Each bag of finely roasted coffee beans produced by LONE OAK Coffee Co contains the following phrase stamped on the back: “Hand roasted using all five senses”.
Why do we include this saying on each and every bag we sell?
Because we manually roast our coffee the old fashioned way requiring a skillful mixture of art and science, and because enjoying our freshly roasted coffee is more than just a matter of liquid meeting tongue.
All five of your senses play a part, some in entirely surprising ways.
The next time you bring cup to lip, think about how you can best enjoy the experience. Enjoying coffee is more than a matter of taste. All five senses play an important part. Coffee is extremely complex chemically and physically, each green bean containing around 500 aromatic and flavor components. And that's just when it’s in its un-roasted state. Roasting increases the aromatic count three-fold, the heat creating entirely new components while also intensifying the elements present prior to roasting. Length and temperature of the roast ultimately determine how fully the raw bean is transformed. In contrast, wine, considered among the most complex and nuanced beverages, has only about 300-400 aromatic components.
Preparation methods exert considerable influence over how our senses experience coffee. Espresso, its mix of water temperature, pressure, and time, produce a highly concentrated, viscous liquid brimming with complexity. At the other end of the range sit methods like French press and brewed coffee, which don’t extract the aromas as fully as espresso, and as a result don’t provide as much of the full olfactory experience.
Experiencing all that coffee has to offer our senses is a two-way street, involving roasting and preparation dynamics on one side, and how sensitive we are to the signals that coffee transmits on the other.
The first, and arguably the most important sense involved in enjoying a great cup of coffee is our sight. Sight is the fastest acting and, for most people, the most powerful sense we possess. Research has shown that our eyes are capable of taking in some 12 million pieces of information every second, and accordingly they play a huge role in our perceptions. What we should notice first then is the appearance of the coffee itself. Carefully examine the shade of the coffee. The color of the final product should be determined largely by the preparation method (assuming there isn’t a bunch of dairy clouding the natural color of the coffee itself). Well made brewed, or Chemex (pour over) coffee should be a lighter brown than say, espresso. If it has a very dark or muddy color, send it back. There may be too much coffee relative to the amount of water – known as over-dosing, or the beans may have been over roasted. French press and espresso, on the other hand, if prepared correctly, should have a darker brown color. French press gets its color from the high concentration of solids swimming in the liquid. While espresso actually should contain two very different shades of brown – on the bottom a very dark liquid, topped by a lighter colored crema - almost a caramel color - finished with tiger like stripes.
Secondly, our sense of smell is important to the proper enjoyment of coffee, especially if the coffee is properly sipped slowly and not guzzled like some kind of energy drink. We should drink coffee in much same way we enjoy fine wine – sipping slowly to allow the full aroma to envelope us in its sensory work. Strong aromas are present in coffee naturally, whether green, roasted or ground. But the prepared beverage has many volatile compounds that rapidly evolve in our mouth and, strange as it may seem, provide the strongest sensation to our sense of smell when we exhale while holding the liquid in our mouth. This is because the sense of smell is comprised of more than just aroma. It is also how we experience complex flavors. This has to do with how our brains process complex smells. When we inhale an aroma, our brain is busy trying to link that smell to something similar we have experienced in the past. So, what types of aromas might you inhale in a well-prepared cup of coffee? Frequently you will encounter berries, nuts, oranges, chocolate, caramel, vanilla and various types of flower like scents.
Hearing is the third most important element to properly enjoying a good coffee experience. Hearing? Yes, hearing. Like sight, hearing sets up the overall experience. Though you may not be able to hear the finished product, you can certainly hear the beans being roasted, listen as the coffee is brewing, or being created in the espresso machine. There is also the importance of the atmospheric cues that matter greatly to the enjoyment of the coffee experience and why so many prefer to drink in a coffee shop rather than at home. All of this combines to create a sense of anticipation, knowing that something special is being created and is on the way shortly just for you to enjoy at your leisure.
The sense of touch when speaking of the coffee experience typically relates to the feeling of the coffee in the mouth. It is often said that a great espresso “paints the tongue”. The body, temperature and astringency are coffee’s primary tactile markers. Body is one of coffee’s key attributes and is very central to a good espresso. We perceive the body of coffee through movement against the palate that relate signals to us about things like viscosity and texture. The result is that a really good espresso has body that can be “felt” on the tongue. Proper temperature can enhance the feel of coffee on the tongue, while excessive heat – above 170 degrees typically – temporarily numb the taste buds and dampen the overall sensation of touch. Astringency – the dry mouth reaction to certain acids in unripe fruit – sometimes mistaken for sourness, is usually not a welcome quality when found in good coffee, and can often denote immature beans used in the roasting process.
The final sense used when enjoying a great coffee is probably the one you would most likely expect to be considered the most important – taste. Many mistakenly believe that taste is how we identify complex flavors, but we just learned that is done primarily through the sense of smell. In actual fact, each of our tongues are only attuned to identify four basic tastes: salty, sweet, acidic and bitter. This isn’t to say that taste isn’t important. The first perception we form about a coffee as we bring it to our lips is often based on taste, and many of us will often regularly drink the variety of coffee we prefer based on our perception of its sweetness or acidity, etc. That also helps explain the popularity of blends, which can be adjusted relative to these factors according to taste. The roast can also be adjusted to control these factors.
In summary, the next time you order your favorite coffee at your local coffee house, take the time to experience it with all five senses and you may find you have reached a new realm of enjoyment.