7. Cross-modal correspondences
In this chapter, I am going to explore more about how we can create descriptors from our tasting experiences. Sensory experience is very emotional and personal. How we perceive the world surrounding us can be different from others based on our individual backgrounds. It is a holistic journey from when we first walk into the cafe or when we first have a sip of that delicious coffee.
We may sometimes come across a situation where we forget how to express the flavours we taste in a glass of wine or a cup of coffee. They can seem so familiar yet it can be frustrating because you cannot find the right words to describe them.
Also, we can feel intimidated when tasting wine or coffee in a group with other people and for some reason one of them can articulate all the flavours effortlessly. And all you thought was “actually, it just tastes like coffee to me.” There is no shame in that. I have to confess; I wasn’t good at tasting myself when I first started. I was so shy to tell people what I tasted or experienced because I thought that I might be “wrong”. But here is the thing: there is no right or wrong in sensory! How we grew up and our cultural differences actually play a giant part in how we perceive our day to day experiences.
I remember a few years ago, there was a coffee that truly stood out to me. It was a naturally processed Gesha variety coffee from La Esperanza farm in Colombia. I was in a private tasting group and people were trying to describe the flavour notes. For me, the coffee tasted like fresh lemon and kumquat juice. I felt strongly associated with these flavours because this lemon and kumquat juice is served everywhere in Taiwan and my grandmother has a kumquat tree in her garden. The coffee itself represents Taiwan, my home!!! I was so excited to share my tasting notes with my western fellows. When I shared with them, they looked at me like I was insane because they had no idea what a kumquat was. After comparing the flavour notes with them, I realised that a kumquat in Taiwan is similar to bergamot, more commonly found in Europe. This was a real experience in cultural differences that I now consider every time when I share flavour notes.
If you are very new to the whole concept of coffee tasting, it can be hard to detect any differences in the coffees until you start to pay more attention to the tasting or train for it. Furthermore, understanding the sensorial language will also help you in communicating your experience better. Imagine me speaking Mandarin in Korea. There would be no way for me to communicate with anyone at all. You get the idea! To be better in tasting coffee or any other products, there is only one direction: keep practising, understand the language and don’t be scared of making mistakes because there aren’t any!
I would like to introduce you to a terminology called cross-modal correspondence. It is a newly discovered term from cognitive neuroscience in 2000.
Our senses can be cross-referenced when we use other senses. It means that one or more sensory experiences of ours can be triggered when there is an actual or imagined sensory stimulation. For example, when we hear the word “Granny Smith” or see a Granny Smith, we immediately associate it with the colour green or a sour taste in our mouth.
Cross-modal correspondence is very different from synaesthesia. This is because synaesthesia is automatic and involuntarily connected to the sensory experience. Whereas the association for cross-modal correspondence is more culturally universal. It is mostly built on our cognitive experiences from the past. Cross-modal correspondence actually helps to increase my own communications. Not just with coffee professionals but other tasting professionals as well as friends outside of these industries.
When you smell grass what colour do you perceive in your mind? Colour could be the most associable modal we come across in tasting. Kenyan coffee is famously associated with citrus and blackberry notes. Most of the time when I taste Kenyan coffee, I see the colour orange or sometimes a pinkish-orange to yellow, which can correspond with peach and other citrus flavour notes. When tasting an under-roasted coffee, I come across a green colour or hay-like pale yellow colour. In contrast, over-roasted coffee tends to present a darker brown or even grey and black.
The chocolate expert Hazel Lee created “Tasted With Colour '' to help people identify flavour notes with colour when tasting chocolate. https://tastewithcolour.com/
The relationship between the following descriptors of “round”, “flat”, “pointy” and “spiky” is shape. It is something that we can detect but we rarely really pay attention to. When tasting lemon, the acidity can be really pointy and sharp. However, when biting grapefruit, the acidity might be slightly pointy at first, round in the middle then flat in the aftertaste because of the bitterness.
Note that it is not just acidity that can be described in shape but aftertaste and mouthfeel as well. Words such as rounded, structured, edgy, flat, thin, wavy, pokey and flabby. Shape is mostly associated with sense of touch.
The photo below is from a sensory workshop that I carried out in Taiwan. The attendees all received the same red wine and white wine and moulded the playdough based on the “shape” of the wine they tasted. The red playdough was for red wine and white playdough for white wine. You can see that there were many similarities between the same colours:
Red Playdough: Rounded, structured, wavy, pointy, spiky.
White Playdough: Rounded, wavy, flat, sparkling.
TREND LINE OR SOUND WAVE
I once had a conversation with a wine professional. He told me that he perceived wine as a sound wave. I strongly associate with this concept. Musicians rely on their sense of hearing, which is understandable to express the compositions in tasting.
Trends lines or sound waves are mostly associated with the journey of the gastronomic experience of the acidity, body and aftertaste. There is no specific order in which attributes should start first.
For example, below is a description of a coffee in the form of a trend line or soundwave as depicted underneath:
At first, the mouthfeel is flat and bland. When it reaches the middle of the journey, the acidity spikes and the mouthfeel sensation increase. However, the end of the journey crashes and the aftertaste falls apart. The chart below might helps you to structuralise this tasting experience:
“Texture” in coffee tasting can be perceived as body, mouthfeel or weight on the tongue. All could be described as the sensation of touch. Try to explore the world with your hands and skin. For example, feel the rough and gritty texture of tree bark or a concrete wall. Or compare cotton with silk and velvet.
Some examples for descriptors for texture include leathery, silky, rough, coarse, grippy, rigid, pointy, velvety and, round. You may notice that the descriptors of texture and shapes are crossover with each other.
How do you perceive below texture that relates to your tasting experiences?
I sometimes describe my tasting experiences by personality. Surprisingly, most people understand what I try to express since it is universally understood.
Let’s compare lemon juice and apple juice and their “personalities” below. Do you agree with these associations?
An Austrian winemaker Gut Oggau packages wine with images of the family members on the label. How will you perceive the below wine when you see the image? It is a bottle of white wine. My tasting experience was: medium crisp acidity, transparent and sparkling mouthfeel. The flavour notes I tasted were apple and some elderflower. Do you think that my descriptors connect with the image on the label?
ENVIRONMENTAL EXPRESSION AND STORYTELLING
Here is a tasting description of a type of Cognac from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society:
“Our journey began in the high mountain meadows dotted with delicate flowers releasing a musk perfume aroma into the air that mingled with linseed oil and fine oak sawdust left over from wood cutting. Descending the air became warmer and we found ourselves firstly amongst bushes of blackcurrants and geraniums and then taylor’s gold pear trees, kumquats, lemon trees and finally pink grapefruit. The air was hot now and carried a spiciness of nutmeg, cinnamon and muscovado sugar. We quenched our thirsts with some fizzy apple juice as we passed a rum agricole distillery to find ourselves now on a dry and dusty plain.”
How poetic is that?! This description of this Cognac involves the sense of smell, touch, taste and sight in order to create the novelty associated with the consumers. Tasting is emotional. It can take us to places that we have never been to.
As I mentioned earlier, due to our differences in age, background, education, culture, family, and so on, we all perceive things in many different ways. This means that we won’t perceive everything the same way when we discuss the above modalities. However, we share the ability to express ourselves through crossing senses. This is already a great baseline to start moving forward. Most of the experiences will include a mixture of different modalities. It is in you to find the best way to express and communicate what you experience with others. The majority of the modalities I mentioned were merely through my own personal experience. I believe that there is so much more out there (such as weather, seasonality...etc.) and I am looking forward to hearing about your discoveries! Once again, there are really no rules in sensory. You are your own boss. Do cross-modal correspondences make “sense” to you?!