Dr Eduarda Cristovam, Head of Coffee at Matthew Algie
"Mum’s ritual of brewing coffee after lunch on a stove top was part of everyday life growing up..."
I started working in coffee by accident. It wasn’t a well thought-through career decision. I grew up with coffee but without giving it much thought. Mum’s ritual of brewing coffee after lunch on a stove top was part of everyday life growing up and in Portugal espresso is always around; it is the norm. Research into sensory brought me to coffee like a full circle. Now coffee is work and pleasure, but it’s complicated.
It’s easy to decide whether we love or hate a food or drink while tasting it. It’s instinctive and it doesn’t require a lot of thought; it’s a subjective rapid reaction. A scrunched-up face is difficult to hide when we taste something unpleasant. But how do we know if we are going to like something before trying it? Describing coffee is difficult, but essential during client blend development or when making a recommendation based on flavour. With single origins available as a point of difference when ordering a coffee, knowing what to expect from the flavour can be helpful. However, the language must be right to allow us an informed decision. Objective descriptors like sweet, bitter, and fruit may not be enough when painting a vivid picture of the flavours of a specific coffee. So, what is?
It's complicated because humans are unique...
They have different experiences with food when growing up and some descriptors can be lost in translation. Some things are universal though and feelings are shared by all regardless of generation differences, food experience levels or cultural disparities. Coffee makes you feel if you let it.
There are scents like citrus, freshly cut grass, cinnamon, flowers that are linked with making us feel happy. These top notes are associated with positive feelings of calm, relaxation, joy and can change our mood. But not all is a bed of roses as some smells make us feel the opposite; sad, angry, depressed. It’s not difficult to list a few less than happy smells like sewage, rotting food, smoke. Memories are linked to how these smells elicit emotions and in general it’s possible to generalise that, for example, the smell of vomit makes humans feel nauseous. Generalisations don’t always apply as my experience with the smell of warm milk, for example, is unlikely to represent everyone’s perceptions.
In 1986 the National Geographic carried out the largest scratch-and-sniff test in history. I remember reading the article. There was a photo of women with clipboards smelling armpits. I took the test and sent my results away. At the time I didn’t know what the six smells were or if I identified them correctly, but that experience stayed with me. Much later I found out the smells were sweat, banana, musk, cloves, natural gas and rose. Some pleasant and others not so much, but smell is in the nose of the beholder. In fact, we produce different scents when we feel happy or scared and these chemosignals (odourless) are believed to trigger feelings of happiness or fear in those who smell them. If I smell something that makes me happy, I will then “smell happy” and others will detect it, making them feel happy. This could be the end to all our problems if we can bottle the right smells. For me warm milk is not the smell to turn on my happy buttons.
Can coffee smell make you happy? Yes. Some smells in coffee make me happy and some flavours are so distinct they have colours, shapes, and sounds. Bright citrus notes scream high pitched violin notes in neon yellow and green; the smell of orange is a little round with waves and peaks so piano notes or birds chirping come through; dark, heavy smells, like burnt or tar are deep music notes from a cello or a drum. Sharp acidity tastes like the sound of clawing a blackboard. These sounds are also linked with emotions, and it is possible to identify happy chords, scary keys, and tender ones.
To me matching coffee smells with music notes is natural, simply because coffee is complicated and the sense of smell even more so. Researchers are spending time investigating these cross-modal perceptions to better understand how smells are matched with music notes, musical instruments, pitch and intensity because our senses mingle more often than we know and separating smell from memory and emotions is impossible.
Could we then go further and knowing that coffee is a complex mixture, attribute personalities to the mixture? Coffee cannot be reduced to one smell alone, there are approximately 800 identified aromatics in coffee, combined with flavours and textures it forms a cocktail of notes swirling and moving rhythmically on the nose and palate. This is not dissimilar to how a song is a bundle of moving layered notes. And songs elicit feelings, they have personalities. If I tell you that an espresso tastes like “Lose Yourself” (Eminem), it’s unlikely the expectation is dainty sweetness, gentle floral notes, and a medium body. On the other hand, “Sugar” (Maroon 5) tastes exactly like an espresso bursting with bright fruit acidity and sweetness. But there’s a catch. Unsurprisingly we need to share the same cultural references and music knowledge for this choice of descriptions to work unless you can hear the song and feel it.
Coffee flavours are complex and linked to and beyond memories and emotions. Maybe when describing coffee, we should be bolder and step outside the classic, safe, and utterly dull choices of words like smooth, sweet, and roast. Instead, we should be conveying flavour profiles on pack with more creativity. When I taste a coffee, I feel as well as smell and taste. I’m looking for an on-pack description that shows me what I will feel. I want a coffee that tastes like I’m “having boozy fruit cake in a bubble bath with “Get Off” by Prince blaring while I hold a dirty Martini in my hand”. I would buy that coffee and I bet it would make me happy. There must be other multisensorial ways of describing coffees, but music as a universal medium would be a good starting point as it makes us feel, sway, lose inhibitions and dance to the rhythm. Flavours do too, but perhaps we are not paying enough attention in the busy and loud environments we experience coffee. Coffee isn’t just coffee and for those who think so, maybe they need to start listening to the smells and look for the feeling of happiness that should form part of everyone’s quest when drinking a coffee.
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About Dr Eduarda Cristovam
Head of Coffee at Matthew Algie
Eduarda is our resident sensory expert, with 21 years of experience in Sensory Analysis; 19 of which are specific to the coffee industry. As a result, Eduarda has a unique and inspiring way of describing coffee attributes and her interactive tasting sessions come highly recommended.
In addition to holding a PhD (Quality drivers in Port Wine and Espresso Coffee), Eduarda has lectured in Sensory Studies at Adelaide University, Australia, and is an Honorary Guest Lecturer at Strathclyde University, Glasgow.
As Head of Coffee at Matthew Algie, Eduarda oversees the development and introduction of all our new coffee and non-coffee products.