Understanding Sensory Analytics: SCAA Workshop Series

Photo:  Rocky Rhodes speaks with students in GE153 Introduction to Le Nez du Café: Aroma of Coffee.

By Jeremy Martin

Sensory analysis of coffee is essentially the study of why our brains find some brews irresistible and conversely why we find some others repugnant. It’s also a topic being thoroughly explored through lectures and workshops at this year’s event.

While the average drinker may be more concerned with simple flavor notes and caffeine content, experts like Q and R Grader, and lecturer Rocky Rhodes understands why the flavors and aromas of brewed coffee react the way they do on the human brain.

During Friday morning’s Le Nez Du Café: Aroma of Coffee workshop, Rhodes, along with his sold-out class explored why certain aromas and fragrances are immediately distinguishable, why some are not and how a person can latterly train their brain to recognize a scent.

Rhodes suggested that scents translate not just into flavors on your tongue but into memories as well.

œThe way we smell,  Rhodes explained, œthe odor goes through the air, hits your nasal membrane, and your brain says ˜I’ve got a word for that.’ That pattern of stimulus does not change. 

Knowing how every single person reacts on a molecular level to scents allows coffee experts to design programs and exercises to strengthen a person’s ability to recognize various aromatics.

One way Rhodes does it is to decide what a certain smell is, for example the fragrance of an apricot. Out loud he will clearly enunciate ˜apricot, apricot, apricot’ and then take a long sniff of the scent.

If one repeats that exercise five times, the brain will be trained to understand what an apricot smells like, thereby designing a neural pathway to the scent, i.e. creating the memory of the odor of an apricot.

But anyone with a third-grade education knows scent is only one of the five senses and certainly the field of Sensory Analytics delves much deeper than simply understanding the fragrance of an apricot.

The Best of Symposium lecture went into further detail regarding how our brains subconsciously process all of the data surrounding us, and in an instant make judgments on an endless array of topics; coffee included.

A perfect example being coffee mugs, or more exactly the thickness and perceived durability of the mugs.

It was discovered in a study conducted by Dr. Charles Spence of Oxford University that consumers who are given coffee in thick ceramic mugs will routinely rate its contents as greater in taste and aroma than then coffee delivered to them in papers cups; even when the coffee is identical.

Shapes, too, can play tricks on us. The same study showed that when food is served on rounded plates with beveled edges the dinners will give the food higher marks than they would the same dish given to them on square or pointed plates.

But getting back to coffee, it still seems that scent and taste are the heavy hitters in the world of Sensory Analysis.

Which is why Rhodes and others like him are attempting to disseminate a language of tasting and smelling that will allow all members of the coffee production timeline, from grower to consumer, to communicate openly about the product.

Innovations such as the flavor wheel, and the Le Nez Du Café smelling kits are helping to create shared patterns of stimulus that will allow for a communal sensory experience, one that is not limited by space or time.

So with each class on aroma, each symposium speaker discussing laboratory experiments and each vendor on the showroom floor using commonalities of language and freely discussing their own feelings and memories of coffee, we are, as a group working towards accomplishing this.

In parting, Rhodes  implored of his students that if nothing else was learned in his course that these two bits of advise should never be forgotten: first it takes reputation to change patterns of both behavior and memory and second, be a mentor, teach all that you know to someone else.

Jeremy MartinJeremy Martin  is a freelance writer and photographer who has reported on coffee, craft beer, college sports, and business for a variety of publications over the past six years.  A veteran of the café industry and graduate of Western Michigan University, Jeremy lives in Seattle where can often be found making sandwiches from whatever is left in the fridge and cracking wise for the amusement of his adoring wife Amanda.  

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