Have you ever wondered why some people can detect the flavor of ripe apricots hiding in a cup of coffee while all you ever seem to be able to taste is -- maybe -- a hint of something that might be apple? Some of it has to do with genetics and science. Some people just have a genetic predisposition to taste specific types of flavors - but it's also possible to train your palate and taste buds, just as you do other talents and skills.
A Little Bit of Science
10,000 -- that's the approximate number of taste buds you were born with. Each taste bud has between 50 and 100 taste cells that detect specific tastes. The taste buds on different parts of your tongue and in your mouth sense different chemicals in your food and send the information to your brain, which interprets the food as sweet, sour, salty, bitter or umami - a sort of savory, meaty taste. That's it -- five primary taste sensations, with a possible sixth for "fat". So where does the ripe apricot come from?
Flavor, what we usually think of when we're talking about what food tastes like, is a fusion of multiple senses, including taste, smell, texture and temperature. To make it even more complicated, your memories, your vision and your genetics may all play a part in how you perceive the flavor of food and drink. And while you might not be able to do much about the number of taste buds you have or the genes you have or don't have, there are ways to boost your ability to detect, identify and enjoy more flavors, not just in your coffee but in all your food. Try these exercises to rev up your taste buds.
Take Time to Taste the Coffee
The first, most important exercise in palate development is to actually take the time to taste your coffee. Far too often, people eat and drink while doing other things - catching up on email, watching television or doing work at their desks. It's hard for your brain to recognize the flavors in your cup if you're not paying attention to them. You don't have to do it every time you drink coffee, but setting aside time to simply focus on tasting and enjoying your coffee will help you enjoy the flavors more deeply.
Have a Tasting Party
Invite a friend or two over for a sensory tasting party. Assemble a variety of familiar foods with different textures and flavors - apples, grapes, melon, broccoli, for example. Taste each of them in turn, focusing your attention completely on that one bite. Feel the texture with different parts of your tongue. Roll it around in your mouth. Chew it slowly and carefully. Close your eyes and concentrate on tasting in silence until each of you has finished your slice of apple, then compare your experiences. For an even deeper experience, try the same thing with different varieties of the same food -- a Cortland apple, a MacIntosh, a Granny Smith and a Yellow Spy, for example. See if you can sense the essential "apple-ness" of each as well as the flavors, aromas and textures that differentiate them from each other.
Compare Coffees Side by Side
It's easier to taste the differences in two foods or drinks when you compare them to each other. Just as you did with the apple in the last exercise, try two different coffees side by side. Take a sip of one, roll it around on your tongue and savor it. Write down your impressions and all the flavors and aromas you taste and smell. Rinse your mouth with water to cleanse your palate and do the same thing with the second coffee. By sampling the coffees side by side, you'll notice the contrasts more and start to recognize them without the contrast. Similarly, try a vertical coffee tasting
to taste the different flavors brought out by brewing the same coffee in different ways.
Invest in a Coffee Flavor Wheel
For many people, one of the big barriers to tasting the flavors in coffee is not having the vocabulary to describe what they taste. The SCAA has developed a coffee flavor wheel that can help you put a name to those more elusive aromas and tastes in your cup. You can download a printable copy
from SCAA, or find one online to use for reference.
In addition to specific exercises meant to develop your coffee palate, there are some things you can do to increase your enjoyment of coffee flavors. These five tips will help you taste more in any foods and drinks.
Quit smoking. Very little is more destructive to your taste buds and sense of smell.
Cut down on salt and sugar in your food. Overly sweet and salty foods tend to overload your taste buds and make them less sensitive to more nuanced flavors. Cut out salt and sugar for a week and see how much more you can taste in everything you eat.
Expand your horizons. The more flavors you experience, the more informed your palate will be.
Avoid strong scents, such as perfumes and air fresheners when you're enjoying your coffee. They can interfere with your senses and taint the experience.
Slow down and taste your food. Just as you can sense flavors in your coffee better when you focus, you can taste the more subtle flavors in all your foods when you slow down and really pay attention to every bite you put into your mouth. By training your mind to perceive and appreciate the flavors of everything you eat, you'll be developing your palate to better enjoy your coffee, too.