8. How to increase our sensory awareness
Updated: Aug 10
I hope you are as excited as I am about this part because I am about to explain how to increase your tasting ability. The question I have been asked so many times by many people.
My approach to building up sensory awareness has been a result of my recovery from depression and bulimia. It is very Zen and spiritually driven. The following techniques truly helped me to open another spectrum of sensory understanding, and I hope it helps you too.
1. Remove your preconceptions and bias
Some of us might have a few ideas already when we step into tasting, such as:
I don’t know anything about tasting.
I can never figure out the flavour notes.
I feel intimidated because I am new to this.
I feel intimidated because so many professionals are shouting out flavour notes.
I certainly felt this way when I first started.
I was too shy to share my findings and felt I might be grilled because I might be wrong.
It is almost like we are wearing glasses in different colours. Today, I am wearing a pair of glass with blue lenses. My entire world is blue. And when I am wearing red lenses, my entire world is red. With all of the beliefs and mindsets above, we already stop ourselves from moving forward to become a better taster.
Remember what I said in my previous chapters? There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to sensory experiences. We all come from different families, educational backgrounds, and cultures. We might all have mangos, but our mangos can taste drastically different from each other. Therefore, it is ok to share different perceptions compared to others.
2. Being present and mindful
Stop reading this book for a moment, just to observe your surroundings
Where are you right now? Are you on the train, in the cafe or park?
What is the most prevalent and the most settled noise that you can identify?
How dry or humid does the air feel on your skin?
Can you smell anything in the air and what is that familiar aroma?
Can you feel the weight of the cloth you are wearing?
Can you taste something on your tongue? If so, what is it?
All of the above questions force you to stop and use our five senses to be mindful of the details that we are experiencing right now. At this particular moment, we just experience the present with nothing attached, we can just be. This is the best way to practice our sensory awareness.
The training of sensory awareness doesn’t just apply to tasting but could also apply to our daily life. To explore further, let me ask you a few simple questions: How many times might you check your phone while you are with your friends and family? Do you remember how your dinner taste while chatting with your friends and colleagues?
Most of the time we get preoccupied with gadgets or just simply distracted by others or ourselves, so we struggle to enjoy the moment in friends or family’s company, focusing on work, or even just enjoy the dinner we are eating. By staying present and building up more sensory awareness, it helps us to live in the moment to experience things that just are.
3. Slow down
Once we understand being present is important for tasting, we should then slow down the process to integrate every single process. By doing so, it will enhance our sensory awareness.
When I am tasting, I will switch to “present mode” and to focus on every particular gastronomic experience I have:
Smell the food or beverage before every bite.
Analyse what flavour I might be tasting from smelling.
Eat and drink mindfully to experience the texture and flavour combination.
Identify and analyse the flavour differences from smelling to the last bite.
The more we enjoy eating and paying attention to it, the more sensory awareness we create to analyse the flavour, texture, and harmony of the mixture of food. Furthermore, it will take our entire gastronomic experience to another level.
Here is the bonus round: Believe it or not, it is possible to smell the texture of the food.
Let’s do an experiment together:
Prepare three different varieties of apple: red delicious, gala, and granny smith.
Cut the apple in slices.
Smell the white flesh of each individual apple slice first.
Guess what is the texture of the apple flesh based on the smell.
Eat the apple and confirm your guess.
The above experiment was the reason I elaborate on smelling before eating, as you can analyse a lot of information before you consume. Smell a drink before you have a sip then experience the weight on your tongue. Sensory awareness is about experiencing and analysing every step. We literally could practice this at any time of the day.
Through practicing and being mindful, our sensory awareness and associated abilities increase and will benefit us in our sensory ability and in improving our tasting skills. Being present and focused on small slow steps are my ultimate tool to recover from depression and bulimia, success in coffee tasting, my professional and personal life, and has helped me win a few coffee competition championships.
4. Understand sensorial language and context
My work has been heavily focusing on coffee quality. One of the key jobs I do is to communicate with the roastery about what I am looking for in the coffee profile. My colleague will adjust the roast based on my feedback. It is important to explain to roasters what I have tasted, otherwise the coffee flavour profile might be jeopardised. I need to be able to speak clearly in sensorial coffee language to explain what didn’t taste right. Furthermore, the roasters need to understand the same level of sensorial coffee language as I do, so we are inline and calibrated.
In order to enhance our sensorial language, we need to understand the foundation and structure of that language, which is mentioned in chapter 4 to 6. After understanding the structure, we look into descriptors and intensity level, to elaborate our sensory experience. We could explore the examples that I mentioned in the last chapter, or outside of the coffee industry such as wine, tea or even olive oil. Each industry has its own sensory terminology. It is all very useful and some can be applied across industries.
Understanding the context from language and your audience is equally important. Sometimes, even though we speak the same language, we possess different backgrounds and the context is completely different. If an American man asks a British woman to wear a pair of pants to work instead of a skirt, he might find himself in trouble.
Let me give you another scenario: When I travelled to Central America and Africa, I was blown away by how delicious and floral their bananas are. Almost all the bananas I had there were matured on the trees. The bananas that are shipped and imported to the Supermarkets elsewhere are all picked in unriped condition, so it becomes ripe after displaying on the shelf for a few days. The flavour of this type of banana generally has less aroma and sweetness. This means, when a Central American coffee taster describes banana as one of the flavour notes, the coffee taster from the UK might not be able to detect it. Not because he or she has never had a banana before. But the understanding of this banana sensorial experience is completely different. Only when the UK taster tries the banana from Central America or Africa himself / herself would they finally pick up the flavour notes.
Being able to de-construct and analyse my experience of tasting, then describing what I have tasted or smell made me become a better communicator in general. The more we are aware of our experience in any situation, the more sensory awareness we gain. This process of building up sensory awareness was so spiritual for me that makes me taste coffee better and love my life more. I hope you will achieve this after reading this book too.