Coming to Your Senses: How to Really Taste That Cup of Coffee

Enjoying coffee is more than just a matter of liquid meeting tongue. All five of your senses play a part, some in entirely surprising ways.

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See me. Feel me. Touch me. Hear me.

The Who at its lyrical best. Also, your coffee talking.

The next time you bring cup to lip, think these lines. Why? Because enjoying coffee is more than a matter of taste. All five senses play a part, some in entirely surprising ways.

Coffee is extremely complex chemically and physically, each green bean containing around 500 aromatic and flavor components. And that's just for starters. Roasting increases that count three-fold, the heat creating entirely new components while also intensifying the elements present prior to roasting. Length and temperature of the roast ultimately determine how fully the raw bean is transformed. Wine, considered among the most complex and nuanced beverages, has but 300-400 components. In tech terms, coffee is data rich, bursting with sensory information that taste alone can't process.

Preparation method wields considerable influence over how our senses experience coffee. Espresso sits at one end of the spectrum, its mix of water temperature, pressure, and time producing a highly concentrated, viscous liquid awash in complexity. At the other end of the range are methods like French press and brewed, which don't extract coffee as fully as espresso, and as a result don't carry as much sensory data. In sonic terms, these methods produce more mid-range, less treble and bass.

Experiencing all that coffee has to offer is a two-way street, involving roasting and preparation dynamics on one side, and on the other how attuned our senses are to the data that coffee transmits. If you've done a formal wine tasting, you're probably familiar with this idea. Tasting as applied here is a misnomer, by the way, because it suggests that only one sense is involved.

Here are basics on how our senses work, and the role each plays in processing coffee's rich data. We'll go in order of processing speed, fastest to slowest.

Be afraid of the dark: too dark of a roast, caused by over-roasting, covers numerous desirable flavors present in any good bean.

SIGHT

The eyes have it: Sight is our fastest-acting and most powerful sense. Our eyes take in some 12 million pieces of information every second, and accordingly have a huge impact on how we perceive coffee. First impressions matter, big-time.

A beautiful, spotless café, restaurant, or kitchen makes an expertly crafted coffee taste even better, and masks the shortcomings of a less-than-great coffee. Similarly, cleanliness and quality of cups and other service items set the table for a superior coffee experience, literally and figuratively. Experiment at home. Make a so-so coffee and serve it in a spotless cup, alongside a fantastic coffee (same method) presented in stained china. Serve side-by-side to an unsuspecting friend, and get their reaction. Expect to witness the wonders of perception.

Of course, what matters most is the appearance of the coffee itself. Carefully examine the shade of brown in the cup, which should directly correlate to preparation method. Well-made brewed or Chemex (pour-over) coffee should be lighter brown relative to espresso, almost reddish. If coffee from these methods looks very dark brown or muddy, send it back -- or if you've prepped at home, try again. There may be too much coffee relative to water, known as overdosing, or the beans may have been over-roasted.

French press and espresso done right occupy the other, darker end of the spectrum. French press gets its color from the high presence of solids swimming in the liquid, owing to the method's somewhat crude filtration. Espresso actually sports two shades of brown: very dark liquid underneath, capped by a lighter crema on top -- ideally a rich, caramel brown, painted with tiger stripes. The crema tells you most of what you need to know about the liquid underneath. A light-colored, evanescent, inconsistently thin crema flags an under-extracted espresso, caused by an excessively coarse grind, low water temperature, or both. Conversely, an over-extracted espresso is marked by a darkish-brown crema with a big white spot and wide bubbles if the water temperature was too high, or just the big white spot in the middle if the grind was too fine.

HEARING

Hearing is second only to sight in terms of speed, our ears processing some one million pieces of information every second. Like sight, hearing sets up the overall experience. While you may not be able to hear a good coffee like you can see one, atmospheric cues matter a great deal.

Picture a favorite cafe where soundtrack and din are kept low enough to let the sounds of grinding, tamping, and the machine's own natural music come through. It sends a message: Coffee-making is handled with care here, one at a time, without the assembly-line approach. You feel like something special is on the way.

How else does hearing contribute to the experience? My ears perk up to a barista who knows the simple power of a nice hello, how are you, and, even better, who takes the time and care to explain the characteristics of the coffee I've selected.

TOUCH

At a processing speed of 500,000 data points per second, touch is bronze medalist to sight's gold and hearing's silver, and absolutely critical to the tasting experience.

For coffee, touch equates to mouth feel. It is often said that a great espresso "paints the tongue," and indeed, it does. Body, temperature, and astringency are coffee's tactile markers.

Presented by

Giorgio Milos, Master Barista for Trieste, Italy-based illycaffè, travels throughout the U.S., hosting illy Master Barista Series events at leading cafes and gourmet retailers, and training staff at top restaurants and hotels. More

Giorgio Milos is Master Barista for Trieste, Italy-based illycaffè. With barista training dating to his teens, Milos, 36, is one of the world's foremost experts on coffee. He is a past winner of the Italian Barista Championship, a Specialty Coffee Association of Europe-certified Master Barista, and on faculty at illy's Universita del Caffè (UDC), where leading restaurants and cafes come for master coffee training.

Now U.S.-based, Milos travels the country leading the illy Master Barista Series—classes and events for passionate coffee lovers—and bringing UDC's principles and practices to America's leading restaurants, hotels, cooking schools, and top independent cafes. Visit www.illy.com for more information.

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