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Mindful Tasting: Get More from Every Cup

In this grab-and-go world, stopping to smell the roses, or should I say taste the coffee, quite often gets passed up. As you may have read in the last blog post, I recommend having a coffee ritual centered around the quality, brewing, and flavor of coffee. I also recommend setting aside 45 minutes to an hour at least once per week for this ritual. Why? The idea is to develop awareness of your morning cup and make enjoyment more accessible when things are hectic.

Happiness studies show that mindfulness, being in the moment, increases enjoyment—no matter what we’re being mindful of—and that when our minds wander, even while we’re doing something we love, it diminishes the experience. When it comes to coffee, we tend to rush things, throwing it down our throats to get that precious caffeine pumping through our veins as quickly as possible. Like with any kind of meditation, practice makes truly losing yourself to the experience easier. For example, the more practiced your taste buds are, the easier it is to:

• Identify flavor components
• Feel viscosity
• Be aware of lingering and changing characteristics

As you become more familiar with the way to thoroughly taste your coffee, you can find a greater depth of enjoyment in every sip of every great coffee you drink. You’ll find it easier to identify the less-than-stellar coffees, too, in addition to really getting in touch with the elements you love.

Training Yourself to Taste
There is a lot that goes into the tasting process. It’s not just about sitting and sipping in silence. It all starts with a better understanding of your sense of taste. Like all of our senses, taste has its roots in basic survival. Back in the times before artificial flavors, our sense of taste helped us pick out foods high in nutrition and identify others that might have spoiled or been poisonous.

Taste is the chemical recognition of molecules on our tongues. The tongue has five types of taste receptors that work together to create the full sensation of a taste. These receptors register sweetness, saltiness, bitterness, sourness, and savoriness (sometimes called ‘umami’ or meaty taste). Each has its own specific job to do when something hits our tongue. We register sugar content on the sweetness receptors, sodium chloride on the saltiness receptors, acids on the sourness receptors, and so on. With these five signals, the brain (somewhat mysteriously) builds us hugely complex and widely varying taste profiles for everything that touches a taste bud, intentionally or otherwise.
Of course, taste is not solely the product of our tongues but includes all of the amazing things our olfactory systems can bring to the sensory table, as well as the textures and temperatures felt by our senses of touch. Eating and drinking engage all five of our senses, but the taste, smell, and touch trifecta really does the heavy lifting.

When I say ‘tasting process’, it’s this trifecta that I’m referring to, and when it comes to coffee, it’s broken down into aroma, taste, and mouthfeel. For your mindful tasting experience, be present with each of these aspects individually and with all of them together. In other words, shift your focus to the small details of the experience, then let those enhance your awareness of the whole, and then shift back.

There are two ways to perceive coffee aroma. You can sense it nasally, smelling the coffee through the nose, or retronasally, backwards to the nasal passage from the mouth or after swallowing. The aroma is said to be the most important attribute of specialty coffee. Today, more than 800 aromatic compounds have been identified in coffee, with more discovered every year. While all coffee has at least a small amount of a reasonable number of these compounds, there are many factors, from growing and roasting to grinding and brewing, that affect their concentration and expression.

Each compound adds to the complexity of the aroma, making it smell fruity or honey-like, roasty, earthy, buttery, spicy, floral, nutty, and even caramel-, chocolate- or vanilla-like. Of course not all of these compounds produce the best smells, and minimizing those while accentuating others is part of the art (and science) of making great coffee.

Take the time to experience the aroma of your coffee from every angle. Breathe it in on those first curls of steam as it brews. Sniff it before your first sip, then inhale and let it waft up retronasally. Be present with aroma. How does it change for you after it hits your tongue? What flavors come out as the coffee cools? Take it all in.

We’ve already talked a bit about taste generally. When it comes to coffee, things are a little different. The savoriness or umami element of taste plays little role in coffee tasting because coffee lacks the glutamate these receptors require. In spite of this only leaving four types of taste receptors, we still discuss five elements present in the taste of coffee: acidity, bitterness, sourness, saltiness, and sweetness.

While acidity should technically fall under sourness because of the receptors being triggered to produce the sensation, it’s broken out because it’s considered a favorable attribute, as opposed to sourness. If you taste a strong, unpleasant vinegar or acetic acid flavor, that’s sourness. If the coffee has a pleasant sharpness to it, that’s acidity.

Use every part of your tongue to taste the coffee. Swish it. Let it coat your mouth, then rinse with water and experiment with individual parts of your tongue. How does it taste up front? In the back? On the sides? The myth of specific regions of the tongue being solely responsible for certain tastes has been debunked, but you do have concentrations of different receptors in different areas, so play around with the different tastes, and remember to breathe to engage your olfactory system.

If you’ve been swishing coffee around in your mouth, you’ve undoubtedly noticed the mouthfeel. There are two main components to mouthfeel in coffee, and neither involves whether you burnt yourself because you didn’t wait for it to cool. Mouthfeel is all about body and astringency.

When you consider the body of a coffee, think about how full it feels. You want robust, whole-mouth sensations, not thin, watery, quick-to-fade flavors. Astringency is an undesirable attribute that leaves your mouth feeling dry. It can be nice to switch between coffee and a nice cool glass of water, but it shouldn’t be necessary to do it for fear of having your tongue shrivel up. Coffees with low astringency can feel refreshingly crisp or decadently creamy.

As you explore the aroma and taste of your coffee, pay attention to how it feels in your mouth. How does the mouthfeel affect the flavor? How do different roasts feel? Different brewing methods?

As you take yourself through aroma, taste, and mouthfeel, pay attention to how they change over time. A coffee’s finish is just as important as its first impression. How does the coffee change as you drink it? Does retain its character or fall apart as it cools?

All of these things will help you elevate your tasting experience, and over time, you’ll find it’s easier to be fully present with your coffee. Every step of the process, from opening the bag of beans to letting that last drop hit your tongue, is worth the attention. Mindfulness can change your entire outlook on life. Why not start with a cup of good coffee?

A BIG thank you to Karl Fendelander of Biggest Little Group for compiling my thoughts into this wonderfully written and expressive Post.