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Wake up and taste the coffee

When it comes to coffee, although the texture and appearance of a cup are extremely important, there is arguably nothing more important than taste and aroma.

Therefore, in order to really savour the drink and better understand quality control processes, it is useful to know a little something about the science behind how we taste and how this relates to our industry.

When it comes to coffee, cupping is the name given to the method by which blends are tasted, tested and assessed. Carried out by experts, it is intended to determine the character of a particular coffee and check for quality, with tasters mapping the flavour of a particular brew by carrying out a series of careful tests.

Creating a profile

Gathering this information is what enables traders and roasters to make choices based on a particular coffee's profile. One useful tool for assessing this data is the coffee flavour wheel, which essentially is an organised chart containing a glossary of terms commonly used to describe coffee.

Not only does the wheel ensure professionals are all using the same terminology for describing similar flavours and aromas, but it also sits certain key terms alongside each other in carefully calculated taste and aroma spheres, helping individuals to understand where and how different profiles relate to each other.

The wheel also distinguishes between aromas and tastes, with generally much more scope for aromas to choose between than there are tastes.

But what about the science behind it all – what is the difference between flavour, taste and aroma?

What is taste?

One of the five traditional senses, taste is the sensory impression of substances on the tongue and is described in the Oxford English Dictionary as "the sensation of flavour perceived in the mouth and throat on contact with a substance".

However, it is intrinsically connected to sense of smell and touch to create flavour – not to be confused as a synonym for taste – which is a combination of sensations including aroma, temperature, taste and texture.

There are five categories of taste – sourness, saltiness, bitterness, sweetness and umami. Each of these can be differentiated between by taste buds and the last one, only identified in the 20th century, "smooths out bitterness in coffee and tea", according to a Food Technology article.

Sense of smell plays an important role in the perception of flavour and, combined with taste, produces the sensation of flavour. In fact, while taste is limited to the basic categories, scents are rather more limitless in range – arguably why the coffee wheel outlines many more different possible aromas than tastes.

How do we taste?

The sense of taste is produced when something reacts chemically with the receptors on our taste buds.

Thousands of taste buds are located on the tongue, with more in the throat, and the back, roof and sides of the mouth, with each comprising dozens of receptor cells.

Perception of taste is strongly linked to smell. Indeed, if you hold your nose while tasting food and drink that have a strong smell, like coffee or basil leaves, it is much more difficult to perceive their distinctive flavour.

What affects taste?

Sense of taste tends to deteriorate with age as people gradually lose receptors and can be significantly affected if your sense of smell is disrupted. Anosmia is the medical term for losing one's sense of smell and can be caused by a range of conditions, including the common cold, head injuries, certain medications or a congenital defect.

This substantially reduces the ability of people to taste things, as 80 per cent of the flavour of food and drink comes from sense of smell. This is why if a cupper has a cold, they are not able to carry out their job well enough and will generally need a substitute!

What are the features of the taste of coffee?

As aforementioned, aroma and taste are the key components that make up the flavour of coffee and, during cupping, Master Tasters sniff and slurp samples, writing specific terms to describe aspects of their character – for example caramel, earthy, floral, spicy, woody, bitter, salty or nutty. Without both smell and taste, these experts would not be able detect these qualities as easily – if at all – and certainly would struggle to distinguish between different ones.

Specialists in the field of coffee tasting are often able to determine between the distinctive tastes of different botanical varieties of coffee bean and the various regions in which the plant is grown. However, you don't have to be an expert in cupping to appreciate the taste of a great cup of coffee or to savour the wide range of flavours available.

To find out more about the art of cupping coffee and forming profiles of different varieties, give us a call today, as we have open cupping sessions from time to time to which you may like to come along.