Why coffee doesn’t taste as good as it smells.

A theory.

I just finished reading Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck Cookbook, which is just amazing.  Art, science, history – a multi-disciplinary book.  Why he hasn’t been invited to TED, I’ll never know.  Maybe they’re just like, “Hey, he talks too much already.”

Anyway, he talks about a few different things, some of which will take me eventually to the subject of the title:

1) Taste (tongue) is different than flavor (nose), and that when you inhale, your brain registers it as smell, but when you exhale, your brain registers it as flavor.

2) The main part of your brain that registers how delicious/repugnant something is incorporates MANY different inputs more or less seamlessly – taste, flavor, texture, viscosity, etc., even sight and sound (he’s done test with iPods to show that oysters tastes saltier if you listen to seashore sounds when you eat them).  Taste is really a five-plus-sensual experience.

3) He was also part of a test that showed that, when you’re chewing mint gum and the flavor goes away, it’s not because the mint is gone – there are still molecules of mint flavoring circulating in your mouth and nose.  It’s the lack of sugar.  (The finding has caused some gum companies to add capsules that release sugar more slowly, to extend the flavor.)

4) Bitterness is important first because a lot of poisonous compounds are bitter, and we need a front-line of defense.  (My guess:  This is why bitter foods are often a learned taste; we have to learn that they are safe before we can really enjoy them.)

5) Coffee, tea, red wine and other alcohols, many vegetables, and dark chocolate are all bitter.  (However, they all contain LOTS of good things that we need, as adults, to help us stay healthy – my guess is that we learn to like these substances because they are good for us, despite the bitterness.  A refinement in palate can help us be healthier adults.)

Okay, so what does that bring us to:

Coffee doesn’t taste (holistically) as good as it smells (nose) because we’re drinking it with two drawbacks:

1) The coffee is prepared in such a way as to be extremely bitter (in pots coated with rancid oils, with rancid beans, with the water sitting in the beans too long, etc.).  Bitterness doesn’t affect flavor or scent (nose), but it definitely affects taste (mouth).

2) The coffee is prepared without a carrier that allows the brain to strongly associate the flavor (nose) with what is going down our throats–sugar, salt, fat, or protein (umami).

Thus, if you want coffee that tastes as good as it smells, you have to prepare it in such a way as to reduce bitterness (cold brewing it, curing it) and add flavor carriers (cream for fat and umami, sugar or another sweetner, perhaps a tiny bit of salt).

Klava.  (Which any Steven Brust reader already knows.)

However, there was a recipe for butterbeer (it was a real, historical drink, apparently?) that HB does in the second episode of Heston’s Feasts that I want to try out, with coffee.  Butter, eggs, sugar, spices, bzzt with a frother (or a blender?).  Hm…


As often happens, the shower reveals much.  You know how you can’t smell your own breath, even after you’ve been eating garlic, etc., unless you hold your hand up to your mouth and inhale?  And you know how when you’re in a smell for a while, you can’t smell it anymore?  And if you don’t want to smell something, you breathe through your mouth?

These things, tied together, point to the idea that we aren’t being “deadened” to smells; we’re just filtering out the smell of everything that’s already in our noses, because it’s not tied to fat/sugar/protein in our mouths.  For example, if you cook something, after a while you can’t smell it – but you can still taste it if you put it in your mouth.  However, if you step outside for a minute, clear your lungs, then the smell hits you when you come back in again.

Sorry, probably perfectly obvious to everybody but me, but I thought it was just damned cool.

2 thoughts on “Why coffee doesn’t taste as good as it smells.”

  1. I dunno, I think coffee tastes pretty damn good…

    I can remember working in the kitchen during high school — I was in the Culinary Arts program at my tech school — and being surrounded by all of these wonderful smells that I didn’t really notice… until I got home and could smell this unflattering food stench on myself and my clothes. Our sense of smell is really interesting. It’s also interesting that, if you can’t smell something, you can’t taste it; if you have to swallow something that doesn’t taste good, you can pinch your nose closed and then put the item in your mouth, and you won’t taste it. (Or, if it’s really strong, the flavor won’t be as strong as it normally would be.)

    It’s really, really interesting.

  2. I think you have it nailed on the bitterness — not carried to the nose. I really enjoy the smell of coffee, but really don’t like to drink it. Even with lots milk or sugar. The only coffee I care to drink is when it is a Bailey’s delivery vector. 😉

    Probably on with the acquired taste thing as well — I do like tea, which can also be bitter, as my caffeine delivery system of choice. The recent prostate cancer research on coffee aside, tea also purportedly has more of the flavonoids good for assisting the body to battle such things. So, I can rationalize not only am I waking up but becoming more healthy as well. 😉

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