the five sense of coffee

Sight. Touch. Sound. Smell and Mmmmmm

Rena Siddall / 23 October 2018

For those of us who are included in the 2.25 billion cups of coffee consumed every day- we get it. We likely don’t even need to be explained how coffee affects the five senses. It’s just inherently known. Because there’s nothing like waking up to the sounds of the coffee grinder, smelling those roasted nutty wafts, seeing that frothy crema and finally tasting that smooth bitterness warm your throat.

There. Five senses covered. 

I think Nanea Hoffman makes a great point. Before getting too poetic about it all, let’s remember what coffee is really about for most of us. Starting your day right. Wearing pants.

But if you truly want to be a coffee condstudy performed at the University of Chicago suggests that the sounds are “conducive to creative cognition.”

Hearing: If creativity had a sound would it be coffee?

The sound of grinding coffee beans begins the entire coffee-drinking experience. And I think it’s safe to say the slamming of the espresso portafilters are strangely comforting for students and freelancers everywhere. One startup in Richmond, Virginia has even taken it a step further. They’ve created an app, Coffitivity, with ambient sounds of cafés. They based their app on a study performed at the University of Chicago suggesting that the sounds are “conducive to creative cognition.”

Smell: Coffee aroma = S.M.A.R.T.

Speaking of cognition, recent research suggests that the scent of coffee alone can boost mental performance and alertness. The researchers at Stevens Institute of Technology found that the stimulatory effect of the coffee aroma improved subjects’ mental performance.

According to Stevens professor, Adrian Madzharov, olfaction is so important that it can be used to subtly improve work environments. Madzharov’s study of two hundred students found the scent of coffee made consumers feel energetic, alert and ultimately perform better on analytical tasks. Very promising for all us coffee gluttons who spend hours hacking away at laptops in aroma-filled cafés.

And if you really want to get scientific, you can research the difference between smelling your coffee nasally or retronasally and the compounds that make up its aroma. Personally “smells good,”  is good enough for me.

Sight: The mere sight of #coffee leaves you salivating.

Search #coffee on Instagram and you’ll get an eyeful. Everything from flat lays of cinnamon-dusted milk foam, to buff men and women in nothing more than their skivvies, sipping mugs of fake coffee lit up by beams of sunlight. So much for wearing pants.  Thank you Instagram for always keeping us on trend…

…and off topic.

Evidently the appearance of coffee provides an immediate first impression. The top layer tells you about the quality you’re about to experience. Good coffee should be a light-medium brown. If the coffee is darker it suggests it’s not as well-prepared; there is either too much coffee in proportion to water or the coffee beans were over-roasted.

Touch: Texture, body, grind.

The mouthfeel of coffee (yes it’s actually described that way), not to be confused with taste, depends on the type of variety, roast and brew. While the texture can affect taste, the body itself is a result of the above factors along with the extraction process. Pour-overs result in a thinner mouthfeeling with more clarity while espressos yield fuller bodied coffee with thick cremas.

As for the grinds, here’s a quick reference guide:

Taste: A refined palate.

Apologies in advance to all hipsters and Nespresso-lovers.

Undoubtedly the most important of the five senses of coffee is taste. If you truly want to become a coffee sommelier- cough cough, hipster barista- you should probably familiarize yourself with this glossary of all the coffee-tasting terms. Sipping a mildew-tasting latte? That’s referred to as baggy. Want a joe that resembles burnt wood? You’re looking for a carbony cup.

Nespresso did create a coffee sommelier program back in 2009 which I admittedly have not taken so can’t begin to pretend I’m an expert in this. But tell me you agree. Nespresso is far from pouring the best cup of coffee around. Disposable, one-cup, pre-ground coffee? Um, no thanks. Call me a coffee snob or a tree-hugger, I’m not offended.

Joking aside, the true equivalent of a coffee sommelier is in fact called a Q grader. In order to become certified, they take courses and a number of tests through the Coffee Quality Institute in sensory, olfactory and grading skills. There are two kinds of Q Graders for the two primary kinds of coffee: Arabica and Robusta.

To really understand everything a Q Grader does is a deep-dive for another day. For the rest of us regular consumers of coffee we hope they’re making quality decisions so we can have the best-tasting mug of joe possible.

Taste is affected by a plethora of factors, including where it’s grown, how it’s farmed, processed and roasted, the grind size and brew temperature. Not to mention the simple aspects of brew time, freshness or equipment. And of course personal preference plays a role. So how do you brew the best cup you can at home? These six steps can generally help you make a better tasting coffee:

  1. Buy fresh, whole beans.
  2. Store them in a jar or better yet a vacuum sealed container. (If you’re the aforementioned hipster, you’ll probably already own a container with a one-way valve to ensure maximum freshness).
  3. Grind right before you brew.
  4. Look for the “bloom.” The CO2 that is released when water first is poured over your grounds. No bloom = stale coffee. Experts suggest pre-pouring a little water to create the bloom before starting your drip machine.
  5. Depending on how strong you like your coffee you’ll probably go for anywhere between a 1:15 to a 1:30 ratio of coffee to lightly filtered water.
  6. Aim for a water temperature of 90-95 degrees Celsius, or about 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Avoid going above 205 so as not to burn your precious café.

Regardless of how serious you take the taste of coffee, its flavour is not often described with pleasant adjectives. Generally, the taste can be described as bitter. Or acidic. Neither one sounds especially delicious. Truthfully though, considering how much coffee we drink, most of us don’t really know our carbony from our baggy. We’ll have to leave that to the baristas.

Rena Siddall /

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