Dr. Eduarda Cristovam

Does your cafe have a recognisable and enticing scent?

The look, design, textures, colours and imagery in most coffee shops today is very carefully crafted. Scent, however, is the poor relation, often relegated to an afterthought. Pinpointing the smell that should form the essence of a place is after all, challenging.

The smell of many coffee shops is more an assault on the nose than a clear recognisable fingerprint. Do you know what your business smells like?

Our sense of smell is quite remarkable. Not as good as a bear’s, but if to achieve it the furriness is a requirement, I will work with a human’s puny nose. We reap great enjoyment from our sense of smell and it also keeps us safe so it should be celebrated.

To me, it works as if there’s a little guy (or gal) inside our heads in the smell library (olfactory bulb) running around looking for the right word when we smell something. Their job is to put up this enormous flashing sign identifying the smell, so we can quickly act. If you’re sniffing a dodgy looking piece of ham, let’s hope the smell guy is flashing “bad, dangerous, don’t eat! ”

The size and accuracy of our smell libraries will depend on our experiences with food, drink and our environment. The more we experiment as we grow, the bigger and better our libraries. Genetics play a role in this smell game too so go head and blame your parents, if you can’t tell the difference between an orange and a lemon, by smell with your eyes closed.

Women are known for being better tasters than men and there are several explanations. Women’s historic involvement in food preparation has made them skilled at odour recognition and description, but genetics again could be working here, gifting women with an ability to make them super protectors of their offspring. Our long-ago ancestors once used the sense of olfaction and taste as defence since poisonous plants and berries didn’t carry warning labels. Toxins and poisons, for example, tend to taste bad and those able to detect small levels of bitter compounds were more likely to survive than those who were bitter blind.

We then differ when it comes to our ability to perceive, identify and describe smells. Some of us have ninja skills smell masters in our heads working at the speed of light. They may force us to be the first ones to shout out uncontrollably “CAN YOU SMELL THAT CARAMEL?” while everyone else is quietly pondering, mulling over and often slowly stepping away from the peppy loudmouth.

Others have indecisive smell controllers who put up one sign but quickly have second thoughts and will raise a second and third and fourth.

There are also those who have a smell library equivalent to Miss Havisham’s cobweb-filled house or the Sahara Desert, riddled with tumble weeds drifting by. A slow-moving librarian will lift a dusty sign like a snail on Valium and it will say “I don’t know”. Let’s not snigger, as the sight library next door is most likely a techno empire of speed, colour and sensory overload.

Our senses can balance each other and often do. It can be easier to make decisions using the sense of sight than to analyse the flavour of every bit of food we eat. Sometimes we’re just hungry or thirsty or both. And describing food is damn hard. I strongly believe though we all have a hidden skill. Maybe a mothballed smell library has a hidden corner with riveting detailed information on sulphur compounds making some lucky person discern onion and garlic varieties to an obscenely detailed level.

Our smell libraries don’t exist in isolation inside our heads with only a corridor leading to our retronasal passage. They connect to memories, for example, freshly made or long-ago ones. The smell guy inside our heads needs to cross-reference the identified smell with the right memory.

A well-deserved shout out to the smell librarian inside our heads because their job is tough. Try it out and judge for yourselves. Ask a willing assistant, friend or partner to grab a few foods from the fridge, and you close your eyes. Your job is to sniff away and listen to your own personal smell controller and describe what you perceive plus any memories.

For example, to me, lemons are obviously citrus with a zesty peel. But the memory attached to them is a lemon tree and I’m a teen, stealing lemons on a hot day with a sombrero on my head. The lemons were hot, sticky and fragrant. This is a happy memory of being carefree and praise be that I didn’t turn into a fruit pilfering delinquent.

Many of our likes and dislikes when it comes to smells are based only on emotional associations and many of us struggle to explain why we like particular smells. If this is the case, have words with your smell library guy and dig deep. Our olfactory bulb is connected to our limbic system, a primitive part of the brain that deals with emotions and memory and is often described as the seat of emotion. This is what you should blame when you react emotionally; this is what helps us to fight or run when faced with danger.

It makes sense to say that positive memories are linked to nice smells and therefore pleasant smells can and are used to change our mood. Sorcery? Next time you’re in a supermarket raiding the shelves like you’ve got the munchies or attacking the slot machine lever like a zombie with a chicken leg, stop and smell. Experiments have shown that people buy more and gamble more when the space is sprayed with a pleasant aroma.

Nice smells enhance our positive perceptions and emotions and therefore can cloud our judgement, especially if they hit a powerful memory. But we become smell deaf after exposure to the same smell for a prolonged time. Our brains adapt and no longer pay attention, so variety is indeed the spice of life; new smells are needed for our brains to wake up and send the smell guy to work again to identify if it’s friend or foe.

Nice smells can be intoxicating, and food and drink have plenty of added flavourings and flavour enhancers to ensnare our noses and pull the strings of our emotions.

We look for smells in our environment, consciously or unconsciously, we smell melons at the supermarket (guilty), sniff a cradled cup of coffee before drinking (guilty), or smell the petrol pump (not guilty).

“Experiments have shown that people buy more and gamble more when the space is sprayed with a pleasant aroma.”

What are your favourite smells? To me, the smell of espresso is the smell of childhood Sundays, going to a coffee shop with my parents and being allowed to sniff, add the sugar to the espresso and take a sip with the tiny spoon while scooping the inside of a custard tart with my finger.

The smell of a Brazil natural is almost the smell of home, a percolator boiling and an exam looming. An Ethiopian Sidamo reminds me of perfume and dainty femininity and with an Indonesian I can smell my father’s cigars, leather and dried muddy shoes. Scents link deeply into our childhood and discovering people’s favourite smells is a gateway to their emotions and perhaps to their decision making.

I asked my generous friends to list three favourite smells and why they liked them. Twenty nine different smells were listed with several repetitions. I’m not suggesting coffee shops should smell of tar because someone really likes it; nor do I think that the perfume of someone’s girlfriend is a good alternative, even if she apparently smells amazing in it.

Interestingly there were many commonalities; wood smoke was mentioned by several with similar memory links; brewed coffee was listed by a few with associations from comforting, informed to exciting; fresh bedding was also favoured with positive memories; and finally, I suspect there must be a love affair between men and bacon.

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