Coffee aroma refers specifically to the smell of coffee after it gets in touch with hot water. That is when it becomes a hot and -hopefully- delicious drink. The smell of coffee is quite fascinating. Or should we say, the scents of coffee?
Roasted coffee beans have nearly a thousand different volatile compounds, and we perceive a few dozens of them only. The place we drink our coffee has its own perfume, and the colors, sounds, and shapes around us influence the way we taste and smell our coffee.
For many, brewing coffee is a morning ritual. It really is a lot more than simply mixing hot water and coffee grounds. And after learning a bit about coffee aroma, you’ll believe it’s kind of magic too.
Keep reading below to learn more about coffee aroma and the science behind the magic.
Coffee scents: Aroma and Fragrance
As much as we love the coffee smell, did you know that it can have different names?
In fact, coffee has a very different scent when it’s freshly ground and when it gets in touch with hot water. To differentiate the properties of coffee in these two states, we call fragrance the smell of ground coffee and aroma to the smell of brewed coffee.
Both scents aren’t entirely different, but they can offer the aromatic coffee profile unique aspects. For instance, we experience fragrance using only our nose, while the aroma requires the entire retronasal system to perceive it. In other words, coffee aroma and taste are strongly connected to the drinking experience.
The coffee fragrance is part of the coffee brewing experience, contrasting with its aroma. The latter is particularly true for people grinding coffee on demand. Remember that ground coffee loses most of its smell in a few minutes after getting in contact with air.
Aroma and Taste
Scientific studies have shown that aroma and taste have been strongly linked for more than 20 years. Losing our ability to smell hampers taste significant, as the retronasal system collects many volatile compounds in food and drinks.
If the olfactory system or the tasting buds don’t work at their best, a massive part of this information doesn’t go to our nervous system, where we put it all together.
We know for a fact that smells have a strong connection with our memories and emotions. And the same goes with flavors. Both scents and flavors are a huge part of our life experiences and cultures. For this reason, sharing our insights about an exquisite cup of coffee or a delicious dish is so challenging.
Even more surprising is to learn that we perceive aroma and taste differently depending on a wide range of factors like texture, color, and the drinking vessel shape.
Where does coffee aroma come from?
Roasted coffee smells utterly different than green coffee. Furthermore, ground coffee and brewed coffee smell differently, too, as I said above -and you may have already noticed it firsthand.
That said, the roasting process produces over 900 hundred aromatic compounds. The number of volatile compounds identified increases year after year because scientists keep working hard to provide more insights about it.
When we grind the coffee, the particles are more available to our olfactory system. Then, we can process them and send all the information to our nervous system. Something similar happens after we add hot water to brew a cup of coffee, and we smell it and then taste it.
Every bit of our coffee enjoyment experience comes from this flux of sensory information processed and connected in our brains.
The chemistry behind the coffee aroma
Different volatile compounds come into the air during coffee extraction at different rates. First, molecules with a high polarity will fly, and coffee will be releasing dozens of particles every second. For this reason, you may not perceive all of the aromatic notes simultaneously. On the contrary, a molecule responsible for a buttery aroma tends to go into the air first.
Molecule polarity plays a considerable role in determining how quickly they extract from coffee grounds. In this regard, polarity is the difference in the electrical poles of the molecules. In other words, polarity is the driving force behind extraction, which is the process that transforms ground coffee and hot water into a delicious cup.
How we perceive the coffee aroma
The world of perception is fascinating. All aspects of our experience are so intertwined that it’s pretty challenging to isolate specific perceptual events. Additionally, each thing we perceive carries a heavy cultural and personal significance.
I learned that thanks to Freda Yuan during a Barista League event. She explained how we could perceive a fruit differently during her conference depending on our nationality, culture, and overall personal experience.
Simple things like the smell of tropical fruit or a berry have different meanings for people living in a temperate zone from others in tropical zones. Moreover, it would be relatively easy for someone who grew up eating mango and pineapple to discern these notes in a cup of coffee. In contrast, it would be impossible for anyone that never tasted or smelled these fruits in the past.
Besides experience, learning to identify aromatic notes requires training. Remember that pineapple, cinnamon, or berries aren’t present in coffee. We use these familiar aromas to analyze coffee scents and flavors as a reference. The latter means that some aspects of coffee’s aroma resemble others but aren’t equal.
In this regard, training as a sensory analyst requires the senses and the memory. And even if we aren’t working at it professionally, discerning and enjoying the quality in a cup of coffee is a pleasant challenge.
Grinding coffee in the morning is at the center of my routine after waking up. The intense fragrance of freshly ground coffee is my first morning ‘pick up.’ But, just the aroma of my hot cup of coffee works its magic in full power.
Smelling the freshly brewed coffee before every sip is part of the drinking experience, and it can become a way to be more mindful. In any way, I hope that you know a bit more about the science behind the magic of the coffee aroma.
Comment below. What’s your experience with coffee aroma? Have you found the tasting notes printed in your coffee bag? What’s your take on this?