Has it ever happened to you: you are enjoying a really really good cup of coffee, incredibly sweet, complex, delicious. And then you comment with your friend about it, who’s having the same coffee right next to you. Bland, sour, empty, he says. Who is right? Who is wrong?

Actually, nobody. And yes, it taste different. Why? Before you jump into a discussion with your friend and start blaming him for having no taste buds whatsoever – look at your plates and remember what you ate before, during, or after having that coffee. Because…well, yes, it matters. A lot.

food pairing at FUKU cafe, Amsterdam
Food pairing at FUKU CAFE, Amsterdam

I follow this rule every single time I disagree with somebody completely in terms of taste characteristics. I am not talking here about discussing if you taste a melon, a pear or an apple – it is more about the basic tastes. Sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. Every time you have a disagreement regarding them look for the answers outside of the coffee department, but in anything else you might have put in your mouth, including food, cigarettes, drinks, toothpaste, etc., and even sometimes things that were close to your mouth – like sunscreen, aftershave, face cream. If they have a smell, they will mess up with your taste as well.

Why does it happen?

There are many ways of looking into how we taste, but because I am not a neuroscientist and neither am I a chemist, I will be telling you about what I know from the perspective that is close to me – which is being a qualified coffee taster.

The first thing you will find out when you start tasting professionally, and more than 4 samples per session, is that our taste is not linear. We are human, therefore we can get tired, overwhelmed, our taste buds can get numb after some time into tasting. And we are highly influenced by everything we taste, see, smell, hear and feel. It takes lots of training for a coffee taster to focus, one element at the time, going from one coffee to another – basically ignoring all the other stimulus.

Our perceptions of anything, from a cup of coffee to the sunset at the seashore – are multisensory experiences, never linear once, with an addition of our memories and expectations. We almost never experience the things the way they really are. Think about your grandmothers food, for example. About the things she liked to cook. You see? I’ve just put you to experience a whole bunch of things, how it smelled inside the house, how the food tasted, the lights, the temperature, even your state of mind next to her.

So we are no the machines at all. Human are biased by our culture and eating habits. What for a Austrian is spicy for an Indian is bland, what for a Russian is sweet for a Brazilian has no sugar whatsoever.

Like if it wasn’t already enough to prove us completely flawed as tasters, our ability to taste also changes throughout the day, before and after meals, it is different when we are sick, when the hormone levels are fluctuating.

And although it sounds discouraging, and it may seem that human being are simply not designed for consistent tasting, cause of being so delicate and unstable, the truth is – we definitely can taste. The best taster is the one that is aware of her overall experience, and knows her body. Add to this the flavour library collected by the years of eating, smelling and drinking – and here you have it.

All of it to come to what is actually the topic of this post – we are tasting the same food differently depending on what we had tasted right before that.

Which is kinda a big thing, if you are working in the food industry.

Because it means that:

  • your clients not necessarily will have the experience you prepared for them
  • there is no guarantee that your clients will enjoy the experience
  • and the most important one – you can design the experience the right way to get consistent results

It would be pretty useful to know how to combine basic tastes to guide a person who is having the experience to get the most out of it. And if we are talking about coffee – it is mostly flavour pairing, or coffee flights, or simple tricks to prepare the palate of your customer to “taste our coffee the right way” (like serving him water first, for example).

However, although there is a lot of research nowadays, I found no consolidated information about how the basic tastes interact.

So I did my own tasting.

I prepared it the way anybody could repeat it – and find out how it works for themselves.

This post is becoming very long, so please, if you want to know more about the experiment I conducted, if you want to repeat it at home, use the data to construct flavour pairing, understand better how you are tasting and which things better not to eat with coffeeclick here. I will also add a downloadable material there, so you can print it out and fill out while tasting.

An important comment would be is that there is still a lot of work to do, by no means it is a final result.

First of all, it is just me tasting, although I did 3 separate tastings. We need more taste buds, more people, for it to be 100% reliable.

And the second thing is that in this experiment you’ll only find out the interaction between basic tastes. There are plenty of other things, like spiciness, or tactile, or fat, that haven’t been taken into the account, and these factors play their part as well. There is a room to investigate and taste more and more, it is just the beginning.

Here the whole description of the tasting conducted, and all you need to repeat it at home.

Published by liza maksimova

Q Grader. Roast Master. SCAE certified.

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