Exploring the Aroma of Coffee

Ed. 8: There is a point in every learning process when the student must leave the classroom and venture in to the real world. Doctors do not become doctors the moment after they have read every biology and anatomy book on the planet. There is something essential to the idea of being an expert that requires experience. Matt and I have learned quite a bit about growing regions and brewing methods for coffee, but until we begin to taste coffee, we haven’t done much more than move some beans and water around. In order to understand the way coffee tastes, we must learn how to categorize and communicate our thoughts as we experience various stimuli.

Understanding flavor and taste is much more scientific than I perceived, and I feel that a comprehension of this science opens the door for anyone to develop an acute pallet for coffee. The most fundamental idea regarding the science of taste is flavor profiling. Profiling simply breaks taste in to five main categories; aroma, acidity, body, flavor, & aftertaste. Although wine connoisseurs and gourmet chefs use a similar system for profiling, one should employ this system only in regards to coffee. Over the next few weeks, Matt and I will cover each of the main topics regarding flavor, but we will begin this week by discussing aroma.

As science has developed, aroma has revealed itself as such a large part of taste, because in a sense aroma and taste are the same thing. Taste and aroma both originate in the same way, but our bodies break down various experiences in to water soluble and non-water soluble chemicals. Water soluble chemicals are perceived as taste, while non-water soluble chemicals are perceived as smell. Spicy foods, for example, taste spicy, but because oily spices do not dissolve easily in water we perceive spice in an olfactory manner (we smell it). This of course implies that many of the things we consider to be attributes of taste are actually smells and vice versa.

With this concept in mind, we approach smell with our mouths open, literally. This is to say, when you smell coffee, wine, or any food it is important to leave your mouth ajar in order to allow air to flow over your taste buds. Have you ever noticed that you can’t taste very well when you have a cold. This phenomenon can be qualified by the fact that your olfactory nerves which are used for smelling are blocked. When these are blocked, all non-water soluble chemicals in the food or beverages you consume are unperceivable.

When smelling coffee, there are a few key points to look for. All smells can be broken down in to three major categories namely enzymatic, sugar browning, and dry distillation. Enzymatic aromas include citrus and flowery smells; i.e. lemonade or apple pie. Sugar browning aromas cover a wider array of smells which include caramel, chocolate, and nut scents. Examples of these can be found in both chocolate and vanilla ice cream as well as peanut butter. Dry distillation aromas, our third major category, include spices like pepper and combustive aromas such as a campfire or tobacco. It is quite common for coffee reviewers to write things like, “…this Central American varietal has a citrus-like acidity.” These sorts of comments are pointing out that the coffee is brighter in taste much like an orange or a lemon.

The acidity portion of this comment, however, refers to another topic completely which will be addressed in next week’s edition of, “What Do You Taste?”

Reid Jackson
Stockton Graham & Co.