Tasting Coffee – Part Six: the First Sip

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It is hard not to get a little sentimental given this is the last ‘ask lee’ of the year. Then again, it’s just generally hard for me not to be sentimental in these dispatches. I want to end 2017 with more on tasting but talk specifically – and appropriately – about the first and last sip.

We have dedicated a great deal of time to the complexity of taste. Outlining how our senses of taste and smell combine to build a multifaceted and intricate ‘image’ of flavour. These impressions are not universal, as each person’s receptor cells are unique; equally, culture influences our development and the ensuing perceptions of flavour.

Basically, tasting is an immense amount of mechanical and affectual labour. Yet, in Gastrophysics: the New Science of Eating Charles Spense writes, “we mostly do not pay attention to what we taste” because “our brains just do a quality check first, to ensure that there is nothing wrong with the food or drink and that it tastes pretty much as we expected (or predicted) that it should” (163). When we “know that we are safe, we devote cognitive resources (what the psychologists call ‘attention’) to other more interesting matters, like our dining companions, or what’s on the TV or who just sent a text”.

Essentially, after the first sip of a cup of coffee, “we no longer need to concentrate on what we are consuming”. Spense explains that this ‘olfactory blindness’ is a well-known phenomena in industrial food circles with companies loading taste into the first and last bite but “reducing their concentration into that middle” as focus drifts away (164). I am typing this with a freshly-brewed cup of Cut Coffee’s Rwanda: Gatare. I am struck by the density of the cup with its thick cream flavour. It has a gorgeous aroma of citrus and a sticky sweet caramelized orange finish. In order to articulate these impressions, it honestly does take some work to break from my own ‘oflactory blindness’.

So allow me to end this dispatch with a new year’s resolution and another one of my meandering tangents. First the philosophy ramblings! In the conclusion to Studies in the History of the Renaissance, Walter Pater calls for a focus on the dwindling moment. For him, while we always center on the “fruit of experience”, we should shift to “the experience itself as the end” (119). Pater implores us to focus on experience as it happens; his call is “to burn always with this hard gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy is success in life”; conversely, “failure is into form habits, for habit is relative to a stereotyped world” and “it is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations, seem alike” (120).

In other words, Pater argues that by indulging in lapses of attention or our fondness for habit, we end up missing out on the unique splendor that ultimately gives any experience its intrinsic value. As he so poetically states, “not to discriminate every moment … is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening” (120). Let’s go ahead and add cups of coffee to that list of ‘persons, things and situations’; it is only in the roughness of the tongue and the nose that coffee disappears into background as noise.

You can probably imagine where I am going with this with for my New Year’s resolution. Let us all break from our ‘olfactory blindness’ and seek the intricate and delicate beauty of the cup. Approach every sip with the same attention and grace as the first and let that be the be my last words for the year.

Well not really: a sincere thank-you to all of you for your patience and encouragement with my ramblings and my roasting. Let us all find sweet, juicy, and clean cups, push away the “quickened sense of life”, and enjoy what Pater calls a life locked to a forever “lifted horizon”.

🙏 💓 🔪☕