Flavour perception

Jul 27, 2013

Last week we held an event at our Roastery for some of our wholesale customers.  We’re just launching new components for our espresso blend and we wanted our customers to become familiar with the product they were selling.  We also wanted to help them perceive the flavours in our coffee . . .

Understanding how to cup coffee
Understanding how to cup coffee

Part 1 – cupping and perceiving flavours

To start the morning we invited our customers to cup the three components in the blend.  Alongside each of the coffees we had placed a number of food items to help them more readily perceive the flavours in the coffee.  Rather than suggesting that a coffee had hints of dates, and therefore relying upon ‘taste memories’, there was an oportunity to experience the flavour first-hand before sampling the coffee.

This session was a revelation – not only was there excitement about actually being able to discerene flavours, but there was more conversation around the table than we had previously experienced.  There was a genuine buzz in the room.

Discovering the flavour of fresh figs in coffee
Discovering the flavour of fresh figs in coffee

Part 2 – the impact of flavours

The next stage was to look at how what we eat can have a profound impact on other flavours we are trying to experience.  A couple of weeks ago, in a discussion with Kaylee from the Purple Cherry Coffee Shop in Workington, I suggested that the natural sweetness of a coffee can be masked by serving it alongside products with high levels of refined sugars.  Kaylee set about developing some dishes which would not only sit alongside the coffee, but would also enhance certain flavours within it.
We were therefore treated to a wonderful session of tasting delights such as chocolate chilli pots, Borrowdale tea bread (made with Earl Grey tea, dates and Elderflower to match flavour profiles in the coffee), sticky toffee pudding and Rosemary foccacia.  And then there was gooseberry fool, blackberry and goats cheese loaf and salted caramel.

Some worked wondefully well – the Borrowdale tea bread, made with specific ingredients, seemed to complement the coffees, particularly the Sidamo and  the chocolate chilli pots partnered the Finca La Bolsa.  Similarly the blackberry and goats cheese loaf was a great companion to the Sidamo.  However, the gooseberry fool completely wiped out the stunning flavours in the Finca La Bolsa, leaving a rather bland drink behind.

While this session was not necessarily about flavour perception directly, it did result in a more in-depth underdstanding of each coffee.  Some flavours were hightened and others were muted, and discussing this led to a greater understanding of each coffee.

Spoons at the ready . . .

Part 3 – deconstructing the blend

The next stage was to introduce the espresso in three parts.  In other words, we served each of the coffees as a single origin espresso.  I’m always aware, when serving espresso, that it’s a drink many people are not used to, and while I believe it is vitally important for our customers to taste the product they serve, I also realise that, for some, the flavour can be a little intense.  However, having already cupped each of the coffees, and having already discussed the flavours in depth, there was a real appreciation in the room for each of the components.  Each of our customers was starting to appreciate what each component would bring to the overall blend.

Part 4 – putting it all together

Then there was the final test.  How useful was this experience when it came to discussing our new espresso blend?  The overall aim of the activity for us was to help our customers identify various flavours and characteristics in the blend they were about to start serving.  We were actually very pleased with the outcome – pretty much everyone was able to identify aspects of each component within the final blend.

This was a very experimental approach for us and we were very pleased with the outcome – if nothing else it was a wonderful opportunity to sample some amazing food, and we are extremely grateful to Kaylee at the Purple Cherry Coffee Shop for her efforts.

We’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to flavour perception and food pairings, but I think there is a lot of mileage in this.  As a trained teacher, I often use the strategy of taking children from the known to the unknown.  In other words, begin with something they understand and are comfortable with, and then take their learning forwards.  This is pretty much what we achieved here – we started with the ‘known’, which in this case was sampling different foods; we are very much used to taste when it comes to food items.  We then used this experience to lead into the ‘unknown’ of coffee tasting.

We’ll be build on this experience in the coming months, and will be using some aspects of it at some public coffee tastings in the next few weeks.  Keep an eye on our social media sites for events at our Roastery, and look out for our tasting session at Lowther Show (10th and 11th August), and Taste Cumbria (28th and 29th September).