May 29, 2017

Spinning the Wheel of Flavor

Seven years ago I packed a large suitcase full of specialty glassware, napkins and floral tape and flew to Anaheim, California. I didn't want to go but my dad persuaded me, telling me even if I didn't win that "it was all part of the adventure." And no, I didn't win (or even come close), but it was an adventure, and it has changed the way I think about flavor.
Saffron and water on paper

My presentation was ok. I told a story about the origin of processing plants for human consumption, creating alchemy with a plant's volatile oils to delight our taste buds - but my espresso shot out of the machine in an embarrassing manner and the cappuccinos were thin without a trace of art. Yes this was the U.S. National Barista Championship with fifty of the country's best baristas, and no, I didn't nail it.

But, I did study my butt off. My bosses helped me practice after hours,  and I poured over the coffee taster's flavor wheel with caffeinated intensity, honing my sensory skills so that each adjective matched what (hopefully) I might deliver in the cup. Notes of jasmine with an undertone of salted caramel was the goal. A woody aroma with bitter aftertaste the result.

Spice wheel painting

For those who haven't seen one, a barista competition involves preparing twelve drinks in fifteen minutes: 4 espresso, 4 cappuccino and 4 original "signature" beverages using your chosen espresso blend. They all have to be in different serving ware, narrated according to your theme or story, and delivered flawlessly with compelling and original knowledge of specialty coffee. Each barista is judged by four sensory judges and three technical judges who swarm around you with clipboards, scribbling down your destiny. If you win your country's competition, you go to compete in the world championship.

The flavor wheel is not just used for coffee. There are flavor wheels for cheese, wine, perfume, chocolate, even cigars. It's a way of illustrating with colors and describing with words the diversity of aromas that exist for a particular edible (or sniffable) thing. It creates a lexicon that anyone can use to delve deeper into the senses. Since our taste buds can only distinguish sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami, it's a way to understand the nuances and complexity of flavors for which our olfactory system was designed.

My initial sketches for the spice flavor wheel

Flavors can be broken down into chemical compounds with structures that can be imitated in a lab; for example a compound called eugenol creates the dominant flavor in cloves and the lesser-known flavor in sweet basil. Isolating these compounds means that they can be used to create artificial flavors instead of having to use the real plant; imitation vanilla is the most famous. And while I certainly appreciate the consistency of artificial flavors - I'm not a purist, I eat junk food sometimes - it's the delicate nuances that can't be re-created that give food the most meaning and memory. The placement of the spices on the wheel is according to my interpretation - not to science - but science plays a role.

So what is the flavor wheel for? If you think of it as a map, the wheel can be a useful tool to see the relationships between spices. For example, black pepper and chile peppers are in the same neighborhood (and both confusingly called 'peppers,' thanks to Chris Columbus) because they produce a hot sensation in your mouth. Woody spices like juniper, with its piney notes, are near to resinous spices like mastic because resin spices are the sap of certain species of trees.

The colors reflect common associations with the senses - red for hot, green for vegetal, brown for earthy. One difference from other flavor wheels is the blurring from one color to the next. I don't believe in there being strict boundaries for flavor, despite being able to isolate them in a lab. The blurring of the watercolor paint pigments exhibits the same blurring of one flavor to the next - the warm, pungent notes of mustard into the aromatic heat of ginger. It's not a how-to manual but I think a flavor wheel can be a really fun tool when used with an open mind and sense of creativity.

I'm offering a new class at Curio this June called "Spice101" where I go into these ideas in more detail, with plenty of tasting and smelling. There will be a bit of history and a bit of science but more than anything a focus on demystifying spices and igniting inspiration for cooking. It will be a colorful and delicious class. In the meantime, tip those hard-working baristas, and let me know what you think about this new flavor wheel!


  1. Fascinating, Claire! You're a genius, in my opinion. I'm sure you were a great barista, but I'm glad you've moved on to spices! Viva Curio! I wish i could attend the class but i work Thursday evenings. I continue to find all kinds of uses for Curio spices and herbs--you are our local treasure! I made the Da Lat sweet potato soup yesterday and it was delectable-my friend and i agree. I also made roasted cauliflower using the Da Lat and a bit of that Russian red curry --it was another triumph. Merci bien, goldie

    1. Thanks Goldie! I so appreciate your kind words. Glad you made the soup! It's one my favorites. XO claire