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How to Become a Better Coffee Taster, Part 2: Train Your Nose

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[Photo: Robyn Lee]

Recently, we talked a little about how to become a better coffee taster—which, admittedly, can be a somewhat daunting task. One of the hardest parts about it, though, doesn't even happen in your mouth. In order to taste better, you've got to smell better. (And we don't mean dousing yourself with cologne.)

Here, a little about how you can whip your schnoz into place.

Training your tongue to start recognizing complex flavors is bad enough, but how does anyone begin to parse the millions of smells that float around us 24 hours a day? At least your tongue gets a break sometimes: Your nose is always on.

One key is to start to smelling with purpose. It's impossible to escape the myriad scents that bombard us every minute (for example, that unforgivable stench in certain subway stations), but it is possible to seek out and let your nose experience isolated aromas. Much like the wine industry's nasal teachers' aid, Le Nez du Vin, coffee people have developed our own bouquet key: Le Nez du Cafe.

The kit, which comes with as few as 6 or as many as 36 individual vials of essential scents, allows a sniffer to go down the line and blindly try to recognize aromas in different categories, from florals to spices, meat to vegetables, and roasted nuts to rubber. Pick up a vial at random and open its top, without checking the kit's booklet first: Can you guess what it is off the bat? Start by attempting to correctly identify two out of three; when you accomplish that, move on to five out of seven.

Don't want to drop a chunk of change on a professional smeller's box? (Can't say that I blame you.) No matter—you can easily make your own by putting different aromatic items into masked jars with holes punched in their lids.

Start with something easy and accessible: Pour about a tablespoon of several different herbs or spices into a collection of jars, and label the bottom with the contents of each. Mix up the samples and sniff down the line, keeping a record of what you think each one is. Were you able to tell the rosemary from the thyme? Cinnamon from cumin or coriander? Once you master that, try different roasted nuts, or chocolates with varying degrees of darkness.

Can your nostrils recognize the subtle differences in each? If so, your tongue is bound to start following suit. Just keep practicing...

What other ways can you give your nose a workout?

About the author: Erin Meister trains baristas and inspires coffee-driven people for Counter Culture Coffee. She's a confident barista and an audacious eater, but she remains a Nervous Cook.

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