In this post, we’re going to explore ‘flavor’; more specifically we’re going to try and distinguish flavor from taste. So like we did in Part 1, let’s start off with a definition:

noun: flavor
1. the distinctive taste of a food or drink.
“the yogurt comes in eight fruit flavors”
synonyms: taste, savor, tang More

Let’s re-cap ‘taste’ real quick. Taste refers to one of the five primary taste sensations: sweet, sour, salt, bitter or umami. These are sensations identified in varying degrees by the taste buds on your tongue.

What I like about the definition of flavour above is the idea of a ‘distinctive taste of a food or drink’; only for our purposes I’d say, “The distinctive character of a food or drink.” Taste informs flavor. Think about it for a second. If I say, “Honey,” your brain probably doesn’t conjure up images of salty, bitter or sour tastes. Likewise, if I say, “Chocolate,” your brain might start thinking about chocolate as sweet, but then consider that chocolate has some bitterness, and maybe even a salty taste.

Flavor is the nuance which allows us to describe food, beverages, tobacco, and other items in terms beyond the five primary tastes. To be able to leap from, “This candy tastes sweet,” to, “This candy tastes like grape,” we need to expand our sensory perception beyond just our taste-buds and include the sensory abilities of our ol’ factory senses in the nasal cavity and retro-nasal passage/sinus.

The nose, knows!

Don’t believe me?

Okay. Here’s a fun game. Stop reading right now and go get a jelly bean, or a hard candy of any kind. With one hand, pinch your nose closed. With the other hand, pop the candy or jelly bean into your mouth. Keep your nose pinched closed! Examine what you taste.

You can probably (hopefully!) taste sweet, you may also begin to taste some of the unique flavors of the jelly bean, things like fruity or caramel, or nutty flavors. Now release your nose and take a couple deep breaths through your nose. The flavors of the jelly bean should really open up. If it was fruity, you should now be able to determine what kind of fruit.

I led this exercise with a tasting class once, and handed out green jelly beans. I asked the entire group to pinch their nose closed, take a jelly bean and chew it, and to write down the flavor they thought the jelly bean was. Then I asked them to open their nose, take a deep breath and record the actual flavour of the jelly bean. With noses plugged, the group was split 50/50; half the group was convinced that the flavour was green apple, the other half of the group was convinced the flavour was lime. On opening their noses and taking a deep breath the group was shocked… they had all taken a spearmint flavoured jelly bean.

This is all to say that your nose informs flavour, and without it we’re limited in our ability to truly taste the nuance in anything we put in our mouth. In coffee cuppings and tea tastings we actually check the aroma of the dry grinds or leaf, the steeping grinds or leaf, and the freshly brewed coffee or tea before we EVER taste the finished product.

Flavour = Aroma + Taste

Thanks to everyone following this series of posts on tasting.  If you missed Part 1 ‘What is Taste?’ you can find it here

Stay tuned for Installment 3 – The Mechanics of Tasting

By Pat Russell, Director of Coffee