When you first start learning to cup – the worldwide method used for coffee tasting – much of your time is spent listening to other people.
Your notes that say things like “warm, nutty, strong” are soon filled in with specifics from more experienced tasters “hazelnut, cacao, velvety body” and you spend much of your time nodding along and jotting things down, trying to learn. Keep a low profile. But the day someone said that they had smelled “spearmint” I swivelled around toward the speaker so sharply my head nearly parted company with my neck. I was sure they were pulling my leg.
I soon discovered that they were entirely in earnest. Spearmint in coffee! Not just herbal, not minty, not peppermint, but specifically spearmint. Something I had only ever experienced as toothpaste and chewing gum, or more distantly in childhood as my least favourite type of LifeSaver. How on earth did they get that?
The answer, as it almost invariably is with these things, is a mixture of talent and practice.
There are rare folks known as ‘super noses’, whose senses are so heightened and attentive that they can discern and appreciate the difference between roses blossoming in the sun and the same blooms after rain. These people are generally found in the great perfume making labs, where their ‘Princess and the Pea’ level olfactory talents can be put to good use.
Much more common are ‘supertasters’ – people who simply have more tastebuds on their tongue. You can do a simple experiment at home to see if you’re one of the quarter of the population who fall into this category. Are you a supertaster?
A few extra sensory receptors won’t get you far on their own. In the words of Jean Lenoir, “We can only recognise what we already know (how would we recognise a person we had never seen before?). Everything we perceive is compared with previous information logged in our memory bank. The more information our memory holds, the easier and the quicker it will decipher it.”
Experience is deeply important in developing a nose and palate. Part of the process toward becoming a taster is making a conscious decision to engage your senses with the world. No more absent-mindedly nibbling on almonds or blueberries. You’ve got to turn your attention to these things, to the smell of flowers, the taste of food.
Unfortunately, it also means paying attention to less pleasant things – the cold sharpness of medicine, the funk of rubber, the stale flat must of cardboard. A flavour is the perception of the aromatics of something in the mouth, so you have to engage your nose as well.
But wait. Aren’t all people different? Won’t they perceive things differently, remember and recognise the smell or taste of chocolate, vanilla, caramel differently?
How do you know that you’re really smelling and tasting what you think you are?
Yes! As someone who enjoys spicy and sour food more than dessert, I might be less sensitive to the taste of pepper and lemon but pick out a hint of vanilla. This is why we have to taste in groups.
You hope that by bringing a diverse range of people, with different backgrounds and preferences and experiences we can cover and help educate one another.
Open and honest communication, listening to the experiences of people around you is vital. Especially when it comes to flavours and aromas you haven’t experienced yourself. (Or only experienced as toothpaste!)
Just like any type of communication, the language of coffee tasting relies on a shared vocabulary. This is where Le Nez du Café, a kit created in collaboration between La Federacion Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia’s David Guermonprez and Jean Lenoir, comes in.
The ‘nose’ of coffee is a range of 36 aromas which are common to coffee. Scents from the fresh sweet snap of garden peas to the rich velvetiness of caramel are distilled down into tiny vials. We use them to train our senses, to learn the ‘standard’ of vanilla and blossom, the ‘true’ lemon as it is agreed upon by the coffee world. Sometimes the standard will jar with expectations.
If I’m honest when I think of ‘chocolate’ my first thought is still always Dairy Milk, but what is in the vial is richer, darker, less milky, but sweeter. This is important to know, because we use the vocabulary of flavour and aroma to communicate across continents.
When we taste a sample of coffee from Brazil and send back our notes, if we say ‘chocolate’ the buyers and farmers on the other side of the world are going to interpret that as the scent of chocolate that is in the vial, not the bar I just snacked on at morning tea.
And when you’re dealing with tonnes of coffee and thousands of dollars, between groups who speak different languages and have different cultures, that specificity is necessary if both sides of the arrangement are to work together happily.
Le Café du Nez gives us the definitive experience of these aromas, but tasters need to learn to recall these standard scents without the using the kit – the vials are so pungent it’s impossible to use them side by side with a coffee, they overpower the delicate natural aromas.
And this is where the psychology of smell comes in. The recommended method for hard wiring your brain to recall specific fragrances is to attach a memory to them.
Scent and memory have always been closely associated. Who hasn’t stopped, momentarily transported by unexpectedly smelling the perfume or cologne of a loved one on a stranger?
Marcel Proust wrote a whole book after eating a single cake dipped in tea. The smell of sunscreen conjures clear and bright memories of summer holidays for millions of Australians. Crayons can take someone hurtling back from middle age to preschool in a millisecond. It is the first sense we develop and is fully functional even before birth.
And it’s surprisingly accurate as a tool for memory with studies showing that people can correctly recall a scent with 65% accuracy after a year. Contrast this with visual memory which is at 50% accuracy after only 3 months!
We use this connection when using the Le Nez du Café kit. As we go through each vial, we take a moment to try and figure out what it reminds us of. For me, vial #1 the smell of fresh Earth reminds me to call my mother, an avid gardener.
Vial #2 – Potato – is my dad chopping up a pile of spuds for mash, his favourite. Apricot (#16) is the first perfume I ever had as a teenager, Anais Anais.
Clove (#7) brings back toothaches and Straw (#5) is straightforwardly reminiscent of clambering over gigantic piles of haybales on the farm. Pipe Tobacco (#33) belongs to an old family friend who carried his tin everywhere.
By concentrating on these memories we can cement the smell in our memories and carry the information contained around in the kit with us.
This can make the exercise of tasting coffee more fun than perhaps it looks from the outside. As we struggle to discern vanilla from caramel, we keep a poker face to ensure we don’t influence one another.
But on the inside, we are flicking through the references of our memory – thick slabs of homemade slice and fudge at the school fete, maybe?
No-one’s memory is infallible and there really aren’t any wrong answers when it comes to coffee tasting, but we keep trying and coming back to the kit to try and pin down the ephemeral, and sometimes emotional sense of smell into something we can all understand.
There is a great satisfaction when everyone around the table agrees exactly to blueberry that makes all the practice worthwhile! Because it’s the understanding that’s important.
The farmers, buyers, roasters, baristas and customers all coming together to try something across vast differences and cultures, trying to talk to each other about this shared experience.
Many of us checking in on a small dark wood box of tiny vials as we go, remembering people and places we’ve known, trying to build something that makes sense of the most powerful of the senses.
Next time you try a Limited Edition coffee, take a second to engage your senses, see if it reminds you of anything.
And if you still think that “strawberry” is ridiculous, I promise not to take it to heart. I must admit to you, I’ve still never quite understood “spearmint”.
“the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of everything else; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the immense architecture of memory.” Marcel Proust.