Good, bad. Hot, cold. Bitter, sweet. Burnt, fragrant, roasted. Chocolatey, floral, fruity and herbal: there is an innumerable list of adjectives to describe the perceptions that we associate with coffee. These words are important: espresso, especially in Italy, plays such a big role in our daily lives that we rarely dwell on the sensory impressions that it triggers. This is a shame because every cup contains an incredible story, which starts in a wide range of different places and ends with its consumption in a café. It is a story of passion, of continuous improvement, of research, innovation and above all, of taste.
We asked Carlo Odello, a councillor and teacher at the International Coffee Tasting Institute (IIAC), to help us to learn to recognise the many flavours contained in coffee according to an internationally-recognised sensory map. “First of all,” he tells us, “there are certain conditions that need to be respected relating to the environment, which needs to be free from odours, lit in a uniform manner, with light at a temperature similar to solar light and silent, with a comfortable temperature and humidity. Secondly, the psychophysiological moment is very important, so we recommend that you do not enjoy it close to meal times (so that you do not feel sated or hungry), but do so in calm, relaxing conditions, while fully concentrating.”
For coffee lovers, the cup also plays an important role: it must be made of porcelain, preferably white so that you can appreciate the slightest shades of the foam, with a round base. “The impact of the container is important,” the expert confirms, “and indeed, IIAC has developed a Taster’s Cup, whose last version was made by Club house. The Cup allows you to undertake a visual, olfactory and gustatory analysis – a correct tactile design contains an elliptical section with a different thickness, adequate head space and a suitable opening that prevents aromas from escaping.”
Sensory map of coffee
As with great wines, coffee has a recognised aroma map that ranges from the memory of the fragrance of bread crust to pastry shop smells, from fruity notes to spicy scents. The range of smells is so extensive and detailed that some people who have trained their sense of smell can even perceive negative odours such as that of tar and fur.
It is a world waiting to be discovered, starting from the basics: what are the sensations that enable us to recognise a good espresso, we ask our expert? “IIAC,” he tells us, “has designed a Sensory Map of Coffee based on research conducted on hundreds of tasters followed by statistical evaluation of the resulting data. The map allows us to assess the visual, olfactory, gustatory and tactile characteristics (such as body, astringency, bitterness and acidity) of Italian espresso with a special focus on the olfactory perspective, which is designed as a tree to let the taster, or user, decide on exactly how they define the aromas.”
Talking of aromas
The aromatic scale of the map is broad and divided into seven macro groups: empyreumatic – or smoky –, burnt, fried, spicy and roasted like cocoa, caramel and grain. There is also the “dry fruit” category and the vegetal category, which, except in the case of balsamic vinegar odours, is always a sign of problems with the coffee, consisting of dry, fresh and boiled aromas. There is also the important flowers and fresh fruit category and finally, the different biochemicals, which are all aromatic defects such as oxidised cut apple, cream and cheese caseins, phenols such as cork, earth, mould, animal odours, fermentation, putrefaction, sulphur and underlying smells such as plaster or cement, finishing with other chemicals like plastic, cardboard and petrol.
How do you recognise a good coffee?
Taste and smell are incredibly important, but sight is also important when assessing a good espresso. How do you recognise a “perfect” coffee? The most incisive definition is that of Certified Italian Espresso developed by the National Institute of Italian Espresso, of which Cimbali Group is a founding member: “Italian espresso has a hazelnut-coloured foam, which can verge on dark brown and is distinguished by reddish brown notes. This cream has a very fine texture with a dense consistency that does not contain large bubbles. The nose has an intense aroma with notes of flowers, fruit, toasted bread and chocolate, all of which you sense even after swallowing it, experiencing a lingering taste that lasts for many seconds, sometimes even for minutes. The taste is round, robust and velvety, acidity and bitterness are balanced without dominating each other.” When all these things come together, you can taste a truly good coffee and are grateful for the magic that lies in that simple cup.