To evaluate flavour, tasters usually refer to other foods or drinks as a point of comparison. ‘Terms to describe flavour are usually borrowed from everyday life, and recall the world of flowers, fruits and fresh or baked foods’, Petracco writes. Describing and evaluating flavours thus relies on developing a shared vocabulary of flavour references. Lingle explains that good cuppers aren’t hypersensitive to particular aromas, but instead have developed an extensive library of odour memories. Building that library takes extensive experience — both in tasting coffee and in tasting and smelling as wide a range of foods as possible to form points of comparison — but there are tools designed to speed up the process.
Lesson 3.07 described some of these approaches: Aroma kits such as Le Nez du Cafe and taste tests using solutions of acids, sugars, and other molecules can establish reference points for both common aromas and tastes in coffee and allow cuppers to ensure they report intensities at the same level.
The World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon takes this approach further, building a reference dictionary of 110 tastes, aromas, and flavours to which cuppers can refer. They can compare a flavour found in a coffee to a specific ingredient used as a reference point and come up with a relative intensity score that gives a more precise description of the flavour. For example, instead of saying ‘fairly nutty’, they can describe a coffee as ‘nutty, with an intensity around 5’, by comparing the flavour of the coffee to the flavour of a specific brand of roasted nuts. This approach forms the basis of the SCA flavour wheel.
Before the SCA introduced the first 100-point scoring system for grading coffee in 1984, earlier systems for keeping track of coffee quality had one thing in common: They attempted to achieve objectivity by focusing on the factors that detract from quality rather than relying on the value judgments of individual cuppers.