The Sensuality of Great Coffee

It is no surprise that people love to drink coffee. The café experience touches all of the five senses, deeply.


We are attracted to beautiful things, and coffee is no exception. A great café encounter begins with an opening glance. Upon entering a shop, our eyes inform us of the quality of the coffee that is to come.

Seated at a corner table, we observe the café surrounding us. A skilled barista works efficiently behind the bar, her hands moving deftly between machine, milk and cup. She gently sways the milk pitcher as she pours its contents into the espresso, casting delicate sepia-toned rosettes on the surface of a latte. Velvety foam rests on top of a cappuccino, blanketing the drink like a down comforter on a cold winter morning. The thick, brown crema on the surface of an espresso glistens with the flavor oils trapped inside it.

On the pour-over bar, steady-handed baristas pour delicate, even streams of water in smooth spiral patterns, coaxing out the complex flavors contained in the mahogany-colored grounds. At one end of the bar, a vacuum pot sits on top of the counter, a throwback to an earlier time in this modern setting. Brought to life by a brilliant orange infrared lamp, tiny bubbles cling to the side of the pot as the water heats up, glowing in the neon light. When the temperature breaks the boiling point, the pot transforms into a cauldron of angry lava, bubbling and bursting on the surface.  The vacuum pot mesmerizes all who gaze upon it and curious customers cannot help but stare in awe.   


Coffee has a bouquet of fragrances that attract people to it, and a good café delights your olfactory senses with the smell of freshly-ground coffee. The aroma is sweet and fruity, smoky and earthy. When the barista grinds a new batch of beans for the brewer, a wave of aroma washes out across the café. The smell envelopes you, enticing your taste buds in anticipation of the first sip of a freshly-brewed cup.


Beans rasp loudly as they fall from brown paper bags into the grinders’ hoppers. The grinder whirrs aggressively, growling out the fresh coffee into the basket below it. A loud thud reverberates through the café as the barista knocks spent espresso out of the portafilter Steam bursts out of the wand into the milk with a thump, then hisses and whooshes as it whips the milk into a cloud of frenzied bubbles.

Nearby, a miniature metal spoon scrapes the side of a ceramic cup, clinking softly as it mixes sugar into espresso. In some cafés, the din of a bulky black roaster dominates, and customers must raise their voices to be heard by the people across the table from them. Lovers longing to whisper secrets or engage in quiet conversation content themselves to communicate with their eyes and expressions. Coffee beans pop and crackle as they flow out of the roaster’s drum, each bean still burning inside. They calm quickly, as fresh air pulled by powerful fans is drawn across them.


Your hands gently cradle a cup that is too hot to hold securely. The crema of an expertly-poured shot of espresso is silky smooth, lightly coating your mouth with a delicate film of flavor that keeps the memory of the coffee on the tip of your tongue. When you lift a cappuccino to your mouth, your lips note the warm smoothness of the ceramic mug, followed by the billowy softness of the milk. It is like burying your face in the soft, warm crook of a lover’s neck. The flavors of a full-bodied French press coffee swell inside the mouth, continuing to expand even after the coffee has long since disappeared.


The climax of the coffee experience is the moment when the coffee finally reaches your mouth. Single-origin coffees can be refreshingly simple, with notes of stone fruits or berries or citrus. Blends are more complex, defined by the regions from which they came. Certain coffees are earthy, like the leaves that cover the ground in the fall. Other coffees are chocolaty and luscious. Some remind you of nothing more than coffee, but the flavor brings back something from your past, perhaps time spent with an old friend. Great coffee, whether it is brewed, poured or combined with milk delights the taste buds, sends them into ecstasy.

Sensory and sensual—both words describe the ideal café experience. Coffee satisfies the craving that began when you walked into the café, or perhaps when you rolled out of bed with coffee on your mind. It stimulates your senses and sometimes, even your soul.

Fleeting flavors of the fall

When it comes to coffee, one of the best ways to train your taster is to drink different coffees side-by-side or in rapid succession. Today, I did just that at Coffeehouse Northwest. I tried two different espressos (the famous “flight” that I have mentioned in the past) within a couple minutes of each other.

The first was a single-origin espresso from Yemen. The enthusiastic barista described it as being full of fall fruits—dates, apricots, pears, etc. My initial impression was that it was a bit earthy (one of my favorite ways to describe “earthiness” is that it is like “leaves in the fall,” especially at this time of year. Imagine the aroma of the leaves as they fall from the trees). The coffee was slightly sweet with a thick, full crema that was just a touch “rough” (the foam had a coarser texture than some cremas do). It had a pleasant aftertaste that lingered. The espresso was excellent.

The second espresso, from Nicaragua, was a very different experience. It had a sweet aroma, and if you tried it, you might get the impression that someone had slipped some raspberries into the cup before filling it with coffee. It had twice the tartness of the first one, tingling more on the tongue and then finishing more cleanly.

When you taste two different coffees in this manner, in addition to improving your ability to detect the differences between the origins, it also helps you understand what you like and what you don’t like. In this case, the second shot was good, but the first one was special. I will keep my eyes open for Yemeni coffee in the future.

Whether you spread a flight out over a couple hours to avoid a big caffeine hit, or drink the coffees one after another to closely compare them, you can build your coffee knowledge and appreciation by taking advantage of one of the better deals in Portland ($4/two shots). It is an affordable approach to improving your coffee conversation capabilities.

[Side note: Autumn has arrived, and with it, apparently, a lot of alliteration.]

Poetry, a picture and some links

It’s April 1st, but where’s the rain?
Does this mean spring has come again?
You see the sun, but dare not blink
It might be gone before you think


Today on this, the day of fools
Hopefully you broke some rules
Now set aside your long-week blues
Sit back and read some coffee news


The sun is fighting valiantly against the clouds

Good news for coffee drinkers in the Windy City! Stumptown is planning to open another roastery this year, in Chicago. It will be the company’s fourth city with a roastery, after Portland, Seattle and New York. Will Intelligentsia reciprocate in Portland? We'll see. link

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