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How we use illustration to more effectively communicate the flavour of coffee

by Ben Sibley

The objective of flavour descriptions in the specialty coffee industry is to highlight the unique flavour characteristics of coffees based on their provenance, variety and how they were processed after harvest. But describing flavour using only words posed some limitations for us.

Our initial observations

  • Flavour descriptions that listed specific taste notes related more to the sensory references of the author than the drinker
  • If the drinking experience didn’t match the flavour descriptions, it could be alienating and demotivating for the drinker
  • Language could be interpreted differently drinker-to-drinker.

Therefore, we hypothesised that alternative mediums - most likely visual - could facilitate more effective communication of flavour description.

To direct our research into this area, we considered the fundamental difference between the two key variables that impact communication of flavour:

  • Taste is subjective and therefore cannot be defined. As a result, specific flavour notes can only ever be used to guide the drinker. And, identical aroma compounds are found in both synthetic and natural flavours. This means neither are definitive and so more general flavour themes were preferable in communicating to a wide range of drinkers.

  • Texture is objective and therefore can be defined. How the beverage feels on the tongue, the balance of its acidity and its body are easier to quantify, experienced more regularly in daily life, and therefore suited to more prescriptive communication.

Where we started

Where we finished

Sample brushstrokes

 We use:

  • Colours to represent flavour categories, not specific notes
  • Hue to express flavour intensity
  • Space and shape to communicate body and texture
  • Composition to reflect acidity, sweetness and finish.

We challenge ourselves to explore how flavour notes can be captured visually, and to understand the full potential of illustration as a technique to capture as much of the sensory experience of coffee as possible.

How we build our illustrations

We use three styles of brushstrokes and we decide which to use based on the taste notes identified at the beginning of the process.

Once selected, we transform them by giving them colour and opacity. We use colour to communicate broad taste categories - yellows and oranges to communicate citrus, reds and purples to communicate forest fruits.

Fundamentally, our illustrations suggest the most prominent qualities of the coffee’s flavour and texture without telling the drinker exactly what they should be tasting, encouraging them to take ownership of their sensory experience and ultimately their enjoyment of the coffee.