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 Brazils  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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