I can’t taste.

Well, today I can’t taste. I have had a bad cold, not that intense but just deep-seated, with sinus headaches and such. I normally don’t get that, and I wouldn’t write about it unless it lead to some thoughts about taste. (Note to self: Next time maybe I should NOT go surfing in the rainstorm on a 49 degree f day). Anyway, I don’t feel that bad, and have continued to work. Yesterday I cupped just fine but today I was quite frankly shocked when I set up a mixed table of Kenya, Brazil and Ethiopia coffees, 12 in all.

The dry fragrance from the Kenyas seemed so flat. The Ethiopias were being re-cupped from a day ago, and they seemed so different. When I hit the BrazilsĀ  and couldn’t sense a huge difference, I realized the problem. I really could not smell today. Since the majority of your sense of taste hinges upon your olfactory, and mine did not show up today, this has actually become a very interesting experience. In the Kenyas I sense the acidity as a reaction from papillae on my tongue, but can’t discern the flavor at all, or whether it is citric or malic brightness. I am getting a sense the Kenyas have a clean cup, and the body is sorta medium and pleasant; that’s about it. Bizarre. My awareness of body and mouthfeel is greater, perhaps because it’s one of the few things I can perceive. The Brazils seem very viscous, thick. But I am getting some sense, retro-nasally and on the tongue, that they are slightly more bitter than the Kenya and earthy or unclean.

One technique for tasting is to pay attention not only to the aromatics you draw it, but also to close your mouth and breath out through your nose to aid in circulating volatile aromatics via the rear of your palate (access to the olfactory is nasal and also from the rear of the palate). The fact I can’t pick out any actual flavors in the Brazil to differentiate it from the Kenya is pretty unbelievable, for you can’t find two more dramatic extremes in the world of coffee flavors. The Ethiopias are quite thin in mouthfeel, and the acidity is aggressive at these lighter cupping roasts. I know exactly how good these Ethiopias are – I scored them near 90 yesterday. Today they are completely unappealing, stripped of their floral and fruit qualities, and without any great sweetness.

What a different a day makes; it’s like seeing the world in black and white, tasting only a small portion of what is available in these stimulating coffees. But it reminds me of the huge physiological factors involved in taste. We speak about it like it exists. We even talk about “good taste” like those who have it can wave a wand and bless it upon one thing or another. But how relative it all is to the tinted lens through which we view these tasteful things, a lens that, even on a good day, is always present.

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3 Responses to “I can’t taste.”


  1. 1 Kupe

    Sorry to hear that Thom. Hope you get better soon. I went through something similar last week, and I rarely get sick either. I had a Java that I thought was unbelievable one day, and the next when I got all clogged up all I was able to detect was its intense pungency. The smell actually seemed to stick in my nose somewhere all day. It was unpleasant enough for me to forgo coffee completely for the next couple of days. My wife still loved it though.

  2. 2 David La Puma

    Thom-

    I’m so glad you posted this! I lost my sense of smell over seven years ago. Doctors have speculated on the cause- a virus seems to be the best explanation, but regardless, it SUCKS! I love to cook- and still do- but most of what I cook is done by balancing the 5 basic tastes: salt, sour, bitter, sweet, and ‘Umami’. My dishes usually come out great- but as far as aromatics go, I can’t detect them. I’ll never be a wine connoisseur, and I’ll never be able to discern the complexities of varietal coffees… but I do have a foolproof ability to change even the worst diapers (which has come in handy with out two-year-old and four-month-old daughters). It also probably explains why I like to roast everything to FC+ – otherwise it just doesn’t hold up to the milk in my lattes.

    Anyway- it was great to read your post. I hope you got a little green room during your session to make it all worth it!

    Cheers

    David

  3. 3 gab

    taste is one of the beautiful things in life. I had the good fortune to run a qualified taste panel at a mid-sized brewery a few years ago for a couple years. Taste is mysterious, emotional and interestingly enough very connected to language. Tasting is about training, for sure, and creating a lexicon that you train to. It’s also artistic, and personal. Emotional and environmental influences play a huge role in tasting, as does health; as does personal experiences. Yet, at the end of the day (or rather the beginning if you want to taste your best) a person can sort through all these influences and describe with incredible accuracy whether something is true to form, or not.

    To your point, Thompson, there is nothing more jarring to a conscious taster then not having the rainbow of smell available to you. All of sudden the taster realizes what it’s like to not care about what one is drinking; to not ‘see’ the magic that our taste reveals to us about ourselves, and the product. Which isn’t to say someone who doesn’t smell can’t have a valuable opinion. The person who doesn’t smell well can still calibrate their sense of taste to their experience. That person doesn’t have the full range of descriptors (or defined lexicon) available to them, but they can still describe a valuable experience. Taste is defined by one’s interest and experience much like the Innuit’s 100 words for snow. If you care about what you’re tasting, and you revisit that attention over and over to refine your experience you will develop good taste. If you care about the quality of your experience you will also take the time to learn an accepted lexicon that others can share with you, and you will learn about the process of creating your experience. Taste is learned: Thanks for teaching us how to share the coffee experience. It’s a beautiful thing.

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