I was fortunate enough to learn the fundamentals of cupping coffee at Barry Jarrett’s elbow. Of the many, many things I learned from Barry, one really tattooed itself on my brain, and it has to do with how our perceptions of aromas and flavors can be deceptive, and how our attempts to describe those perceptions can be inadequate and confusing, ’cause of everybody’s personal “taste histories”. By way of example, here’s a snippet of Barry’s thoughts in a thread in alt.coffee:

…take “grassiness”… is it fresh mown grass, dried grass, or plucked grass? bluegrass, fescue, or zoisia? is it the green bit at the top, or the whitish bit at the bottom. all these tastes are different, and yet all convey a sense of “grassiness” to the taster. and yet, one taster’s “grassiness” can be another’s “straw” or “hay” or something else.”

I don’t know about you, but simply reading that puts a whiff of fresh-mown lawn on the breeze, even in the middle of a Vermont winter. And this is certainly not the first time that simply reading about a particular sensory quality triggers an echo of it on my palate… just as actual aromas and flavors can trigger other, deeper and altogether unexpected memories.

Green Mountain’s Lindsey Bolger bolstered the concept of sensory experience and memory when she shared with me some of her experiences teaching coffee cupping in Rwanda. She found that many of the flavors and aromas that we so nonchalantly use to describe coffee’s characteristics — lemon or citrus brightness, cocoa or chocolate flavors, ripe and dried fruits — were entirely out of the Rwandans’ sensory experience. The aroma of steeping grains, however, brought about instant and terrible recollections of time spent in refugee camps during the height of the murderous Rwandan struggles.

Clearly, our experiences of aromas and flavors are deep-seated, personal, even visceral. Aromas, in particular, can elicit powerful memory responses — whether it’s the sweet smell of new-mown alfalfa, or the gruel served day after day after day in a refugee camp.

When I try to describe aromas and flavors I encounter in a cup I make every effort to be precise based on my own taste history. But it’s only by comparing notes with other people — people more knowledgeable than me — that I can hope to be accurate. Recently cupping with Lindsey I came to realize that what I have long described as a “woody” or “bark” flavor is what Lindsey describes as “fermenty” — precisely because it is the very flavor imparted to coffee by the fermenting process… and especially so when the coffee has spent a little too long fermenting. So’s that mean those coffees no longer taste to me like the bark of tree? No… ’cause that’s deeply seated in my taste history… and in my memory. But I know now that I can describe a coffee as fermenty when I’m talking to coffee pros, and I can tell more casual coffee drinkers that it tastes kind of woody, and that’s likely because it was fermented too long.

Flavors and aromas and the persistence of memory… who knew coffee could affect us so deeply?

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