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Hmmm…that tastes like…?

Five Senses CoffeeDean Gallagher 8 February 2011

A couple of years ago, Dean left for a camping trip and came back inspired by his senses. We think his account of the weekend was worthy of a reprint…

I’ve just been away to a friend’s place in the country for the long weekend where I was forced to completely switch off from all things coffee.

It was great. We sat around a campfire and enjoyed watching the children toast their marshmallows. We went into the bush and collected wood. We ate freshly baked bread with homemade jam. (It was nicer than the damper the kids were cooking/burning over the campfire.) And we experimented with different herbs in our marinade. The weekend was, as much as anything, a great sensory experience. It was a weekend rich in fresh aromas (variations of smokey, ashy, herbaceous, earthy, woody) and flavours (yeasty, berry, burnt sugar). It was a time where my olfactory memory had a chance to recalibrate and ‘file’ new sensory experiences, ready for reference later on.

When we cup our single origins at Five Senses, we taste each of them with purpose — and each one is uniquely different. Some of them can be quite similar, yet with small and subtle differences. The challenge for us is not in noticing the differences but in describing and communicating them. To do this well, we need a large olfactory ‘reference library’ (memories of flavour and aroma) that can be associated with the flavours and tastes that resonate in the everyday memories of everyone else.

Many people can taste nearly everything on offer in the cup. What people find most difficult is separating the primary flavour or aroma from the sensory white noise in the ‘background’. Once people become adept at this, they find the next hurdle is identifying and describing it to other people. Most people’s olfactory memories are pretty well stocked but poorly organised. Trying to make an association with a common, familiar flavour or aroma finds them rifling randomly though their chaotic olfactory filing cabinet, and leaving them with the common ‘on the tip of my tongue’ frustration. They often know what it tastes like — they just can’t find something similar to compare it to and describe it with.

One of the greatest tools to help people organise their olfactory memory is the official SCAA Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel (pictured). It is by no means the definitive answer to flavour and aroma classification but it will go a very long way in helping you get your head around what I’ve been raving on about.

I’m forced, by the very nature of what I do, to examine different coffees in great sensory detail. Sometimes, though, I want to sit down with a coffee and not think too hard about it. I don’t want every coffee I drink to be an exercise in sensory evaluation. There are moments in the day when I just want the enjoyment factor of experiencing a beverage that stirs the senses and leaves me with a feeling of great satisfaction.

Don’t forget that, at the end of the day, just because you can’t describe it doesn’t mean you can’t like it.

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