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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Body is among coffee's key attributes, and absolutely central to espresso. We perceive a liquid's body through small movements of the tongue against the palate that send information about viscosity and texture to the brain. The determining factors are lipid count and the presence of solids in the liquid. The espresso method's use of high pressure (around 130 psi) produces higher lipid counts that increase the sensation of body, with relatively high viscosity adding to mouth feel. Very small particles that pass through the filter boost the solids in espresso, further coating the tongue. The result is body your tongue can feel, more so in coffee made from naturally processed beans than from washed beans.
Conversely, methods such as French press and brewing produce relatively low lipid counts, rendering body nearly imperceptible. However, French press does gain body from the same solids that give it darker color, present in the coffee due to the metal-screen filtration.
Excessive heat diminishes your power to fully touch coffee. Temperatures of 170F and higher temporarily anesthetize the taste buds, dampening overall taste perception. A well-made espresso, starting with water heated to around 195F, should reach an optimized-for-mouth feel drinking temperature of 160F, upon making contact with a cup heated atop the machine to about 120F. French press and brewed coffee are best felt when served at 160-170F.
The third big mouth feel dynamic, astringency, is sometimes admirable in wine and tea, but never in coffee. Astringency is the body's lip-puckering, dry-mouth reaction to presence of certain acids in unripe fruit -- in coffee parlance, to immature beans -- and is sometimes mistaken for sourness.
Working at a clip of 70 bits of information per second, smell may seem downright tortoise-like in terms of processing speed, but it is paramount in how we experience coffee. We need to take our time sipping, never guzzling coffee or any other fine beverage, and give our sense of smell ample time to do its good and necessary work.
Let's divide the olfactory sense into two distinct categories: aroma and flavor. Aroma, or odor, is the olfactory sensation created by breathing. Strong aromas are present in roasted whole beans or freshly ground coffee, but the prepared beverage itself doesn't release many volatile compounds -- particularly espresso, where the crema acts like a lid. But when we drink coffee, its volatile compounds rapidly evolve in our mouth and travel quickly to the olfactory epithelium in the nasal cavity. Contradictory as it may seem, the sensation is stronger while exhaling.
Smell is not just about aroma. It is also how we experience complex flavors. Surprised? The nose is gateway to a plethora of distinct, natural flavors in coffee, with numbers and types varying by bean variety. Exactly how we experience flavor though smell is little understood. We do know that it involves our brain's attempts to compare the signals inherent in any particular odor to ones it has recorded in the past. That jasmine you smelled in your grandmother's backyard when you were ten? It created a file your brain can access today to recognize the presence of jasmine notes in your coffee.
So what delightful flavors might you smell in good coffee? Among the most prevalent are indeed jasmine, red fruit, berries, nuts, oranges, flowers, chocolate, caramel, and vanilla. The level at which each occurs varies by bean origin and blend composition. If your nose detects the likes of ash, soil, wood, or a rancid or chemical-like flavor, send that cup back. If you prepared it at home, go shopping for fresh beans, and clean your equipment.
The roasting process imbues coffee with roasted or toasted notes, stronger in dark roast than in light. These are delightful, but once again, be afraid of the dark: too dark of a roast, caused by over-roasting, covers numerous desirable flavors present in any good bean.
Are you surprised that a discussion about coffee tasting puts the very sensation of taste dead last? Processing a mere 15 info bits per second, taste brings up the rear in our sensorial speed trials.
A common misperception is that taste recognizes complex flavors. As just explained, that is smell's job. In reality, our taste receptors, located on the tongue, pick up but four basic tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, and acidic. While certain regions of the tongue are more attuned to sensing one taste or another -- salt, for instance, by the center region -- all of our taste buds can perceive all four tastes.
This isn't to say taste doesn't matter. Our first genuinely deep, visceral feedback to coffee's taste comes when cup meets lip. As complex as coffee is, we react very strongly to the presence of these basic tastes, and most commonly state our coffee preferences, and dislikes, in terms of bitterness, acidity, and sweetness. Many of us, myself included, gravitate to an even balance of acidic and bitter, with a touch of natural sweetness. That helps explain the popularity of blends, which let you dial up or dial down characteristics inherent in different beans. Our way at illy is to mix a variety of natural and washed coffees, and then precisely calibrate the roast. As a rule of thumb, lighter roasts are more acidic, while dark roasts are more bitter.
Be a coffee rock star. Experience it with all five senses, and take your pleasure to entirely new places.
Image: Nickolay Khoroshkov/Shutterstock.