by Kim Pederson…….
Just a few blogs ago, I wrote about how complexitional coffee is, that is, about the intricacy of its potpourri of elements. I left out the aroma side of the story, however, for which I now make amends with this blog. In having a wee look at this topic, I discovered, with the help of the Serious Eats website, that “once you start to equate flavors in coffee with other things you taste all the time, unlocking the brew’s mysteries becomes a bit more within reach.” That’s easy for them to say but coffee does not come with a label that tells you what other things you might be smelling. In contrast, a bottle of wine might inform you that a particular vintage has a “nose” of “warmed baked clay, worn leather, and sun-dried tomatoes.” No such help from my plastic tub of Folgers.
The SE article, “Advanced Coffee Tasting: What Your Coffee Smells Like” by “coffee columnist Erin Meister,” explains that there are “three main categories of aromatic compounds found in roasted coffee, commonly referred to as enzymatic, sugar browning, and dry distillation.”
The enzymatic compounds “hark back to the bean’s plant life, and can range from oniony to melony, from jasmine rose, from citric to berry-like.”
The sugar browning involves the Maillard reaction, a process that happens when you pop bread in a toaster or roast coffee beans. The heat affects sugars and amino acids and, with regard to coffee, creates aromas such as “toasted nuts, cocoa, barley, malt, or pastry.”
The dry distillation happens when the fibrous part of the coffee bean burns in the roaster, which creates nose notes such as “wood, pipe tobacco, leather, clove, or black pepper.”
So now you have some idea of what makes coffee smell the way it does. You do not, though, have an answer to the very important question of why coffee never tastes as good as it smells. Nor do I. Fortunately for us The Telegraph‘s science correspondent Nick Collins does. In a 2012 article, he explains that, according to scientists who think solving the coffee enigma is more important than curing cancer and whatnot,
The act of swallowing the drink sends a burst of aroma up the back of the nose from inside the mouth, activating a “second sense of smell” in the brain that is less receptive to the flavor, causing a completely different and less satisfying sensation.
The boffins, it seems, have figured out that we smell when we inhale and when we exhale. Air passes through our noses and bops our smell thingies in both cases. They also tell us that eighty percent of what we taste is not due to our taste receptors but to our smell receptors. And interestingly, it works both ways. Something that smells fabulous can taste foul and something that smells horrendous can have an exquisite taste.
“Think of a smelly cheese like Epoisses,” Prof Smith said. “It smells like the inside of a teenager’s training shoe. But once it’s in your mouth, and you are experiencing the odor through the nose in the other direction, it is delicious.
Professor Smith (wasn’t he the really slimy guy on Lost in Space?) does not mention, however, how difficult it is (for moi anyway) to get the training shoe cheese anywhere near the mouth without gagging and retching.
Two other facts of interest here (to me at least). One, only two known aromas — chocolate and lavender — are “interpreted” the same way going in and going out. Two, part of the loss of taste in coffee between smelling it and drinking it happens because our saliva kills almost half of the chemicals that create the aroma.
And finally, I am pleased to report that in writing on this topic I have stumbled on another careerange [career change] opportunity. Someone needs to do for coffee packaging what vintners do for wine labels. I have a start on this already. I’m drinking at this very moment Folgers Gourmet Supreme. In whiffing its essence just now, I detect the rich, distinct notes of cat box litter, inkjet printing, and lithium batteries. And if that is what it smells like, you can imagine the taste. I also took the plastic container out of my cupboard and checked the label to make sure no one has stolen my thunder on this. In doing so, I noticed this text: “Refrigerate after opening to preserve taste and aroma.” Oh snap. My bad.