Why Does Coffee Smell So Good (Even If You Hate Drinking It)?

Here’s a guess I’ll hazard about you: you really like the smell of freshly-ground coffee beans.

Weirdly, this also applies to many of you who absolutely hate coffee. I’m not one of them – and as an ardent lover of both coffee and coffee shops, I’d always urge you to experiment with both to see if you can find a combination that suits you. (For example, here’s a look at the delicious range of ways Italy will serve you coffee.) 

But if you can’t stand the stuff, you’re not alone. 16th Century European clergy were initially so alarmed about the effects of it that they nicknamed it “the Satanic drink” and tried to push for its banishment from Church property – until Pope Clement VIII tried it, liked it and baptized it (quipping “Why, this Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.”). 

But it still remained so dangerously radical and alarming to the general public that a century later, the composer Bach had to reassure his fans with the following line: “If I couldn’t three times a day, be allowed to drink my little cup of coffee, in my anguish, I will turn into a shriveled-up roast goat.”

So, don’t feel bad. There’s a long and rich tradition of loathing the taste of coffee. I don’t quite understand this, but I certainly respect it. 

Coffee? Italy comes to mind first
Coffee? Italy comes to mind first

But even if you’re a coffee-avoider, there’s still an excellent chance you either don’t mind, or genuinely love, the smell of just-ground coffee beans. Take my friend Eva, a travel writer living in Italy:

“I wanted so much to like coffee – it’s what grownups drank, and I couldn’t wait to be grown up. And it smelled so good – rich and earthy. Imagine my disappointment when, at 16, I had my first sip. Disgusting! I tried it a few more times in college when I pulled all-nighters, but each time the effect was the same. It didn’t matter what I put in it – it always tasted horrible. I’ve always found that if someone looks and smells good, it will most likely taste good, too – that’s how I got talked into eating organ meats when I lived in Japan, and I love organ meats. But I don’t find this to be the case with coffee – at all.

How can something that smells so wonderful be so disgusting? It must be a trap!

Every now and then I’ll mention that I hate coffee and someone will inevitably say, “Even Italian coffee?” Yes, all coffee is hideous to me. And I’m okay with that.”

But – how is this possible? Aren’t the smell of coffee and the taste of it basically the same thing? 

First, a few basics. As Candace Rose Rardon notes in her book Stuff Every Coffee Lover Should Know, coffee “beans” come from inside the fruits of the coffee plant (they look like tiny cherries). Prise one open and you’ll find what looks like coffee beans, except sporting a rather off-putting shade of bilious green-yellow.

This means they’re actually seeds. Or they’re fruit! Take your pick, either is fine. But they’re not beans, even though everyone calls them as such, and there’s no way round that now and I’m not going to tell you to fight it. That battle is over.

Coffee beans with a resemble appearance to cherries
Coffee beans with a resemble appearance to cherries

The second surprisingly useful thing I learned from Candace’s book is that coffee is actually bread. Or rather, it should be treated like bread. And this relates to a nasty trick that has been played on us by supermarkets for decades.

You know that incredible fresh-bread scent in the bakery section of big stores? That’s great physical marketing at work, because it never fails to reel you in – and yet it’s also exactly how your kitchen shouldn’t smell. At home, it’d be a sign your bread is losing all its volatile compounds and going stale a lot faster than it would if you sealed it away properly.

Coffee’s the same. Sure, that ground coffee smells fantastic right now – but that means it’ll taste worse when you brew it up. Potentially a lot worse. You’re smelling the flavour in your next cup leaching into the air, as volatile chemicals in the coffee oxidize and dissipate.

(Candace notes the Middle English root of the word “volatile” is “a creature that flies.” Says it all.)

So: once ground, treat coffee like a fresh loaf of bread. Three days of shelf-life is pretty good, same day if you can manage it. No matter what pre-ground bags promise (“all the flavour trapped within” and so on), once those beans get ground, the taste begins to topple off a cliff. As much as 60% of the most flavourful volatiles float away within just 15 minutes of grinding. The upshot here: grind your own beans, or resign yourself to a relatively flavourless cup of coffee every time.

Grinding coffee beans before brewing keeps the flavour
Grinding coffee beans before brewing keeps the flavour

Now for that strange difference between how we enjoy the smell and the taste of coffee – and to demonstrate the science, an experiment for you to run. 

What’s the tastiest thing in your house right now? Go get a bit of it. (Chocolate works a treat for this.) Now – pinch your entire nose closed, front to back, the entire fleshy part of it including both nostrils, right back to where you feel the bone begin. Bingo! Your dose is dow incabable of sbellig adythig.

Now put that tasty thing in your mouth. Let it dissolve on your tongue. Bat it around a bit. Give it a chew.

There shouldn’t be much flavour (which is weird) but you’ll be getting something else that contributes to what we call “taste.” We don’t think about this often enough, but – why do we describe a taste as ‘silky smooth’ or ‘creamy’? They’re textures, right? And yet we include them in our everyday act of tasting stuff.

Now let go of your nose. POW! Immediately that flavour is back.

We tend to think of taste as a thing made solely in the mouth, but a lot is engineered in the back of the nose – more specifically, in olfactory receptors, special cells that send messages to the brain. Pinch your nose shut and you discover how important they are in tasting anything.

Your nose enhances the coffee-drinking experience
Your nose enhances the coffee-drinking experience

Now this gets weird.

It’s 2012, and at the British Science Festival in Aberdeen, Professor Barry Smith is speaking to his audience. As the founding director of the University of London’s Centre For The Study Of The Senses, he’s there to talk about taste – more specifically, how absurdly complicated it is:

“What we call taste is in fact the result of inputs from touch, taste and smell that combine into a single unified experience that we either like or dislike. The effects of one sense on another go unnoticed in our experience and yet finding out about these interactions is telling us more and more about how our senses combine information.”

That’s “like or dislike” as an immediate reaction. Our mouths are biologically wired to respond negatively to some tastes – in particular bitterness, which is often associated with poisons, toxins and other harmful stuff.

This is why your first taste of anything bitter (say, beer) is a hearty BLEARGH. You just can’t help yourself. To appreciate its “adult” flavours, you need to teach your palate to overcome this reaction, by way of tasting this “bad” thing again and again until its more rewarding side makes an appearance..

But then Smith explains this picture is even more confused by how those receptors in our noses actually work. When you’re smelling something, you’re wafting airborne chemicals over them in one direction: up your nose and into your face. Yet when you’re tasting that same thing, you’re wafting those same chemicals out of your nose (because when you eat, you breathe out a little bit) over those exact same nasoreceptors. And for whatever reason, they work differently in this direction.

The message they send to your brain from a sniff is different to the one they send as you breathe out – even though the airborne chemicals triggering them are exactly the same.

Who can say not to have a cup of coffee in Italy
Who can say not to have a cup of coffee in Italy

You can test this for yourself, as I’ve been doing this week to the point of hyperventilation and sparkly vision. Get something that smells nice, pinch your nose, breathe in the smell through your mouth, close your mouth, let go of your nose and breathe it out. It’s a subtle difference, for sure – but when it’s part of what we call “taste” (which is really made of Actual Taste + Mouthfeel + Smell), there’s a big impact.

According to Professor Smith, almost every ingestible substance is like this. There’s always that difference, and for some people, it’s a difference they never learn (ie. force themselves) to overcome. It’s also presumably why things that smell…aggressively pungent, like durian and century egg, can actually be pretty tasty – and why we Westerners can stomach eating cheeses that pong like 6-month-old dirty laundry.

Weirdly, only two things have been found to taste exactly the same way they smell: chocolate (hooray!) and lavender (erm, ok – although I gather it’s pretty good in pound cake).

So, in summary:

No, smell-loving coffee-haters, you’re not deranged. In fact, your senses may even be more sensitive and refined than everyone else’s! 

Yes, coffee tastes considerably worse than fresh grounds smell – where “worse” is defined by “the proportion of the aromatic chemicals originally in the just-roasted coffee bean”.

– No matter how you feel about the drink, coffee shops are wonderful things, and everywhere you go in the world, you should seek them out for their good vibes, their joyful atmosphere, and above all, that smell that just about everyone loves. Go to it, travellers.

Come hunt for your dream Italian coffee shop with Wheel and Anchor’s 16-day trip through the enchanting landscapes of Southern Italy in April of next year. More details here.

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