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Talking better coffee with Peter Giuliano

SCAA member and Director of the Re:Co Specialty Coffee Symposium Peter Giuliano's recent visit to Australia as guest of Toby's Estate 'Knowledge Talks' series presented a fantastic opportunity to learn about the new sensory lexicon and flavour wheel released earlier this year.

The journey that a coffee bean takes to arrive in our cup is often a lengthy one, a fact that is more prominent for us as consumers than it ever has been before, thanks to the rise in popularity of Specialty Coffee. The people who grow the coffee and the person who drinks it are often separated by many thousands of kilometres, usually an ocean, probably a significant economic gap, plus commonly a language barrier or two.

This makes the eternal crusade for better coffee – more rare and sought-after than some less-holy grails – something of a complicated task. With 125 million people dependent on coffee for their livelihoods around the world, and myriad varietals, agricultural traditions, and processing techniques thrown into the percolator to boot, it’s no surprise that it’s taken so long for significant improvements to be made. And the task isn’t just about better flavours, it’s also seeking to diversify the limited genetic coffee pool in order to fortify against the issues such as pest and disease that threaten it.

The key to making this task easier, it turns out, is language.

This week, Peter Giuliano, self-described student of coffee, Specialty Coffee Association of America member and Director of the Re:Co Specialty Coffee Symposium, visited Australia as a guest of Toby’s Estate to present as a part of the ‘Knowledge Talks’ series. He spoke at sold-out events in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, and Hobart about his involvement with the creation of the new sensory lexicon, and the re-invention of the flavour wheel.

Coffee samples at a lab in Brazil.

Peter was quick to establish that the lexicon and wheel are “not just about indulging”, they’re also “a tool to help address the big problems we have in coffee”, such as the “tremendous economic disparity in our industry”. By using the lexicon to describe coffee flavour in an objective manner, its production can be improved, as can the lives of the growers.

Before this enormous job was taken up, there “wasn’t a lot of science” in coffee production, Peter pointed out. “The cupping methodology that was widely used then was great for coffee buying, but not agricultural research”. By creating a specially-designed list of words that could be used to describe flavours present in a cup, scientists could more objectively and accurately talk about the beverage they were studying.

The whole process took about a year. An expert panel of food scientists and tasters worked together to create “the most comprehensive list of coffee flavours yet made” with “as wide a scope as possible”. Using hundreds of reference samples in covered glass cups and containers, they eventually emerged with an exhaustive final list composed of descriptions. Entries are varied, specific, and would seem plain bizarre to the average consumer, no doubt. ‘Skunky’ coffee is said to possess flavours similar to ‘the smell of two latex balloons in a 2 ounce glass jar with a screw-tight lid’, while the reference for ‘orange’ is ‘Tropicana Pure Premium Original 100% No Pulp Orange Juice’.

This information was then re-framed and specially-designed into a comprehensive new flavour wheel, which is now available from the World Coffee Research website.

The wheel isn’t set in stone though, it’s an ongoing venture. As the work to improve coffee continues, coffee will change, and more flavours will in all likelihood be ‘discovered’. For the moment, Peter maintained, they present a “way to describe the coffees that exist”.

And the best way to familiarise yourself with the lexicon? “Limit yourself,” Peter advised; “When you’re cupping, only use the language on the wheel. That’s what I did.”

Special thanks to Toby’s Estate for hosting such a fantastic event, and to Peter for making it out to Australia. We look forward to the next one!

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