Perception

October 30, 2011

Perception has a tremendous impact on the way that people taste things. When you are told that a coffee will have notes of hibiscus, grapefruit, mint, dark chocolate etc., you will look for those flavors in the cup. I used to scan many reviews and tasting notes for any bean that I was considering. Drinking the coffee really turned into  the "can I extract the flavors that I am supposed to?" game and the real flavor was distorted by what I'll call the suggested flavor that comes from reviews and such.

This is nothing new and there are studies that indicate that taste can be swayed by visual cues or by perception. One study showed that when presented with the same wine, but with a range of price tags, people tend to prefer the taste of the more expensive option. The taste is unchanged but people assumed the higher priced wine was better, and enjoyed it more. In another study wine experts were presented with two glasses of wine, one red and one white. Their notes tended to reflect flavors typical of red wine for the red, and white wine for the white. The catch: they were both the same white wine, one had just been dyed red.

There are problems with these studies to be sure, and they need to be repeated, but there is plenty of evidence for the power of suggestion, especially with regard to tasting. I think that it would be interesting to see more blind tasting done in barista competitions. I wonder if WBC results would be completely different if the barista were not allowed to speak and suggest flavors to the judges?

Now I tend to scan reviews to get a feel for a bean, but I try to ignore the fine details and tasting notes. Drinking the coffee is much more enjoyable when I try to pick out flavors for myself, without preconceived notions about what the coffee should taste like. It is interesting to go back and compare my impressions with those of other people after the fact, because sometimes they match up, and sometimes they are wildly different. I am nearly done with a five pound order of Red Bird's espresso blend and I am realizing that the flavors I pick out don't match up with many of the reviews that I have seen. I loved the blend, but for example, I never ended up with a liquid Snickers bar experience. 



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