Sensory Overload: Sensory Events
By Alex Meece
When preparing a new barista for their first shift, there are often many things to teach them and little time in which to teach them. Usually, the focus is aimed at getting them ready for all of the mechanical tasks they need to be able to do. Additionally, you have to assess if they know how to greet and interact appropriately with customers, brew coffee, make espresso, steam milk and do about a million other things that are going to be part of their daily shifts. With all this to teach, one of the most fundamental and important skills any coffee professional can possess is often overlooked – the ability to accurately describe the sensory aspects of the coffee you are selling and serving to customers.
I know, I know…that’s a lot to teach in an initial training. In the beginning, you can stress the importance of the sensory aspect and maybe give some tasting guidance with a couple of examples from the staple coffees available at your shop. Where do you go from here? Well, we all know the questions waiting for a barista on their first shift: Which of these is better? What does this coffee taste like?
In essence, a job in coffee is a sensory profession. Whether it be evaluating the visual appearance of coffee from its roast to final prepared cup, cupping or conveying the flavors and aromas of coffee – how do we handle this?
Few of us are born with the innate ability to convey the sensory experiences of a coffee, much less describe it using a group of commonly recognized flavors and aromas. I remember my first years in coffee; struggling to taste or recognize the tasting notes listed on a bag of coffee I was preparing for customers. I was inexperienced at describing the taste and sensory aspects of the coffee I was enjoying to the flavors and aromas of which it reminded me.
My answer to this, and my suggestion to the baristas I have worked with over the years, is simply to taste as many things as possible. Not just taste, but taste with intention. Really examine the items you are tasting and how they affect your senses. What sensations do you experience when you taste the item? What is its “mouth feel”? How did it smell?
I started by tasting fruits with which I was unfamiliar. I would try to calibrate my palate using a coffee with specific tasting notes, or food items known to have similar corresponding flavors (such as a piece of dark chocolate or almonds) to see if they would affect my palate the same way I read they were supposed to. My first experience with information from the SCAA Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel was an awakening because now I had a tool that helped me shape and narrow the scope of some of the tasting experiences I was having. In time, I learned how to better identify and describe flavors and aromas.
On May 12th, at the GE First Build complex (a workspace and incubator that is open to the public to work on projects), we practiced tasting and smell like I did in my early days as a barista. I designed this event to be approachable and fun for both newcomers and seasoned coffee professionals. I believe sensory skills are not only helpful to have, but super fun to develop. The event consisted of tasting, evaluating and describing the flavors, as well as the aroma, of several common (and, sometimes, uncommon – dragon fruit, anyone?) food items often used to describe coffee, among other beverages and goods. For the people who attended this event, it was an evening spent having fun, tasting as many things as possible and discussing them with others to better identify commonly used flavor descriptors and how they affected our senses.
This experience was as fun as it was educational. I began with a short lecture on the science of the senses as it pertains to coffee. Then, moved to a simple exercise tasting an often exaggerated common flavor. For this example, I used gummy bears. Attendees were invited to take and eat a gummy bear, then they had to share what flavor they got with the group. This was a fun and easy example used to break the ice with the participants and prove to them that they actually do comprehend flavors better than they might have thought previously.
The chart below is an example of the foods I used in this event. Anyone wanting to host a similar event is welcome to use this chart as a shopping list. There are references to the latest SCAA Flavor Wheel (available on the SCAA website) – if you would like to calibrate your items to the exact flavors used to develop the wheel, the Sensory Lexicon is available here. The event flowed in the order below.
Flavor Type Examples:
My approach to this event was not to simply setup a buffet and let everyone go at it. I staggered all of the tastings by descriptors such as “Citrus.” I scaffolded the experience by beginning with a brief discussion of the descriptor before inviting the participants to come and (briefly) examine all of the ingredients. Before tasting, I asked participants to evaluate the aroma of the samples.
Once a participant had evaluated the aroma of the sample, they could take a piece to try and taste with purpose like we discussed earlier. Participants were given time to evaluate the flavor of the sample and think about how it affected their palate. Was the sample sweet, sour, bitter, umami, or salty? What was unique about its flavors and what gave them that uniqueness? We discussed how these flavors were similar as well as what made these flavors unique.
This is the first event in a series of sensory events pertaining to coffee I am planning to try and organize. My hope is that these events will help baristas improve their palates and attempt other, different, sensory experiences as they pertain to coffee. I feel that these events have the potential to be great educational opportunities for the public to help foster excitement for craft coffee. These events are fun to put on both for your employees and the public in your area.
Alex Meece is a long time Barista, Trainer, and Electrical Engineer.