PART 3: Exploring the Mechanics of Taste

Well if you’re reading this, you’ve either stuck through Part 1 and Part 2 or you’re going to want to give them a scan before pushing on: Part 1, Part 2

Hopefully, you’re ready and raring to go with our continuing exploration of tasting.

Here is a quick recap of the first two posts:
1) ‘Taste’ refers to one of the five primary tastes: sweet, sour, salt, bitter or umami.
2) Tastes are the foundation of flavours.
3) We detect tastes, largely, with our taste buds.
4) ‘Flavor’ for our purposes refers to the distinctive character of a food, drink, tobacco (or anything you put in your mouth)
5) Olfactory senses are critical to identifying flavor(s), the sense receptors in your nose are what allow you to differentiate flavor(s) from taste(s)

So let’s get on with Part 3, exploring the mechanics of tasting.

In coffee cupping, we have a defined set of protocols which are (generally) universally adopted to ensure that wherever a coffee is being cupped, it is being prepared and evaluated using the same process. This series of protocols also exists in the world of tea. These protocols remove variables in preparation that change flavour profiles in finished brew; and ensure that the same coffee/tea prepared in different locations will deliver very similar cup characteristics.  Ultimately, consistency of preparation in both these instances is absolutely critical to ensuring that the coffee or tea is consistent in flavour profile regardless of where it is being evaluated, and by whom.

What’s a flavor profile?

This, truly, is what we’re all trying to define when we try to relate what we taste to someone else. Whether you’re trying to relate to the cupping notes on a bag of coffee you just bought, are trying to find the tastes described by a chef in your amuse bouche, or are simply trying to describe the awesome new craft-beer you had to your best friend, what you’re ultimately trying to describe is the flavour profile of that product.

In coffee and tea, it’s easiest to break the flavor profile down into four components: Aroma, Flavour, Acidity and Body. We begin defining the flavour profile by examining the product with our nose first, assessing aroma. We try to assess the presence of primary tastes using our nose, and then look to determine flavours.

I find that at this point, it’s best to start asking questions:
1) Does the coffee/tea smell sweet/sour/salty?
2) Is the aroma simple (meaning only singular taste or flavour present) or complex (meaning multiple tastes or flavours present)?
3) If I can smell primary tastes, then can I begin to discern flavours?
a. Ie. The coffee smells sweet. Is it fruit sweet, nutty sweet, caramelly sweet, floral?

After checking aroma, we then slurp the coffee or tea and look to confirm the tastes and flavours identified when checking the aroma.
1) Are the tastes and flavours identified in the aroma present in the flavour?
2) Are there tastes and flavours present that weren’t identified in the aroma?
3) List all the tastes and flavours identified.

The last two things we look for are acidity and body. To be clear, these are NOT tastes or flavours they are tactile elements.

We’re not looking for ‘sour’ when we are looking for acidity. We are trying to assess the presence of acidity in the coffee or tea by the intensity of a physical sensation on the sides of the tongue (the same sensation you get when you bite a lemon and your tongue curls/puckers up!). The greater this sensation the higher the acidity level in the coffee or tea.

With body, we’re measuring the feeling of weight/mass/viscosity of the beverage on the tongue. The heavier or more viscous the beverage feels, the greater the body.  Chocolate milk?  Heavy body.  Skim milk?

By defining these four elements; aroma, flavour, acidity, and body, we define the flavor profile and overall character of the coffee or tea.

Play around with the notion of developing a flavor profile for things you drink, or eat, with regularity.  Do you have a “go to” wine that you drink with dinner?  Taste it critically.  Examine its aroma, taste it with the intent to discriminate its component tastes and flavours.  Check its body, and acidity.  You can do this with anything!  Trying a new Kombucha?  Just buy a new craft beer?  It is never too late to begin playing with the mechanics of tasting.

Part 4 will be our last post in this series exploring tasting, and it’s a doozy.  In part four we’ll explore the idea of “What’s good?”  This one’s gonna be a doozy.