Home Smells & Sensory Habits

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You may have noticed a significant gap in these emails over the last year. The main reason: we bought a house out here in the countryside! Those sparse hours away from work, which were once dedicated to writing about coffee, are now spent building walls, constructing workbenches, and tending to a garden. And while I have many thoughts on the best paint companies and newly acquired knowledge on Ontario codes regarding dug wells, I want to talk about smell, habits, and coffee!

Our home’s previous owner was a smoker, and we certainly inherited that annoyingly nostalgic and distinctly dank smell of cigarettes. We luckily had some overlap between vacating our previous rental and our move in day, so we could prop open every window and let those warm summer breezes clear out the air. Removing the smoke sponge that is old carpet, copious wall washing, and applying some anti-nicotine specific primer were key tools against the smoky ghosts. And sure enough: there was a day when I arrived home and realized the smell had disappeared! However, my immediate joy was slightly undercut with a fear that perhaps I was just used to the odour. Akin to coming home from vacation, it is only after a prolonged break that you can experience that brief dwelling smell of your own home.

As a result of this smoky encounter, I keep wondering how much of my daily sensory experience dissolves into habit. Take coffee for example, it is inexorably tied to routine for most as we drink it every morning or sip it on a ride to work or slip out of the office for a sweet afternoon cup. The question arises: do we get so used or accustomed to the sensory experience of coffee that it disappears, like a wisp of smoke?

The answer might seem obvious if we consider a dark roast with those hallmark bitter ‘coffee’ flavours. It is not about variation but rather a similar experience for predictable mornings. The cup supplies warmth and a hit of caffeine. Such intentional uniformity is the fundamental cog that powers most large coffee chains. The key difference for specialty coffee is the unfolding sensory experience that seeks out and follows variations in flavour. From sweet, sour, and bitter, its about discovering fruity, floral, caramel or chocolate notes. At its best, it is an act of discovery and operate as an encounter with the unexpected. And yet, I think it is just as susceptible to habit. In all honestly, I am so accustomed to vibrant cups, it is often only when I taste a fault (the char tinge of burnt, the watery flab of baked, the astringent bite of green) that my senses go into alert mode.

There is a scientific explanation for this temporal effect rooted in the relationship between our senses and survival. In his book Gastrophysics: the New Science of Eating, Charles Spense explains that when we eat, “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”. When we “know that we are safe, we devote cognitive resources (what 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 once we take a bite of food or we smell our homes, “we no longer need to concentrate” and thus we engage in ‘olfactory blindness’ redirecting our sensory resources elsewhere. In industrial food science, it is common practice to load either end of food products, like chocolate bars for example, with more flavour compounds with the understanding that there will be reduced “concentration on that middle” as focus drifts away. This so called ‘sensory specific satiety’ means we quickly acclimatize to flavours and smells. The novel becomes habitual and we only re-engage to savor that last bite or sip.

So how do we break from habit and learn to appreciate every drop? Easy answer: granola studies! In the paper, ‘From first to last bite: Temporal dynamics of sensory and hedonic perceptions using a multiple-intake approach’, a sample group was given a six bowls of yogurt and granola with the intent to study how sensory impressions unfold over time. In other words, to see what happens when we eat every bite as if it was the first or last. As the authors write, there is a “built up of sensations from bite to bite” which “cannot be captured by single bite assessments”. The authors connect time and variation to the group producing more complex descriptors, like sour and creamy, and finally towards less initially noticeable terms like sweet, wheat, sticky, stale, soft, or dry.

This study illuminates how our sense of flavour starts simple with a prong of good or bad, like or dislike, but can evolve into more manifold appreciations of taste (sweet, sour, bitter, salty, umami) then into flavours (impressions of particular dishes or preparations) and even into multisensory understandings of texture or freshness. And in many ways this becomes a way to break our rooted sensory habits.

For coffee, I love cupping (more on how to: here) multiple samples from different producers because you cannot fall into olfactory blindness or sensory specific satiety. Counter to this but equally effective, tasting outside one’s comfort zone is often a way to gain appreciation. It is easy to forget just how good specialty coffee is compared to poorly grown and poorly roasted alternatives. Not to suggest we should support chain coffee but rather explore the vast multitude of origins, producers, and processes available.

Let me conclude with this idea: the flux of variety hugely enriches our sensory experience and by extension our everyday life. However, rather than unspooling the unexpected, our current industry seems to be narrowing scope. Last month, my Instagram was inundated with ‘best coffees of the year’ posts and the vast majority were all experimentally processed coffees (also known as anaerobic, which is a silly name because all fermentations are anaerobic). Rather than the traditional washed (the coffee fruit is pulped off and cherries are washed and dried) or natural (cherries dry on beds with fruit intact), these experimental processes ferment cherries in low oxygen conditions, like stainless steal tanks, or use techniques borrowed from the wine industry, like the application of specific yeasts or bacteria.

Technical details aside, they can be juicy, wonderful, and vibrant cups but there is also something worrisome when they become the universal standard for quality and ‘best of’ considerations. The precision, nuance, and clean qualities that I associate with classic washed processes were all but absent in these lists and rather than celebrations of producers and place, the major focus shifts to the processing itself. If olfactory blindness presents a lost opportunity to encounter the potential wonder of our world, then uniformity in the cup does the same. If we turn our noses up at dark roasts because they always taste the same, then we should also recognize this emerging standardized version of coffee has a small set of tropical and often uniform notes. One reflects the roasting machine and the other the green processing. Just as our sensory attention drifts after that first bite, these are ways that the story of a coffee can omit the labour, the people, and institutions behind the cup.

Given that habit overrides our engagement and we take the sensory world for granted, it is unsurprising that we load our memories with those wonderous meals, dishes, and bites that break our olfactory stupors. For coffee, there is something truly amazing that we can taste singular and unique qualities linked to the story of a place. While it is likely unrealistic to try to engage with every bite, there is certainly a benefit in finding your granola and yogurt to be ‘sticky, soft and sweet’ rather than ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Life is short and we only eat so many bites and sips, so we should seek coffee that articulates a story rather than just deliver caffeine. Experimental techniques and evolution in the industry are essential, but they should not block out the horizon. Well-grown coffee from talented producers is extraordinarily delicious and you can experience such quality in each and every small sip, well, unless the smoke smell is overpowering.