• Freda

4. About the Five Basic Tastes

Updated: Jun 29, 2020

In order to understand the entire tasting experience happening in your mouth, it is best to start with the basic tastes that we can identify on our tongue. We can then use this knowledge to apply to the physiological side of tasting, which will be elaborated upon more in the next chapter.

As humans, we can identify the five tastes of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami through our tongues. With thousands of years of evolution, we taste these basic tastes for a reason: 


We as humans crave sweetness. It is a way for us to detect carbohydrates or energy to keep our body functioning. The sweetness from coffee mainly comes from the sugars in the coffee fruits and the Maillard reaction with the sugar in the green coffee bean from roasting.


Our aversion to intense sourness can prevent us from eating rotten food or unripe fruit and harm our tissue with acids. When tasting acidic food our tongue salivates. This is because our saliva secretes bicarbonate, one of the buffering agents to reduce acidity.


The reason we consume salt is to ensure that we have enough intake for sodium and to balance fluid in our body. It is very different from the taste of sweet or sour. Salt enhances the flavour of the food, not just the saltiness.


I put umami next to salty because they can be perceived as similar, but in fact, they are drastically different. Umami provides the savoury taste. It is rich in protein.  To identify umami from saltiness, think about a bowl of pasta and adding just salty versus cheese. The salt offers a straight forward saltiness to the pasta with the right amount. If you add too much, it might become unbearable to eat. However, if you add cheese in the pasta, it will not just provide a saltiness but also make it taste more savoury and balanced. That savouriness is umami. 


We can detect bitterness at a really low intensity compared with the other tastes. This is because we innately perceive bitterness as danger or poison because it could harm or even kill us. 

Experience the different tastes

Many people might confuse bitterness with acidity. The best way is to focus on identifying the different tastes from each other.  You can taste and compare different foods side by side which dominate in the different tastes.

For example: 

If you feel adventurous enough, here are the 5 taste solution recipes commonly used in the coffee industry (and other industries) to differentiate between the basic tastes and train our palates.

I highly recommend to blind taste above solutions with colleagues and friends. This is a very good way to calibrate together.  

  1. Prepare all five taste compounds and mix with water following by the ratio above.

  2. Give each solution a code. Either in number or letters is fine (1-5 or A-E.) Then write done which code is for which solution. 

  3. Pour the solution into glasses with matching codes. 

  4. Conduct tasting in order and write down which taste is it?

  5. Reveal the answer.

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© 2017 by Freda Yuan