How our Senses and Memories Impact our Perception of a Coffee’s Flavour

Now, this is a question that many people ask themselves every day. It’s certainly something that’s been bugging me for most of my life. How is it that two people, consuming the same thing, can have such a difference in their opinion of its quality? What, in fact, really is quality?

The way we manifest our environment in our mind’s eye is unique to each of us. We hold beliefs of morality, quality in flavour and fashion, and impart emotions in objects. Trinkets from a holiday, a ring from a family member, or perhaps a particular CD.

Our language allows us to convey our experience to other people as best we can. The problem with conveying a personal experience with words is that we can only reflect and think back about what we have seen or experienced. We all have our own personal lexicon. One word for me will evoke a different image, idea, and emotion as it would for someone else. The meaning you give when you say ‘that’s a quality cup of coffee’ is completely different to when I say the same thing. Our ideas, experience, and education are very different.

Learning how to interpret our senses

If you think about it, how do you know if you are seeing the same thing as the person next to you? How could you tell if you were colourblind? We are taught as children that this is red and that is blue, and it’s true. But all we have learned is a name of what we see, not a comparative of what most people see. It may not be until we get our eyes tested that we learn that what you see as blue is actually purple for most people. This correlates to all experience. We manifest our image of the world from all our senses. We can make an example of this from our experience of flavour. Let’s take an apple – an apple has a sensory pattern that includes its size, shape and colour, its sound when we crunch our teeth into it, and the texture of its skin and flesh. There is a tart taste from the malic acid, a sweetness from the sugar, and it’s aromatics that will help us determine what variety of apple it is. There is a subtle distinction between a Granny Smith, a Fuji, and a Pink Lady, that we could tell if we had our eyes closed.

We get told the apple’s name, and after a few experiences, we have expectations of our individual representation of the apple. The more we eat or experience, the more we know about the apples behaviour. We get a little bit more detailed in our expectation. We would then be able to tell how ripe the apple is by how sweet or sour it tastes, and by its subtle change in aromatics.

We can all have this experience if our senses are working. Just because we can sense it, however, won’t lead us to necessarily enjoying the flavours that make up an apple. Some people will like the apple a little more sour, some will prefer it a little more ripe, and some won’t eat apples at all.

Taste buds impacting how we receive flavours

Looking at the senses a little closer, we start to see that we aren’t all built the same. Our taste receptors in our taste buds, the things that react to the basic elements that we perceive as sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami, are a little different from person to person. For one, we all have a different number of taste buds and receptors. The shape of the taste bud will also influence how easy the information or how much information can reach the receptor. This means that if we have less taste buds than the average Joe, and there are less receptors that respond to, say, a sour taste than Joe, then not only will all the taste sensations seem softer, but the sensation of sour will be especially hard to perceive.

The next problem we encounter is that of balance. A taste by itself, especially in high concentrations, may not be all that desirable. Take for example an acid. Pure citric acid is fairly sour or tart, which to many people isn’t all that pleasant. If we add a little sugar it woul­­­­d sweeten the deal, but it won’t tone down the intensity of the acid. We will need to add a base, a buffer. Some salt to neutralize the acid. Now all of a sudden you will have a much more pleasant taste on your tongue. Due to all of us experiencing each taste element slightly differently, the right balance for you won’t be the right balance for me. In my experience, however, we can get it pretty close to suit most people’s desires.

Remembering flavours, sounds and smells

As you may see, our individual taste worlds can lead to certain food preferences, especially for a supertaster, who won’t be able to handle some tastes, even in mild concentrations. Taste, however, is just one slice of our sensory puzzle. It’s important to recognise that our senses are more like mechanical detectors that react to certain stimulations. Once activated a signal is sent. The encoding, recalling and interpretation process that happens in our brains is quite intricate, and for this, we will look a little more closely at our sense of smell. The mental priming I’m providing for you to help you think about memory is very basic, and by no means does it demonstrate our brain’s true complexity or workings.

The neural network from our sense of smell evokes a wonderfully rich and emotional memory of our experience. Under the right circumstances we can recall these experiences for a long time into our life span. Memories are not things like pictures or videos stored on a hard drive in specific packets of information. Memories are fallible in the sense that we are constantly rebuilding and adding to our original idea of something every time we think of it. When we try to recall a sequence of events on a holiday, it’s very easy to get different holidays confused and make false memories. It may not be until you’re recalling the event with an old friend who was with you that you will realise your recollections are very different. Our tastes, ideas and ideals around certain things; flavours, smells and people, will change with repeated experience and context.

Smells evoking emotions and moods

Let’s use an analogy like we were looking something up on Wikipedia. Unlike normal Wikipedia, it only has our experience in there. It’s a little more complex than a standard Wikipedia page, as whenever you search for something, a certain subset of information will be displayed based on what mood you are in. If the emotional context that the memory was stored in is very strong, like a trauma or a moment of elation, remembering these moments are usually salient. When thinking about these emotional experiences, even subconsciously by things associated with the event, it has the ability to put you in certain moods. Emotions are a lot more complex than I’m describing, but this should provide a tool to use when thinking about memory, context and learning.

I’m sure you’ve experienced a time when you were in a fit of rage over a loved one or colleague. All the negative connotations, all the little annoying things they do that you normally ignore, all spring to the surface, to the forefront of our minds. We can’t possibly think of them in a good light.

Let’s look up the Wikipedia of our minds for roast lamb. If we have only one experience, then that’s the only thing we’ll see. Depending on our mood, there will be mood specific links on the page that will send you to different memories or associations. For example, if you were in a good mood, it may then remind you of other good roasted meals you’ve had. If you’re in a bad mood, the links might send you to a terrible meal at your in-laws that led to you break up with your partner. As we try many different lamb roasts over the years, we will have more and more imagery and understanding of what we do or don’t like about them, especially if you learn how to assemble the elements and cook it yourself. If we do this, we gain a lot more intuition, insight and knowledge around what a lamb roast is. You gain an insight no other person can – well, not completely. Now your lamb roast Wikipedia page is much more detailed and rich with information. There are many connections or associations that will get you back there too. It may just be a single chemical element that takes you to a certain lamb roast wiki page. The rosemary may take you home to the feeling of comfort from your parent’s home cooking. The sumac in the Lamb Shawarma may take you to that holiday in the streets of the Middle East. That final key, that final piece of information that unlocks the emotional context in which that memory was formed, a lot of the time, will come from smell.

This should start to demonstrate how food preferences and a culture’s idea around the quality of flavours comes from. What are the ingredients that are in their immediate environment, and what Wikipedia pages have they built around them.

Past experiences dictating our perceptions of flavour

To sum this up in one sentence: the quality of flavour is an individual hallucination of the emotional memories around the experience that we have had, with the chemical information (flavours) that come into contact with our senses.

Travelling abroad, this may make you a little more empathetic around a culture’s interpretation of how coffee should taste. You are still going to enjoy your coffee the way you like it. So, when you walk into a cafe for the first time, how do you convey your flavour ideals to a qualified barista? Please stay tuned, as we tackle this question in the hopes to bridge the language gap around flavour between barista and consumer.

Matthew Brown
Matty’s love of coffee started at a young age and exploded the moment his mind was exposed to the science that makes great coffee possible. Motivated by the endless possibilities of what coffee could be, Matty is in his element researching, exploring and implementing new ideas that help shape the next chapter in the evolution of the speciality coffee industry. Matty’s deep and extensive coffee knowledge continues to shape our Barista Training & Education Programs, and he is a key knowledge source influencing continuous coffee improvement within the business. On the rare occasion Matty’s head is not in the books, he can be found savouring in other molecular gastronomic delights, writing, tickling the ivories or singing up a storm.