Sensory Lexicon

Whether you’re working from home for the time being, on self-quarantine, or just have some free time, we figured that this might be a good opportunity for everyone to work on their barista skills. So we’re going to be posting a daily experiment for everyone to do along with us so that we can all learn and progress together to make the best of a bad situation. Many of these articles are going to be aimed towards beginner and intermediate coffee nerds, though I’ll be doing my best to make sure that everyone will be able to get something out of them. Some will be about training your palate, others your barista skills, and others still are written to help you to learn more about coffee in general.

In yesterday's post, I advised you to just write down whatever descriptors worked for you. While I still stand by that advice for the beginner, we do eventually want to begin to transition towards using some more concrete terminology.It can be useful as it allows multiple people to talk about the same coffee using the same descriptive language. More than that though, it gives you a solid and immutable reference point to call upon later. It's true that smells and tastes are very closely linked to memories, but it's also worth noting that our memories are fairly fickle creatures, prone to remembering things incorrectly. Every time that you remember a memory, it is possible to inadvertantly change that memory. Over time, this means that the smell memory of fresh pressed orange juice from our childhood, which we use to describe the fruity acidity of that nice Ethiopian we just tasted, may start to drift dramatically, to where our memory might well be unrecognizable when compared to the real thing. I like to call this Taste Drift, and I try to combat it's onset  by regularly "calibrating" my palate off of a known reference. 


Introducing, the Sensory Lexicon:

Designed by the fine folks over at World Coffee Research Institue, the Sensory Lexicon is a project aimed at designing a system to give us a quantifiable shared language with which to describe both a flavor, as well as it's intensity. Designed with scientific research in mind, the Sensory Lexicon is a tool to help scientists to understand exactly how a particular processing method or brewing technique  affects the flavor of the coffee. Having a panel of tasters trained and calibrated to use the sensory lexicon gives a much more accurate result than conventional methods of tasting and scoring. There are already commercial versions of coffee-specific sensory calibration tools, such as Le Nez du Cafe, or the Coffee Flavor Map. The problem with systems like these is that they are often designed for commercial use and are more expensive than the average home coffee enthusiast is willing to shell out. Thankfully, the Sensory Lexicon uses mostly reference points that most people have already in their pantries. Given that many of us are currently stuck at home, we can get started on calibrating our palate right away--no need to order any fancy ingredients online--just go to your pantry and fridge, and use what's already there.


How does this work?

First things first, go take a look at the latest version of the WCR's Sensory Lexicon. Good. Now to show you how to use the document, we're going to turn to page 18 and look at how to evaluate the flavor and aroma of Raisin. As you'll see, it is listed as a fruity flavor, described as "The concentrated, sweet, somewhat sour, brown fruity, floral aromatic characteristic of dried grapes". It's reference is Sun-maid raisins, with two intensities listed: Aroma 6.0 and Flavor 5.5. Corresponding to each is a preparation method to give us that calibration point. In the case of Raisin, we know that when prepared properly, we can make a sample that perfectly embodies a "Slightly Intense" Raisin aroma that we can then use to compare to what we're finding in a coffee. Useful stuff, but how do we apply this? Well, by tasting each of these flavors in isolation, it will allow us to more easily notice it when we're actually tasting the coffee. So try to taste and smell as many of the flavors and aromas as you can, to broaden the flavor library you can pull from. 


I'm already a pro at this, what next?

Alright, hot-shot. To begin with, we can practice rating the intensity of a flavor or aroma. For instance, we know that an 1/8 a teaspoon of almond extract will give us an intensity of 3.5, and that 1/4 teaspoon will give us an intensity score of six. Try preparing three samples, one at 1/8 teaspoon, one at 1/4 teaspoon, and another with a random amount. If you've got a helper, have them prepare the mystery third sample for you. Then try to rate each of the three flavors and see if you can guess which is which. Is the third sample weaker than the other two? Stronger? Between them, but closer to one or the other? Now check with your helper. Did you guess correctly? Now mix them up and try it again. Throw a fourth sample in there if you're feeling really tough.

The key to becoming a better taster is to taste often, and be mindful of what you're smelling and tasting. This goes for more than just coffee! Every meal, take at least one bite to consider the components of what you're tasting. Take a second to try to identify at least three flavors and think about how strongly you taste them. Is one stronger than another? By how much? What is another food or drink that you associate with that taste?

If you have any questions or comments about anything I’ve written, or just any burning questions you’d like answered about coffee, please e-mail me at sam@chriscoffee.com. I’ll try to answer all of your questions individually, and if I get enough people asking the same question, I can compile them into a big FAQ format next week. Until then, taste good coffee and stay well!