Neuroscience and Flavor Perception

One week ago, Joel & Leticia Pollock of Panther Coffee (IG: @panthercoffee) hosted a special class called "Sensory Perception of Coffee: Theory and Practice" at the Chapin School of Hospitality at FIU. The eight hour class, divided into an academic session in the morning and a practical session in the afternoon, was taught by Neuroscientist Dr. Fabiana Carvalho of the University of Campinas, Brazil. (IG: @thecoffeesensorium)

Dr. Fabiana Carvalho making really complicated things understandable

It was the best class I’ve ever attended as an adult.

(If I could remember my college classes more clearly, I bet it would have beaten all of them as well, but that was many years ago in a city far away named New Orleans)

The subject matter was Specialty Coffee and I’m a huge fan, but the vast majority of what we learned and discussed wasn’t exclusive to coffee. Anyone who loves food, or wine, or craft beer would have thoroughly engaged with the subject matter.

Time FLEW.

The presentation was so engaging and wisely ordered, taking us all on a journey deeper and deeper into the science behind our perception of flavor. The balance of academic to practical was perfect. Dr. Carvalho taught with the effortless grace of someone who knows their subject matter with a totality that comes from a lifetime of plumbing the depths. She was articulate, interesting, funny, professional and willing to navigate in the direction of any audience question, but always brought us back to the topic at hand.

The size of the classes was also very well thought through. Participating with 20 to 30 others gave a richness to the experience that too many participants would have diluted.  The questions, comments and experiences of others added layers to learning. Reading articles and listening to podcasts is an amazing blessing in our connected world, but it simply doesn’t provide the depth we get when share an engaging classroom experience.

As the academic portion of the class dove deeper into the systems that are involved in sensory perception, it was impossible not to feel a sense of awe. Our bodies are intricate wonders. When you stop to consider the complexity of just one system it’s overwhelming. When you add to it the understanding that there are dozens of other systems that are every bit as complex and they all work together in harmony? It’s staggering. 

At one point Dr. Carvalho showed a slide made by Greg Dunn, PhD (@gdunnart) who specializes in neuroscientific art. It’s an image that stays with me still. It captures so elegantly the complexity and brilliance of what we all take for granted every day. (Self Reflected Series by Greg Dunn PhD, more here: )

The image is similar to this one here. Please visit his site as well HERE.

Print by Greg Dunn PhD:  SELF REFLECTED IN WHITE LIGHT - 2ND EDITION - click on link to site

Print by Greg Dunn PhD: SELF REFLECTED IN WHITE LIGHT - 2ND EDITION - click on link to site

When you boil it all down, from stimuli to receptors to the neurons in the gustatory receptors in our brain’s cortex, so many factors weigh in on the process. Some of them are physical, some are chemical and some of them are constructs influenced by anticipation and our very personal, past experiences. From person to person our systems vary and, therefore, our reactions vary in both type and intensity. Our experiences and cultures are as personal as our fingerprints. It’s really a marvel that we agree as often as we do about what we perceive as delicious.

For example, we all have those friends who loathe cilantro and say that it “tastes like soap”. That reaction is a combination of a lot of different physical and chemical factors that produce the effect in the gustatory center of their brains. There’s nothing “wrong” with them for thinking that, nor conversely is there anything wrong with us for liking it. That’s just how varied this receptor process can be from person to person and culture to culture.

At one point during the presentation - after she discussed our olfactory receptors and their “promiscuity and complexity” - she mentioned a concept that had been a recurring theme: the language gap between what is experienced and our paltry lexicon for describing it. As self-evident as this is in a world where we resort to “OMG” to describe something delicious, it struck me as the very best justification for participating in a day like this. The more we learn about what we are tasting and how to describe it, the richer our lives will be. 

The second part of the day was all about practical experience.

The second part of the day was all about practical experience.

Right when I was identifying with my own descriptive illiteracy, we transitioned into the afternoon portion of the course which was utterly practical. This was the lab portion, where I took my place at a table full of little cafecito-sized cups full of water and various chemical compounds. 

Over the next few hours we all learned to identify primary tastes, the basic taste components of coffee, organic acids, how to identify those elements when they are in compound mixtures and the oronasal contribution to taste. We sampled and discussed viscosity and mouthfeel and then got down to business as vials of different aroma families were passed around for us to try. We closed our eyes and tried to identify each scent and then group them together in families according to the structure of the SCAA Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel. Lastly, we lined up and cupped three of Panther’s single origin coffees and graphed how we perceived the intensity of their aroma, acidity, sweetness and body.

In my life, the result of something amazing is how I ruminate about it. Do I wake up the morning after a great meal and still value it the same or more? When I have a great cup of coffee, do I long to experience it again and order a bag for my own home brewing? It’s the same with a great presentation. An experience like this class far surpassed the absorption of information. In spite of returning to my normally busy life, this class has me slowing way down at the moment of a meal, a drink or a cup of coffee. For years, the preparation of coffee every day has been a very deliberate and ritualistic thing for me. As much as I have always enjoyed the flavors, I have never stopped to consider and catalog them like I do now. I may or may not even be carrying my SCAA Flavor Wheel in my backpack! That’s all due to this class.

The entire day was an exhilarating roller-coaster of learning. Diving so deeply into the way we perceive flavor made me feel both humbled and eager to learn more. Being able to put it all into practice and expand my experiential vocabulary in real time - along with others who were equally enthralled - inspired me to make this a frequent practice. If we are lucky enough to have a repeat of this course in 2020, I encourage you to clear off your calendar and make it a priority. I’m sure I’ll be thinking about it and using what I learned there for the rest of my life. 

TIP: There are frequent coffee tastings at the various Panther locations - follow them on Instagram @panthercottee so you can come out and learn more in person.