Reflections on Cupping – Part Three: Coffee Slurpees

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Last week’s installment in our series on cupping discussed the criteria for judging aroma and smell. For this week, I want to address the second question that was sent in: why do you slurp the coffee rather than sip or drink it normally? Some background: the standard protocol at cuppings is to gulp the coffee off a spoon (or out of a glass) in a loud, guttural, gargle-like fashion similar to a wine tasting. I too asked this question and the answer I received was “to spread coffee across your tongue and reach your bitter taste buds”.

However, this explanation relies on the oft-repeated myth about the geography of the tongue. You may have encountered a map with zones of bitterness at the back, salty and sour along the sides, and sweet up at the tip. Well, these are false – or at least highly exaggerated. Each individual taste bud is responsive to salty, sweet, bitter, sour and umami. There are slight shifts in sweetness and bitterness sensitivities but it is due to distribution of receptors, not segmented regions or particular types of taste buds. They do cluster around the sides, back, and front of the tongue with a reduced population throughout the middle, which often gives the impression of difference.

So, should we give up the raucous, kind-of-disgusting slurping practice? I would say no because it does help you taste better. Slurping aerates the coffee, which allows you to engage smell and, thus, determine flavour! If you recall last week’s dispatch, I detailed the difference between the “orthonasal” and the “retronasal” routes for smell.

Essentially, smell is a dual sense. We engage with the external environment through orthonasal scent. As, Gordon Shepherd outlines in “Neuroenology: How the Brain Creates the Taste of Wine”, its evolutionary roots are in survival as a “long-distance” way to avoid danger and sniff out our food sources. Whereas, the “retronasal route” is more inward facing; it takes the “dominant role in the flavors of food” by working through the stimulus of the tongue. It outlines the distinctive features and builds an image of what you are eating or drinking.

And this is why we slurp, gargle, and gulp! To present the biggest impression possible to the olfactory cortex. As Shepard explains, scent operates as the central cog for taste perception. The amalgamation point for taste, touch, sight, memory and flavour knowledge.

If you’ll indulge me this week, try a slurping experiment. Wait a few minutes for a cup to slightly cool. Grab a spoon and ladle in a small sip. Gently clench your jaw, bring the spoon to your lips, close your eyes, and slurp as aggressively as possible (we can apologize to those around us afterwards). Using the small gap between your teeth, try to really aerate the coffee. Take a moment to breath and think through the flavour: are there fruit notes? Are they ripe or sour? Is there caramel sweetness or chocolate bitterness? Is it astringent like feta or juicy like starburst candy? Does the flavour change and how long do the sensations last?

Lastly, does it remind you of anything or speak to a specific experience? Next week: smell and memory! So long as I remember to write it.