It’s impossible to recognise someone you’ve never met, but fairly easy to pick your best friend out of a group photo. This same principle applies to recognising flavours in a cup of coffee; it’s very difficult to pinpoint flavour and aroma notes if you haven’t spent time getting to know the nuances of various fragrances. And while it may be fun throwing out wild guesses in the dark (or with the lights on), being told which aroma you’re smelling actually increases the rate at which you learn. This is often perceived as “giving the game away” when trying name flavour notes, but in reality the power of suggestion in coffee tasting is often the key to identifying new smells.
Find the name behind the face:
Once you are formally introduced to a particular smell or flavour, it becomes increasingly easier to pick those same notes out of the myriad of aromas that come at you from a steaming cup of French Press. The more you actively seek out the scent, and call it what it is, the easier it will become to pick it up in other contexts. In short, by being told what you’re smelling on a regular basis (even if you don’t know you’re smelling it yet), you are teaching your olfactory facilities to become more versatile and more accurate.
Of course, the trick in all this is to make sure that your introductions are spot on.
Call a spade a spade:
Referring to your Uncle Jeff as “Barry” for years on end won’t make him any less “Jeff”. In Layman’s terms, your erroneous nomenclature holds not within it the wherewithal to reduce your uncle’s very definite “Jeffness.” In the same way, some quack who keeps telling you that you’re smelling chimp mucus when, in reality, you’re breathing in hints of Blackforest cake could leave you both confused and nauseous at the next bake sale you attend.
Your brain and nose:
When you smell a scent, the chemicals you breathe in are dissolved by mucus in your nasal passages. The resultant solution has a unique chemical signature that your brain records and files away in categories like “delicious”, “putrid”, or “flip, I know I’ve smelt that somewhere before” (these are all scientific categories). Anything that ends up in that third category needs to be accurately filed so that the next time you smell it, your brain can identify it as “soft brown pear”, “toffee apple” or “civet cat anus”.
A fool and his tools:
Luckily, there are tools to help your brain file information more effectively. The Café du Nez kit is a series of 36 aroma vials with the essences of the most common aromas found in coffee. They include imitations of fragrances like basmati rice, apricots, cooked beef, pipe tobacco, cloves, dark chocolate, and even garden peas. Using these kits, you can test yourself and begin to recognise the various aromas in isolation. When these aromas pop up in your cup, you can immediately recognise them and appreciate them…and impress your date. What woman wouldn’t love a guy who can sip soulfully on an espresso and gently whisper, “aaah, chicken korma”?
Alternatively, spending some time with experienced coffee tasters, simply talking about what they taste (and what you taste) can be just as effective. I’m amazed how often people who profess to have “beginner” palates, pick up subtle flavour notes that more experienced cuppers may not have noticed. The key is to regularly and actively engage in the smelling process, rather than letting your olfactory system sit dormant, kicked into action only when you’re trying to find the buffet at a blindfold banquet. As Gazza Player professes, “the more you practise, the luckier you get.”