Want a better tasting coffee? Just whip the lid off, stick your beak in and have a smell. Because whether you’re drinking in Costa Rica or in Costa Coffee, you’re tasting your coffee long before it ever touches your lips. Everything from smells, colours, shapes and sounds can affect how you perceive what’s sloshing around inside your mouth.
I'm invited to find out how this all works by the Institute for Scientific Information on Coffee. World Barista Champion Charlene De Buysere greets us at La Marzocco’s showroom in east London, having set the scene for an introductory cupping (or “tasting”, if you want to avoid the Carry On connotation). Typically carried out by master coffee tasters – who can detect by scent alone any bugs and disease in the plant from which the coffee grounds have come – today’s cupping is a more informal party for my amateurish nose. I’m invited to smell the grounds dry, then wet, then slurp down a spoonful to observe the differences in aroma and taste.
De Buysere prefers to avoid off-puttingly florid and elitist tasting language. “We’re not going to say this coffee smells like your grandma’s closet,” she says. “We’re going to use more basic terms, we’re going to describe the coffee strictly in terms of taste. By degrees of sweetness and bitterness. It’s the only way to have a useful conversation about coffee, because I don’t know how your grandma’s closet smells.”
On hand is professor Charles Spence, whose research into the “multisensory psychology of flavours” has uncovered many of the strange biases your brain applies to your perception of taste. Some of them make intuitive sense. For example, smelling sweet aromas in coffee creates an expectation of sweet tastes, which leads to tasting sweetness that isn’t really there.
“It comes naturally to us to describe aromas in terms of sweetness,” says Spence. “We often say there are chocolate, caramel or vanilla notes, but smells don’t have a taste. They’re not sweet or sour. But when we use that language, and we smell those sweet smells, they can literally make things taste sweeter.”
Other tricks of perception are less obvious, but just as real. The colour of the coffee cup alters the flavour of the drink. Pointed shapes in your foam will suggest bitterness. Round shapes are associated with sweetness. A latte served in a glass will taste sweeter than one poured into a ceramic cup. Even the familiar whooshing of a steam wand will prime your tongue for something far tastier than instant sludge.
“The sounds you’re hearing now alter the perception of the coffee,” says Spence over the noise of De Buysere’s work. “The steam, the grinding, that’s all setting expectations in your mind.” He describes a lab study in which coffee is served to two groups, one of which has just heard an espresso machine, while the other has heard the robotic whirring of a cheap office bean-to-cup. Exact same coffee, but you can guess who enjoyed their drink more.
Of course, while the flavours can be nudged this way or that by the colour of a mug, it’s the origin and processing of the beans that has the biggest impact on quality. De Buysere recommends steering clear of pre-ground coffee if you’re after the perfect cup. Buy beans, grind them yourself, and above all, don’t forget to sniff before you slurp.
For more information on coffee and the senses, visit coffeeandhealth.org