Introducing Table Manners, a new Sprudge.com feature!
“In the dry fragrance, I thought the coffee smelled sweet, but it just didn’t live up to it in the cup.”
We’ve all done it. We all do it! We say things at the cupping table that raise eyebrows, or, even worse, cause an experienced (or just plain DIVA SUPERNOVA) cupper to ask something like: “The coffee smelled sweet? What exactly do you mean by that?” And then it hits you. It hits you like a ton of bricks: you aren’t prepared with a great answer. There’s so much subjective experience to share during a cupping, but by learning the basic mechanics of taste and smell, you’ll be able to parse the complicated chemistry that happens in your brain. DIVA SUPERNOVA be damned!
What’s the problem, then? You can’t smell sweet, queen. You also can’t smell bitter, sour, salty, and umami. You just can’t do it. You ain’t a dog.
These five basic tastes are perceived by the taste buds that line the tongue and mouth – this is called “gustation”. Taste buds have an array of receptors that are stimulated by a variety of compounds. Naturally, sweet receptors respond to sugars and artificial sweeteners, but certain proteins and amino acids like glycine will stimulate sweet receptors as well. Bitter receptors are set-off by alkaloids and an array of other compounds. Sour receptors are primarily stimulated by hydronium ions of an acidic solution. It’s the sodium ions of sodium chloride aka table salt, and other salts, that stimulate our tastebuds into telling us “Oooh child, this is salty.” Umami, the new taste on the block, is caused by free glutamates (the G in MSG) tickling our tasties.
Smelling, on the other hand, is an olfactory experience, an event entirely contained in the nose. Our smell receptors are sensitive, finely tuned sites within our nasal passages that can detect thousands of volatile aromatic compounds dissolved in air, but not ALL triggers volatilize in the damn first place. Sugar, alkaloids, hydronium, sodium ions, glutamates, etc., don’t volatilize, and even if they did, your smell receptors wouldn’t have a clue in Cleveland what to do with them.
When we eat or drink anything, our taste receptors perceive a matrix of sweet, salty, sour, bitter, umami, and as we exhale, aromatics flood our smell receptors with a battery aromatics called ketones, aldeydes, lactones, and on, anon. It’s this combination of aromatics that allow us to experience individual flavors, but it’s the combination of tastes and smells that allow our brains to decipher what the heck it is we’re putting in our mouths. (From an evolutionary perspective, this is how we know if is something good to eat or if we should spit it out).
If you have a cold and you are congested, this is why things don’t taste like anything in particular, though you can still taste if something is sweet, or sour, etc. You can have a severe sinus infection and still enjoy the balance of sour and sweet provided by, say, the all-new Dolcepump Brand Razzmatazz Pink Lemonade Italian Soda Jerk™ flavor.
Let’s say you are at a cupping, and you’ve got different roasts of the same coffee lined up. You smell them all, and you say: “Cup A smells the sweetest, and Cup B is the most acidic of the bunch.” You’d be wrong, wouldn’t you? WOULDN’T YOU?! Well, yes and no.
That’s our whole point. When you smell something that you think is sweet, you aren’t smelling sweet, but you are smelling things that you associate with the quality of sweetness. In that cupping, “Cup A” probably smells sweeter because it is giving off aromatics that come alongside greater roast development. Maybe you think “Cup B” is going to be more acidic because you are smelling vibrant fruits and sharp aromatics, things that would generally come along with a more acidic coffee.
These things that we associate with specific tastes are ultimately based on our experience with things we’ve smelled and then tasted in the past. It’s a complex web of taste and flavor associations that inform our decisions about what we put into our mouths. We develop an intuition, but no matter how keen and honed that intuition is, we just can’t experience sweet (and the other four tastes) when we smell, so we shouldn’t be clumsy about saying we do. Give your descriptions purpose: “I think Cup A is going to be sweeter because it smells like molasses and caramel, and Cup B sure is popping – it’s going to be the brightest of the group.”
What’s the point? We aren’t trying to wrap the phenomenology of taste into a purely reductionist, materialist package. We aren’t cupping divas. The point is to be accurate and understand precisely what we are communicating, so that we can be better tasters. Taste and flavor perception is a really complicated, abstract thing, and we have a limited set of linguistic tools in communicating our experiences. When we don’t know how to use those tools, we are punching holes through the drywall just as much as we are hitting the nail on the head.
Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more “Table Manners”, only on Sprudge.com.