We interpret the world with our senses in all kinds of ways. Some sensory experiences cannot be ignored: a smell will waft through the air and evoke strong memories or desires (burning leaves, bacon frying), or distinctive colors (the blurred hues of a sunset) can stop you in your tracks. Your favorite sweater feels like a hug, or the first chords of a certain song instantly transport you back to a magical summer. Then, there are the subtleties, when sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures whisper instead of shout. When it comes to food and drink, aromas and flavors can be a little trickier to parse out. If you eat mashed potatoes, of course you taste the potato. But what else is in there? Cream or buttermilk? Rosemary or thyme? Black or white pepper? Using your senses of taste and smell in more exploratory, sophisticated ways is one way to define the word "palate." Palate also refers to the roof of the mouth, but has mostly been adopted in everyday language to mean the connection between the mind and the mouth that allows us to "read" food and drink in a deeper way.
There is perhaps no one more in touch with their palates than sommeliers, the culinary professionals who are experts on all things wine-related. We recently watched this great documentary, Somm, which follows a group of people studying for the Master Sommelier exam, one of the culinary world's most brutal tests. This film, which is currently streaming on Netflix and definitely worth a watch, is a really interesting peek into the world of sommeliers, where passions and obsessions converge.
While we connected with the characters and couldn't help but root for them to pass the exam, we were most intrigued by their incredible ability to blind taste wines and detect the most specific, detailed aromas and flavors. Yeah, some of us might be able to tell a Chardonnay from a Riesling, or find notes of blackberry or vanilla in a Cabarnet, but these guys take it way, way beyond that (think "unripened mango" or "fresh cut garden hose"). In the film, all of the experts insist that this is not some special inborn trait, but rather a skill born of unrelenting discpline and practice. With enough training, they argue, anyone can elevate their palates to the upper echelon.
This reminded us, in a way, of coffee cuppings. These exercises are fun and educational ways to think critically and carefully about the coffee you're tasting, to really turn your full attention to what's happening in your mouth. It's not so often that we can take the time to tune everything else out except pure flavor. Tasting coffee that has cooled a bit and opened up allows us to reach inside the flavor and pull out notes that we can't always detect when we're drinking coffee like normal.
All coffee tastes, to some degree, like...you know...coffee. But so many factors can affect the more nuanced flavors in coffee: what part of the world, kind of soil or how high the elevation it was grown in, whether it was washed and fermented or not, and how it was roasted are just a few! Stumptown, coming through with awesome stuff as always, put together this lovely tasting guide which illustrates some typical flavors that can be found in coffees, and the regions they're often assocaited with. Trying more coffees more often can help to acquaint you with the wide scope of what coffee has to offer in the flavor department.
We encourage you to take a moment now and then to not just consume, but really and truly taste, coffee. It's mindblowing how many unique flavors (hundreds? thousands??) can be found within. If you have certain flavors you love or are looking for, please do let our baristas know! We always do our best to steer you towards the awesomest flavors possible in our superb coffees.