheel.

Flavor wheels are colorful reference tools that aid food and beverage tasters of all stripes. Mr. Hill’s pastel-hued downloadable disc includes 140 terms, each representing a food or flavor that may be used to describe a cup of coffee, from snow peas to black currant, from clementine to “meat-like.” The terms are ones the wheel’s defenders say are accessible to most coffee drinkers.

His new wheel is gaining traction, challenging the industry standard: the nearly 20-year-old flavor wheel of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, a trade group whose members include Mr. Hill’s employer.

What flavors are in your cup?

As the gourmet coffee industry grows, the industry is grappling with ways to best describe the countless flavors in a brewed cup. Compare two coffee wheels.

The SCAA’s own circular guide outlines the flavors and defects that are wafted, slurped and evaluated by coffee purveyors from Folgers to roasters like Counter Culture, whose retail coffee fetches around $15 for a 12-ounce bag. But that wheel is too technical, with terms like “enzymatic” and “nippy,” for many coffee drinkers to understand, Mr. Hill said. “It’s…not the most user-friendly wheel,” he said.

He drew up his own wheel, inspired by the growth of the gourmet-coffee business in the U.S., as consumers are becoming more discerning in their taste for coffee. The wheels exist throughout the food-and-beverage world, including those for cocoa, whiskey and wine, after which the SCAA’s wheel was inspired.

According to a study released in March by the National Coffee Association, 34% of U.S. coffee drinkers had a gourmet coffee beverage in the last day, up from 31% last year, while mainstream coffee’s market share fell to 35% from 39% last year.

Taking a page from wine-sellers’ playbook, coffee roasters are luring customers with vivid descriptions of their beverage.

Counter Culture offers Bolivian beans with “remarkable notes of chocolate, vanilla, and black cherry.” For $15.50, purchasers can order a 12-ounce bag of beans from Burundi that includes “notes of citrus and dried fruit with balance and impeccable sweetness.”

Growing sales of specialty coffee have inspired roasters to teach a new generation of baristas, as well as tasters known as “cuppers,” who sample coffee for traders, roasters and retailers…(read more)

Write to Leslie Josephs at

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