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Coffee Trends: Highly Tuned Coffee Proboscis

Highly tuned coffee proboscis


April 7, 2008
By Brian Martell

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You’ve just woken on a sunny Saturday morning; the kids are still in bed and the only sound in the house is the gentle gurgling of the coffee maker in the kitchen as you pore over the sports or entertainment pages of the paper.

You’ve just woken on a sunny Saturday morning; the kids are still in bed and the only sound in the house is the gentle gurgling of the coffee maker in the kitchen as you pore over the sports or entertainment pages of the paper. Wafting in the air is the sweet aroma of fresh brewed coffee, the only thing that entices you to rise from the kitchen table and grab your favourite mug.

The sense of smell has a powerful impact our emotions, perhaps more so than any other sense (including sound and sight). It conjures flashbacks with vivid memories of childhood or long forgotten events that come to life as if they happened only yesterday through the sense of smell. 

It’s not surprising then that one of the very first things expert coffee cuppers do in their ritual of evaluation is “break the crust” to smell the coffee. They get their noses perilously close to scalding the tip (I’m sure a few have had this happen) as they breathe in the aroma, making mental notes about the character and what attributes the coffee reveals through its smell. This preps the cupper to anticipate what he or she is going to taste.

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The sense of smell and taste are closely related and intertwined in that it becomes difficult to taste something without the ability to smell it first. Our mind already will have prejudged the thing we are putting in our mouth by how it smells sending signals to our taste buds of what to expect in almost a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Never in the years of being in the coffee business have I come across a coffee with excellent aroma that was undrinkable.

Curiously, however, there are non-coffee drinkers out there who claim to love the smell of coffee, but don’t care for the taste. I have never encountered a rancid smelling coffee that had a great taste profile (this could be said, however, of some cheeses; most notably blue and Lindbergh style cheeses).

So what are the experts looking for when they first “drink in with their noses” the aroma of coffee? In most cases, the first thing to be evaluated is if there any defects in the coffee’s olfactory attributes.

Cuppers want to eliminate the possibility of negative characteristics before moving on to the virtues of any given coffee sample. These range from “phenol” smells (like gasoline) or the “barn yard” (straw or grassy smells), to the most noticeable defect of them all; the fermented bean.

Now there is no way to overestimate the shear vileness of a fermented coffee bean, especially when it happens in great numbers. Preparing a cupping of fermented coffee will be enough to clear the lab and turn on the fan.

If you get close enough to the cup to actually put it to your lips and take a sip, guaranteed dollars to doughnuts you will not be able to swallow. The assault to two-fifths of your sensory perceptions will be enough to permanently etch the experience in your memory forever.

Fortunately, fermented coffee does not happen often and when it does, it usually happens in a roasters QC lab so as not to go any further than that.

Once the coffee has passed the stage of eliminating the possibility of any off smells, the cupper will move on to the virtues of the brew. Does it have a sweet smell? Are you detecting a citric brightness in the coffee? How about any rich earthy smells or floral aromas (hints of Jasmine perhaps)?

These are the types of traits the cupper hopes for in the evaluation process partly because it is the mark of a good coffee, but mostly because in a few seconds he or she is going to have to put lips to the spoon and take a big slurp of the coffee being evaluated.

Back to the Saturday morning papers, the enjoyment of the whole coffee experience that involves all five senses (not only does the coffee smell and taste great, the warmth of the cup in your hands and shiny reflection of the dark brew in the cup is like music to your ears) is in part the work of the dedicated coffee professionals who ensure the quality of the cup you enjoy is up to the high standards you demand.

Questions or comments? E-mail Brian at Brian@heritage-coffee.com .


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