Barista Magazine

APR-MAY 2019

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TASTE When we consume something, certain molecules that make up what we're eating or drinking fi t into taste receptor cells on our tongues, much like a key fi ts into a lock. Depending on the molecule, the brain registers the information as a sensation: sweet, sour, salt, bitter, or savory. Currently these are the only fi ve sensations, or tastes, that scientists have defi nitively found a molecule and receptor link for, although prelim- inary research suggests that others are close on the horizon, such as fat and mineral. Our sense of taste is a survival mechanism, an evolutionary adaptation that helped our ances- tors determine if they should eat something or not. For example, when you eat something extremely bitter or sour, you may notice that your tongue immediately pushes for- ward as if trying to get the taste out of your mouth. You can thank evolution for that: It's a subconscious refl ex triggered by what your body is reading as a dangerous food. Bitter receptors exist as a warning signal, since most toxins found in nature have a bitter taste. Similarly, sour tastes tend to indicate that food has spoiled. Interestingly, however, humans love sour in other con- texts. Scientists believe the reason is that it encourages us to eat fruits rich in vitamin C, since we are some of the only mammals that do not synthesize it on our own. The highly desirable tastes, sweet and savory, are less ambiguous, and our brains always identify these as rewards. Our hunt- er-gatherer ancestors would be inclined to devour these whenever they had the chance, not knowing when their next meal was coming. Salt, another taste humans can't seem to get enough of, is the best source of iodine, a mineral our bodies need but can't produce on their own. Luckily, we are not bound to our evolu- tionary past. Humans may be the only mam- mals that can "override" our innate preferences and learn to like foods that our bodies think are deadly. Bitter or sour foods that we may reject at fi rst, we can learn to love by combin- ing fl avors or through positive reinforcement: grapefruit with a sprinkling of sugar, Brussels sprouts coated with bacon fat. If you hated your fi rst sip of black coffee, perhaps it was the intro- duction of milk, sugar, and a gratifying caffeine buzz that changed your perception of the taste over time. We can use knowledge about taste to help inform our descriptions of coffee. "Just about everybody knows that a Red Delicious apple tastes different from a Granny Smith," says Ever Meister of Cafe Imports. "I love hearing the specifi c ways that people describe how they are different, and then say, 'OK, you just basi- cally described the differences between an El Salvador and a Kenyan coffee.'" Coffee has ac- ids, sugars, and bitter compounds—tastes that humans can inherently recognize. The next time you taste coffee, try to restrict your focus to what's happening on your tongue. Does it puck- er as though you bit into a lime? That's sour. Does it zap the moisture out of your mouth like Baker's Chocolate? That's bitter. As a starting point in coffee evaluation, try focusing on what you know your tongue can naturally recognize. However, our complete perception of what we eat goes way beyond the fi ve basic tastes. FLAVOR The best way to understand the difference between taste and fl avor is the jelly bean test. Close your eyes, pinch your nose, and pick a jelly bean from the package. As you chew with your nose plugged, you will sense tastes like sweet or sour, but will not be able to name the fl avor. Release your nose, and immediately "strawberry" fi lls your mouth. The fl avor of food is everything about the experience: taste, texture, sound, color. Argu- ably the most integral part of fl avor, and what the jelly bean test demonstrates, is olfaction, also known as aromatics. There are two types of olfaction: Orthonasal olfaction refers to smelling through our nose, while retronasal olfaction occurs when we chew and swallow (this gives the opportunity for more compounds to be re- leased or interact with our saliva). In both cases, volatile odor molecules are being detected by an organ called the olfactory bulb, which sits at the top of our nasal cavity and contains hundreds of receptor cells that transmit information to the brain. That's why when we cup, it's important to smell the fragrance (orthonasal) and then force- fully slurp coffee to send the volatile molecules in the liquid up to our nasal cavity (retronasal), thereby providing the full pictures of the fl avor. Exactly how odor molecules, receptor cells, and our brains work together to interpret an aroma is still a pretty big mystery. Unlike taste, our fl avor experience is made up of hundreds of molecules, all interacting with different re- ceptors to create a complex map that the brain registers as a specifi c aroma. For instance, "if you combine ethyl isobutyrate (a fruity odor), ethyl maltol (caramel-like), and allyl alphaion- one (violetlike) in the proper proportions, what you smell is not caramel-coated fruit on a bed of violets, but pineapple" (Holmes 55). But don't let that intimidate you: Jodi Wieser, Q-grader instructor and co-owner of Gather Coffee Company fi nds the story of a Q student who'd had cancer particularly inspiring. "A portion of his tongue had to be removed and was replaced with skin tissue from his arm. He literally didn't have any [taste buds] on that part of his tongue. However, he became one of the best tasters in the class because he learned how to do retro- nasal breathing during cupping and could analyze fl avor that way." Like they do with taste, humans have the inherent ability to smell. What trips us up is talking about it. Olfaction is one of our oldest senses. "Olfactory signals go fi rst to the ancient, preconscious brain regions that control emotion and memory, which helps explain why smells are so powerfully evocative, but they don't pass through the gateway to language until several stops later" (Holmes 58). In other words, "putting names to smells is something humans are astonishingly bad at," says Noel Sobel of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel (quoted in Holmes 57). The same mole- cules that make up the aroma of "rose" can exist in a cup of coffee—your brain doesn't know the source, it's just reading the molecule combination. So, it might say "this is a really familiar aroma," but then it has a hard time fi nding the word "rose." Becoming comfortable with retronasal olfaction takes practice and familiarity with the product you're evaluating. Studies prove that wine sommeliers have no more taste buds or olfactory receptors than anyone else, "What gives their ordinary noses the ability to perform extraordinary feats of perception is simply experience" (Holmes 76). To start putting perception into practice at the cupping table, see if the fl avors remind you of an experience or feeling instead of trying to name specifi c fl avor notes. Aromas rouse up memories more easily than language. "One time, a cupper said the dry fragrance reminded them of their grandmother's attic and he was spot on. It was cedar," recalls Gerra Harrigan of InterAmerican Coffee. "I use that example a lot as a way to encourage people to say whatever they smell, taste or think." In other words, don't overthink or second-guess yourself. "Tasting SUGGESTED READING / LISTENING: Flavor: The Science of Our Most Neglected Sense by Bob Holmes Neurogastronomy: How The Brain Creates Flavors and Why It Matters by Gordon Shepherd Taste Buds and Molecules: The Art and Science of Food, Wine, and Flavor by Francois Chartier Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss Podcast: Opposites Extract, Episode 24: "What We Talk about When We Talk about Flavor," with Ever Meister, Joe Marrocco, and Jess Steffy Podcast: Specialty Coffee Association, Episode 9: "Building a Sensory Program," with Dr. Maya Zuniga Blog Post: Cafe Imports: "SCA Expo 2018 Flavor Sta- tion Recap: Do You Have Good Taste?" May 24, 2018 92 barista magazine

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