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One Man's Quest To Reinvent The Wheel — The Flavor Wheel, That Is

Sensory scientist Edgar Chambers says flavor is multi-dimensional, and the current lexicon diagrams aren’t doing it justice. So he wants to turn the wheel into a tree — with plenty of room to grow.

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Flavor wheels stem from lexicons, the carefully, often scientifically selected words used to describe a product, be it food, wine, carpet cleaner or dog food.

Flavor wheels stem from lexicons, the carefully, often scientifically selected words used to describe a product, be it food, wine, carpet cleaner or dog food.

Scott Suchman/The Washington Post/Getty Images

It seems everything today has a flavor wheel, that color-coded, adjective-rich circle used to convey the sensory qualities of a product. There’s the popular wine wheel, of course, but spices, oysters, beef, chocolate, coffee, bread and cigars also spin to their own wheels.

Now Edgar Chambers is out to rock the sensory world. What Chambers has in mind is a flavor tree.

“Flavor is a multi-dimensional thing,” says Chambers, a sensory and consumer behavior scientist at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan.

Flavor wheels stem from lexicons, the carefully, often scientifically selected words used to describe a product, be it food, wine, carpet cleaner or dog food. These words provide industry insiders with a shared vocabulary to discuss a product with precision. In this way, dog food is not merely smelly, but characterized by notes of cardboard, grain and barnyard.

But not all lexicons need a wheel, tree or three-dimensional decagon. The only people who care about the sensory attributes of dog food, for instance, are those whose jobs entail discussing the unique flavor and aroma of chow. Only when a lexicon matters to those outside the inner sanctum do the sensory experts roll out the visuals. That’s because ordinary sorts, and the marketers tasked with wooing them, Chambers says “are looking for the pretty: an instant message.”

One of the first instant messages was not a wheel but a rainbow. In the 1950s, chemists at Arthur D. Little, Inc. developed what is thought to be the original descriptive sensory technique: the Flavor Profile Method. To go from lexicon to image, those chemists suggested using key attributes, such as fruity, spicy and sweet, as the main colors on a rainbow, with sub-categories (those hints of apricot and licorice) appearing as non-dominant colors like azure, cyan and chartreuse. The words for intangible qualities --such as the “cola” flavor common to Coke and Pepsi — languished in the black zone below the rainbow. (What, after all, does a leprechaun taste like?)

The first ever flavor wheel – for beer – appeared in the late 1970s, but the concept took off with the development of the Wine Aroma Wheel in the mid-1980s. That wheel, says its inventor Ann Noble, a sensory chemist and professor emerita at the University of California at Davis, took some of the mystique out of wine. With wheel in hand, people could traverse wineries in Napa, Calif., or the Bordeaux region of France and speak intelligently at tastings (at least early in the imbibing process).

Other wheels followed suit, such as the one for coffee. Though that wheel has been around since 1995, it recently received a major, science-driven overhaul.

The quality of flavor wheels runs the gamut, says Emma Sage, coffee science manager at the Specialty Coffee Association of America, one of the agencies spearheading the overhaul. At the amateur end are wheels drafted by some person writing a bunch of words around a wheel. On the other end is the SCAA, which worked with Chambers’ team at Kansas State to develop the lexicon and then researchers at UC Davis — of wine wheel fame — to create the wheel, a process that took three years.

To develop the lexicon, the Kansas State team had evaluators taste 105 coffees from 13 countries. Word categories emerged via complex statistic analyses. The new coffee flavor wheel now contains a whopping 110-word lexicon. In comparison, Sage says, most wheels contain just 30-60 words.

That’s one reason why Chambers is keen to present those words in a more open-ended way – that is, a tree. The idea isn’t entirely novel. Back in the late 1980s, a scientist working on the flavor profile of fish divided them into two branches -– fatty and oily -– and continued sprouting out from there.

But the SCAA was unconvinced. “We need a practical tool for industry,” Sage says. “When you’re tasting coffee, you need to be able to look up on the wall and see a poster and just pick out a flavor. It’s a rapid process.”

So Sage’s group went to UC Davis and asked them to, well, re-invent the wheel. To be clear, the coffee flavor wheel is a gem. Like other wheels, the main categories of the coffee wheel are at the center with sub-categories emanating outward. Related categories, such as fruity and sour/fermented, appear side-by-side on the wheel. And the wheel is color-coded to reflect the feel of a word –- for instance, vegetative is green, floral is pink and spices are red.

But the wheel is not a tree. And Chambers remains convinced that the future of flavor is multidimensional and virtual. In a paper appearing earlier this month in the Journal of Sensory Studies, Chambers slipped in a figure of what the coffee lexicon would have looked like as a tree. And he says he’s thinking bigger than that two-dimensional mockup. Once flavor trees move online, he says, users could click on a given word in the lexicon and see all of its interconnected branches. (For an example of how this would work, Chambers recommends checking out Visual Thesaurus.)

Flavor trees, Chambers thinks, will open up sensory science to a wider audience. In a conversation with his wife, Delores Chambers, also a sensory scientist at Kansas State and a cheese expert, the Chambers’ envisioned a cell phone app that would allow people to scan the aisles at their local supermarket to identify which cheeses most closely match the impossible-to-find-one listed in their recipe. “Some people would find it kind of useless,” Chambers says, but “I think it would be fascinating.” (It should also come as no surprise that in a paper appearing earlier this month, Delores Chambers created a tree diagram to illustrate the flavor links between 47 artisan goat cheeses.)

Recently, Chambers says, he went to the International Quilt Show in Houston. There he saw a quilt depicting one person’s face when viewed from the left, a second person’s face when viewed from the right and a third person’s face when viewed from the front. The quilt was an analogue for Chambers’ vision for the future, in which a person could circumnavigate a tree in virtual space to see the sensory attributes of a food or product from different perspectives (flavor, texture, appearance and so on).

“We could look at a flavor wheel from three dimensions and see three different pictures,” Chambers says. “How amazing would that be?”

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