Flavor, Subjectivity, and Cultural Biases

Multi-modal sensory evaluation is a fancy term for evaluating something with more than one sense. For the sake of this article, we’ll be focusing on taste and smell, the two modes of sensing flavor (flavor is a combination of taste and aroma).

The actual act of tasting and smelling something is the act of collecting and interpreting data. The collection part is largely the same across all people, i.e., when two people taste the same coffee, they are collecting the same data. Subjectivity comes in to play during the interpretation and integration of the data.

We interpret all data based on our cultural foundation, which guides how we interpret everything we experience. As we observe and perceive the world, we integrate those observations and percepts along with experiences and knowledge into abstract ideas, which are then (hopefully) committed to  long-term memory.

In relation to tasting coffee, our cultural foundation is shaped by previous flavor experiences; what we tasted, when we tasted it, and what emotions we were experiencing at the time. Emotions act as a modifier to the memory of a flavor. For example, if one’s first and earliest experience with coffee are pleasantly emotional experiences, the overall impression one will have of coffee will be more pleasant. Consider the example of my earliest memories of smelling coffee:

My earliest memory of coffee was waking up on a Saturday morning to the smell of fresh-brewed coffee made by my grandparents when they visited. The aroma flooded the house and I knew it was going to be a great weekend.
April, 2013 Newsletter to OSC Subscribers

As our experiences with and knowledge of different coffees expand, we begin to dig deeper into the component flavors of coffee and that’s when previous experiences with other foods and beverages become very useful. One can only have a memory of a flavor they have previously experienced. Therefore a good coffee-taster is one who has had a broad experience with flavors. Its no accident that good coffee-tasters are also often foodies. A broad exposure to different flavors creates a larger repertoire of known-flavors to call upon when experiencing and describing a given coffee.

Unfortunately, widely different experiences in tasting foods leads to potentially widely different descriptions of the same coffee. Take for example the blueberry-like attribute Westerners often assign to some African coffees: blueberries don’t grow in Africa so most Africans have no reference as to what a blueberry tastes or smells like, even though the data (the actual tastes and flavors of the coffee) is the same, the interpretation of the data is subject to one’s prior experiences with taste and smell.

Enter the coffee lexicon and the coffee taster’s wheel.

There are efforts to try to standardize how coffee is experienced and evaluated by professional coffee tasters. These efforts rely on limiting the terms used to describe coffee, based on a lexicon devised by World Coffee Research alongside the Sensory Analysis Center at Kansas State University. The goal of the lexicon is to:

[U]se for the first time the tools and technologies of sensory science to understand and name coffee’s primary sensory qualities, and to create a replicable way of measuring those qualities.1

In other words, the lexicon hopes to remove the subjectivity of one’s cultural biases by limiting the scope of descriptors to a given set. As long as two individuals have previous experience with all of the terms used in the lexicon, they can have an accurate discussion about the quality of a given coffee.

Next week, the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) will be holding its annual expo in Atlanta, Georgia. There I will be a station-instructor for a class that teaches the new coffee tasters wheel and the WCR sensory lexicon. Watch here for later posts about that experience!

1. WCR Sensory Lexicon, Edition 1 World Coffee Research 2016

Michael C. Wright

Michael is a licensed Q Grader, licensed Q Processor Pro, an Authorized SCA Trainer (AST), and most recently, a graduate with a degree in horticulture and a concentration in horticultural business management. He has over ten years experience in the coffee industry operating on both the supply and demand sides of the value chain.