sensation

Listening to coffee

coffee tasting notes
Do we pay attention long enough to discern tasting notes such as those in the cup profile here? My current coffee, from Amoret – where you can currently buy this coffee and see if you can ‘hear’ these tasting notes.

Do we taste and appreciate coffee in a similar way to the manner in which we would appreciate a complex piece of music?

Perhaps the idea seems fanciful, maybe even non-sensical. How could it be that the way that we appreciate flavour is similar to how we listen (and how is this related to physics)? Coming from someone who is a clear amateur in both appreciating coffee and appreciating music, you would be forgiven for being a little dismissive (though I’d hope that you would trust me on the fact that there will be a link with physics). But, by being an amateur in taste, I think it is possible to see a first connection: it is in how much attention and learning (training or practise) we give to our perception of our sensation.

A great nineteenth century physicist, Hermann von Helmholtz, was also a medical doctor (and a keen amateur musician). In thinking about how we listen to sounds, Helmholtz suggested that “sensation” was physiological – the effect of the note on our ear or the chemical on our taste buds – but “perception” was psychological – how we hear the notes together or discern the flavour notes of a particular coffee.

Think about how you recognise a type of coffee that you love, or distinguish between a washed and a natural? Or how you know that the instrument that you can hear through the speakers is a violin. With the latter, it is because the fundamental note played is accompanied by a set of harmonics that are distinctive to that instrument. A flute or a piano will have a different set of harmonics and so a different sound. It has been through listening to different instruments that we have learned to identify them, but it is through training and practise (or experimental physics) that we can start to discern the various harmonics.

The way that we hear the different harmonics concerns the way that their waveforms add together. This is underpinned mathematically by Fourier analysis, which describes how any wave form can be made up of a summation of sinusoidal waves. Incidentally Joseph Fourier was also the scientist who proposed the idea of a greenhouse effect back in 1824 (which you can read more about here, or in relation to coffee here). Where you may have experienced these wave combinations is in tuning a guitar (or similar instrument). When you play two notes that are nearly exactly the same, but not quite, the waves of each will add together as they make their way from the plucked string to your ear. As they travel, at some points the two waves will combine to form a large amplitude wave and at other points the two waves will exactly cancel out. We would hear it as a type of “beating” (on-off-on-off) that you can hear as you attempt to tune the two strings together to play the same note. When the two plucked strings play the same note, the two waves will only add together to be louder, they will not cancel each other out and you should hear one, continuous and smooth tone.

Guitar, coffee
From resonances to the way we sense the world around us, there are a number of connections between coffee and music.

You can be an amateur musician and still appreciate the physics that is underlying this aspect of your ability to play (tuneful) music. But Helmholtz had noted a bit more than this. Owing to the way that waves combine, and which in the simplest case gives the ‘beats’ that you notice as you tune the guitar, when you play two notes together, if you listen carefully you will not only hear the two notes, but a third, a so-called combination tone. Discovered by the organist Georg Andreas Sorge in 1740 (you can hear one of his compositions here), this third note has the frequency of the first minus the second note. So, for example, if you were listening to C4 and G4 (at 264 and 396 Hz respectively), you would additionally hear a note at 132 Hz (C3). It is incredibly difficult to be able to discern such a combination tone which maybe part of the reason that it took so long to discover them. To learn to hear the note would take a lot of practise and no less attention when listening to a piece of music. How often do we truly listen to a piece of music to be able to do this?

Where Helmholtz came into this was that, not only did he explain the origin of this combination tone (in terms of the way the waves combined), he invented a device that allowed us mere amateurs to be able to hear it. One end of a tube was designed to fit snugly into the listener’s ear, with the other end open to the sound. The size of the tube determined which frequency of sound would reach the ear. Using these devices Helmholtz showed that, not only was the combination tone a real phenomenon, it had a mathematical basis in physics. And of course there was more. If you could hear the note of the subtraction of the two sound frequencies, you should be able to hear the note of the sum of these two frequencies too. In the example above, you should hear a note at 660 Hz. This combination tone had never been heard before, it came as a prediction of Helmholtz’s theory of how sounds added, itself sparked by a profound attention that he paid to listening to music.

Using a similar resonator to that used for distinguishing the combination tone based on difference, Helmholtz showed that this note too was audible. It was a prediction of what we should be able to hear based on the physics of what was going on. It extended our ability to perceive music.

The beat of a drum or the resonance on our coffee – the links between music and coffee go further than this.

In what way is this linked to tasting coffee? It is in how we learn to distinguish our taste. Just as a musician can, with time and attention, learn to discern at least a difference combination tone so, with practise, we can train our palette to discern intensities of sweet, of sour and subtleties of acids. We amateurs can hone our skills using the SCAA coffee flavour wheel, tasting each coffee we prepare to detect the sweet, roasted or floral notes that we read about on the packs of coffee we buy. To actually describe these coffees requires skill and a large amount of practise in cupping coffee. But to develop those skills to the point of being Q-grader requires an attention to detail that is quite incredible (you can read about the training needed to become a Q-grader here). Just as with music, for some of us, even a lot of practise will only ever allow us to appreciate the work of others rather than produce it ourselves.

Of course, training our palettes requires drinking a lot of coffee, but it also means making mixtures of salty or sweet liquids and thinking about how they taste. Cupping hundreds, thousands, of coffees and paying attention to the complete flavour profile of them. Is there a flavour equivalent to Helmholtz’s summation combination tone that is waiting to be discovered? It will need someone skilled in matters of coffee appreciation and experimental science. Someone who has demonstrated the attention required to carefully listen to the taste of our coffee but who can also work on the theory of how those flavours are perceived. There are many people working on the physics, chemistry and physiology of taste and smell. Could you be one of them?

This is the third in a series of the contributions of Hermann von Helmholtz to our appreciation of the physics in coffee – it goes far beyond the vortices he may be famous for. The introduction is here while the contribution of Helmholtz to our understanding of colour and vision is here. Future posts will consider hot coffee and of course, what happens as we stir it. Much of the material for this post has been found as a result of reading Michel Meulder’s excellent biography of Helmholtz: “Helmholtz: from enlightenment to neuroscience” (2001).

A sense of history at Lundenwic, Aldwych

Lundenwic Aldwych coffee

The bar at Lundenwic

Of all the senses, our sense of smell is probably the one that is most likely to evoke memories that can take us right back to our childhood. One whiff of something as we walk past a café can, almost magically, transport us back many years and to a quite different time and place. This aspect of our sense of smell was brought home to me a few weeks ago on a visit to Lundenwic in Aldwych.

Lundenwic was the Anglo-Saxon name for the settlement that was located between what is now Covent Garden and Aldwych. As time progressed and the population of Lundenwic decreased, the site became known as the old-settlement (Aldwic), from which we get the name Aldwych*. Lundenwic is also the name of a (relatively) new cafe that has opened up near the corner of Aldwych with Drury Lane (incidentally, originally called the Via de Aldwych*). The upstairs seating area is quite small but with Caffeine magazines on hand, and plants dotted around, as well as the bar, there is plenty to watch and to notice while savouring your coffee. The espresso based coffee is sourced from Workshop while the filter option (V60 based) features different guest beans. On the day of our visit there were two filter options available. Opting for the Kenya Kagoumoini AA, I waited for my coffee to be prepared while my cafe-physics review companion had a late lunch of a cheese and ham toasty which quickly filled this small café with the aroma of cooking cheese. The tasting notes for the coffee stated that I should expect “rhubarb and raspberry lemonade”, and while the taste was certainly of lemonade, the aroma seemed to me quite different, almost spicy.

Lundenwic coffee

Kenyan coffee, freshly brewed appealed to all five senses, but each in different ways.

The cooking cheese and the memories evoked by the smells, along with this difference between the smell and the taste of the coffee, suggested that smell ought to be the subject of this cafe-physics review. Indeed, smell turns out to be a very interesting sense. The nerve cells relating to smell are the only type of nerve cell that can regenerate†. It is this ability of these nerve cells to regenerate that recently helped a previously paralysed man to walk again. Nerve cells from his nose were transplanted into his spinal cord where they helped in the regeneration of his spinal cord (for reasons that are not yet fully understood).

But what about those smells in the coffee? That special aroma, that you breathe in and appreciate immediately after you have brewed your cup is due to a fantastic mix of over 1000 volatile aroma chemicals. If you let your coffee stand, those chemicals evaporate off, which means that the just-brewed aroma starts to change. One of the most important chemicals for this coffee aroma is called 2-furfurylthiol. It has been shown that the concentration of 2-furfurylthiol in the coffee decreases by a factor of 4 over the course of an hour‡.  Even after as little as twenty minutes or so, the concentration of these complex aroma molecules starts to decrease significantly and so if you, (horror of horrors), were to let your coffee cool overnight and then zap it in the microwave in the morning, you would no longer regain that freshly-brewed smell that may have attracted you to the coffee in the first place.

durian skins and seeds

What was left after a session eating durian on a durian farm in Penang, Malaysia

This may also be the reason that the coffee at Lundenwic tasted differently to how it smelled. By inhaling the aroma and then tasting the coffee without exhaling (and so pushing the aroma back through the nose), our nerves are sensitive to different sensations. Although we may experience this while tasting many foods, occasionally it is crucial. A few years ago, Hasbean coffee were selling a very unusual coffee. The coffee, from Indonesia was called “Sidikalang”. Looking back at Hasbean’s “Inmymug” video, it is clear that it was very difficult for Hasbean’s Stephen Leighton to come up with tasting notes for the coffee which, in the end was compared with “durian”. The aroma of durian has been described as “turpentine and onions garnished with a gym sock” and yet in South East Asia it is known as the King of Fruits and is highly sought after for its taste. The aroma chemicals found in durian have recently been analysed (by the same group as studied the aroma of coffee). Nonetheless, the inclusion of “durian” in the tasting notes was extremely accurate (and did result in an amusing, if unconventional, attempt at opening one of the fruits in the video). It was accurate not only in terms of the experience of the taste/smell combination of that coffee. The actual taste and smell of the coffee was very similar to that of durian. A very unusual and interesting coffee that I have never yet had the opportunity to experience again.

However, to return to Lundenwic, how do the (lovely and inviting) smells that emanate from that café compare with the smells of the area that had been Aldwych before 1905 (when Aldwych was built, demolishing the slums that had existed there)? Some museums, such as the Canterbury Tales (in Canterbury), use the aromas (odours?) of medieval life to give visitors some idea as to what life was like in years gone by. Recalling a childhood visit to that museum, I would suggest that the smell of freshly brewed coffee and melting cheese is an almost unquantifiable improvement.

Truly we could say that at Lundenwic, it is time to wake up and smell the coffee.

Lundenwic is at 45 Aldwych, WC2B 4DR

*The London Encyclopaedia, 3rd Ed, MacMillan publishers, 2008.

†”On Food and Cooking: The science and lore of the kitchen”, Harold McGee, George Allen & Unwin publishers, 1988.

‡The coffee had been held at 80C in a thermos flask for the duration of the experiment. It may be expected that as your coffee cooled down, the volatile aroma molecules would evaporate more slowly than the time indicated in this study.