Taste, Flavour, and Perception

Flavour Topics – Part 1

When talking of coffee, the discussion of flavour and taste are never too far away. In fact what defines speciality coffee is that it is a culinary product, one that’s all about flavour. The way we all experience flavour is something of a minefield to untangle, I find it to be a common  topic of discussion, it influences service, it drives the craft of brewing, it defines the livelihoods of those that grow coffee, those that roast and, well, everybody involved really. I have touched on taste and flavour in a fair few posts previously – Isn’t it all essentially subjective – communication of flavouryou me autumn and coffee

I think taste/flavour is fascinating and whilst working with and serving speciality coffee it raises many a question.

The following few posts will each consider a specific aspect of taste and flavour in relation to speciality coffee, starting with the super taster test.

So, there are a few definitions for what super taster means. One is that of a developed sense of taste assessment through training, basically that taste is in many ways like a muscle and that the ability to assess it in relation to a specific product improves with practice. The super taster test that I am looking at here does not have any relation at all to this definition and should be treated separately, in fact I think the name is kind of misleading.

The super taster test is a little paper strip coated with a chemical, and an individuals reaction to it when placed on the tongue indicates sensitivity, primarily to bitter but also to fat and sugar. Twenty five percent of the population are very sensitive to these groups of flavour on the tongue and there is still a spectrum of sensitivity within this group. When this group puts the strip on their tongue, the reaction is one of repulsion, it’s best described as chewing on paracetemol. Fifty percent of the population are mildly sensitive and experience a mild bitterness but nothing too unpleasant when tasting the strip. The other 25 per cent have very little sensitivity to these groups and cannot sense anything at all when the strip is on their tongue.

Now, a lot of (most of it) tasting is done with the olfactory system and sensitivity to the strip, which is looking at your tongue (gustation) has an effect but it by no means is the be all and end all. Sensitivity here does not equal the super taster I mentioned at the beginning. Jason who works for me has just won the national cup tasters championship and he sits in the middle fifty percent bracket. Interestingly, extreme sensitivity has drawbacks, resulting in a dislike of anything slightly bitter. But again there is a spectrum. It’s also important to note that this indicates one part of your tasting make up. Emotion, association and preference etc. all impact hugely on what we like and don’t like.

But this little test is interesting because it proves that two people can be having physically different experiences from the same taste input. It means that two people can put the same strip on their tongue and experience completely different physical and tangible results. It’s not (just) that people’s brains are getting the same information from the tongue and interpreting the results differently. Due to their physical make-up their tongue is sending different signals entirely. This is important because it raises some very specific queries for coffee in its breadth, especially the differences between more traditional coffee approaches ­– darker roasts etc. – and speciality coffee. As well as just communicating and discussing coffees taste.

I got a hold of the strip because throughout the process of serving  speciality coffee to many people I’ve come up, as I’m sure everyone has, against a few brick walls that made me curious. These are situations where I found it hard to chat about flavour. It was almost like we were tasting different things. I originally thought it was just different interpretations of the same thing or one of the communication issues that will often arise in the discussion of flavour sensations, that we have each very possibly allocated different terminology for the same sensory experience, the same taste.

An example of one of these experiences has occurred a couple of times when serving an espresso, and in essence I feel this discourse is centred on espresso, although it naturally links to other coffee formats. Now and then I have had the response, “God it’s bitter.” I’ve tasted the same coffee and struggled to find much bitterness at all, in fact I find less bitterness in the coffee we buy and brew than I find in products like high-percent chocolate and hoppy ales. Was it just the intensity of the espresso’s complex flavour and the fact it displays very different flavour groups to traditional espresso? Was the unique intensity and complexity being misdiagnosed as bitterness? Does the fact that it is labelled as “a cup of coffee” mean that any interesting ( possibly previously unlogged ) or strong flavour is quickly interpreted as bitter, and this led to the correlation with bitterness even if it’s not true? Or maybe I was just less sensitive to bitter. I thought I better get one of those little chemical strips and find out.

The strips can be picked up on line, two for a fiver. It was fun and interesting for everybody at the shop to do. Three people were highly sensitive and three were in the middle bracket. It was most amusing that the info sheet supplied suggested that you may be a sensitive taster if you don’t like hot, spicy food, or if you don’t like coffee… The irony of this being apparent when I tasted the paracetemol-ly horribleness of the strip. I should probably not like coffee. This may go some way to explain long-harboured questions about why I didn’t like my previous experiences with traditional and commercial coffee. It also tallies up with the ‘marmite (love/hate)’ nature that partly defines coffee’s general pop culture status, the notion that many a fair few people can’t stand the stuff… 25 per cent maybe?

This would also suggest that many flavour experiences can be rife with miscorrelation, which makes sense really, because although there are some crossover experiences, such as “I tasted a strawberry, so did you, and now we both agree on what a strawberry tastes like”. Bitterness is rarely tasted in isolation. In fact, most flavour groups and sensations are tasted as part of something. This then means that mental recognition of different taste groups is paired up with a product that often displays such a taste. So that bitterness is as closely linked to the taste of dark roast espresso and baking chocolate as it is with the individual sensation of bitterness. It would make sense then that other information and sensory data would put the term bitterness in a place where it barely exists, but where it is thought that it may or should be. It was particularly insightful to chat to the friend of mine who had told me about this little test in the first place as it had made him reassess his mental allocation of bitterness. He found out that he’s very insensitive to bitterness and that maybe he had been correlating flavours and experiences with bitterness that may not be bitterness at all.

This got me thinking about many interesting situations with speciality coffee.

The fact that someone less sensitive to bitter could enjoy aspects of a heavier roast coffee that I cannot. It may explain how traditional espresso is a more niche drink unless supported by strong cultural structures, although in most of those countries sugar is heavily used which would make sense, seeing as only a small percentage wouldn’t notice the heavy bitterness.

This makes me think about the irony of sugar’s reaction in much speciality coffee. An individual is most likely aiming to add sugar for the very reason I would suggest not to – to avoid bitterness and harshness. I’ve said it before. I personally can’t get on with a lot of traditional espresso without sugar. It’s amazing that a speciality coffee without sugar is actually far more conducive to a sensitive palate. Most of the time, the reaction to our espresso with sugar is shock and surprise, “yes it is more bitter and sharp! Weird.” Twice though, over the past 3 years the response has been one of “actually I prefer it with sugar.” The rarity of this suggests that maybe they have less sensitivity to bitter and that a sugar hit is being achieved with the espresso without as much perceivable negativity. Maybe. Sometimes the goal of the drink and its importance is not about flavour, but just a sugar and caffeine vehicle. And that then the flavours come to represent this experience, so they become enjoyed due to correlation. Products like cigarettes could follow a similar tangent of stimulant then making something desirable. Although, flavour in all its forms represent stimulus. Flavour stimulation is linked to bodily needs, but it is highly fascinating that we can also enjoy flavour for flavours sake.

The experiences show that on the whole the flavour information regarding sugar is useful, but there are anomalies. Which is where it’s interesting to remember these little test strips. We are (in our shop) trying to give taste-based information that benefits the customer and the product. These circumstances and tests show that it is not a 100-percent achievable goal. It would however seem that you can on the whole communicate successfully and the super taster test can go some way to help explain the anomalies.

Espresso is an interesting taste experience to analyse anyway. The complex flavour is in itself a massive sensory experience. The bitterness question is not the only one and it’s very easy to get into a narrow and wrong thought process of “you will like this because of your sensitivity,” this is wrong. Flavour choices go far beyond simple sensitivities to the basic four gustation senses – sweet, sour, salt and bitter. Our biggest flavour receptor is the nose (olfactory system) and we have all sorts of likes and preferences that are almost separate to gustation. A friend’s wife is a super taster (bitter sensitive) but prefers traditional heavier roasty coffee, she is less keen on speciality coffee. She has had a roasty French Press coffee from a young age and it means a lot to her. Interestingly, though she cannot drink traditional espresso without sugar.

This kind of bitter sensitivity only plays a partial role in our taste. I like many products with a reasonable bitterness even though I am sensitive to it. I like hoppy ales and grapefruit, but there’s a balance there and pairings with other flavour groups, it’s not just isolated bitterness. Bitterness can add complexity and structure, and balance. With products largely dominated by bitterness I do struggle to enjoy them, even as I attempt to be as objective as possible, as I try and appreciate them for what they are.

Sometimes when thinking about the many aspects that influence taste, I begin to write-off the sensitivity to bitterness as having a big impact, and forget about considering it altogether.

It was recently, when questioning taste in this way that a couple from France walk through the door and I began to lend it some weight again, and start writing this post. He explains how he has always been very fond of coffee but doesn’t get the richness he wants from our coffee, where as she says she can’t stand the stuff when they are in France but actually finds herself drinking our coffee as an enjoyment, as something she finds delicious. It’s interesting to find out that she can’t enjoy spicy food etc. and the mind starts to race again, thinking as to whether she is very sensitive and whether this has impacted on her taste.

This doesn’t mean that if you’re a ‘non-taster’ you can’t like speciality, but it may suggest that, as the sheet accompanying the little strips said, super tasters will be more unlikely to like heavy or typical “coffee”. Or that if you have developed a fondness for a bitterer, darker roast coffee due to less sensitivity, that speciality coffee may not immediately appeal.

Does this then suggest that even though speciality coffee is a niche product, that it does actually have a wider possible taste appeal? Not just the niche appeal it’s been labelled with? That maybe the context in which it’s tried is holding its appeal back. Due to the wrong context, say that of the more extreme product of traditional coffee (tending towards the bitter end of the spectrum), the more balanced product is then seen as the unusual and extreme product. Maybe. At the same time speciality espresso is a layered intense and complex drink, this in itself may keep it niche, regardless of bitterness.

This instance of looking for a richness, the classicness of coffee, is something that speciality coffee isn’t trying to do and by default is actually polemic to. The difference can be somewhat overstated and lead to the statement by other coffee areas that speciality coffee is overly acidic. This statement seems to always come from the corner of traditional coffee, the context of a drink with low sweetness and acidity, so it comes from an area with a product which is in itself quite extreme, it then by virtue of its difference suggests that the other is extreme. I don’t think that speciality coffee is as extreme, yes espresso will always be an more extreme taste product, but speciality is arguably more balanced in the terms of breadth of taste, yes it’s characterful, it’s not bland, some speciality coffees may be higher on acidity but it’s all about context and the next post is about why I don’t think speciality coffee is overly acidic.

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