Panther Coffee Invites You to Explore the Neuroscience of Flavor

If you’re convinced you drink bitter coffee — or like hoppy beer — because you enjoy the taste, new research could prove you wrong.

The latest studies by neuroscientists show us how the combination of all our senses — gustatory, olfactory, vision, and audition — give rise to our flavor experiences.

According to Leticia Pollock, cofounder of Miami's Panther Coffee, these studies are increasingly relevant to the specialty coffee market. She doesn't want to just taste coffee — she wants to understand more about how we experience each roast's complex array of flavors.

Coffee is data rich, bursting with sensory information our sense of taste alone can't process. Extremely complex both chemically and physically, each green bean contains up to 500 aromatic and flavor components. Roasting increases that count as much as three times, the heat creating entirely new components while also intensifying the elements present prior to roasting. Length and temperature of the roast ultimately determine the bean's flavor potential. In comparison, wine — considered among the most complex and nuanced beverages — has 300 to 400 components.

"So much of how we experience coffee involves more than just our sense of taste," Pollock says. "I've been working with coffee and serving it almost my entire life. Now, I'm looking to see what is next. What is new that I can learn and teach others?"

To answer that question, Pollock sought the help of Dr. Fabiana Carvalho, a Brazilian neuroscientist. Currently working as a researcher at Brazil's University of Campinas, Carvalho is exploring how the influence of extrinsic factors — including ambiance — changes our expectation and perception of flavor in specialty coffee. The research project has been conducted under the supervision of professor Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at the University of Oxford in England.

Pollock decided to partner with Florida International University to bring Carvalho to Miami. Together, they're hosting a seminar dubbed "Sensory Perception of Coffee: Theory and Practice" in July at FIU's Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management.

The day-long class, which will be offered three times July 6-8, will comprise a small group of no more than 30 people. A morning lecture will introduce the main scientific concepts on flavor perception, the latest research findings on the topic, and how it relates to the way you drink coffee. In the afternoon, a practical workshop will offer a series of hands-on learning exercises. Several methods will be used to identify primary tastes, the main organic acids in coffee, mouthfeel, and metallic flavors, and will also offer a comparative sensory description of three coffee samples. The same seminar will be offered three times, with attendees given a choice of days upon ticketing.

Although the upcoming classes will use coffee as the vehicle for explaining Carvalho's studies, Pollock says the application of the classes can apply to a wide range of hospitality professionals.

"One of the hardest parts of training a new barista is communicating flavor, but this isn't just for the Panther family. Other tasters from our community can benefit from her instruction too," Pollock says. "This class is invaluable to coffee professionals and coffee lovers, but also foodies, chefs, bartenders, brewers — anyone in the food and beverage profession too."

Sensory Perception of Coffee: Theory and Practice. 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Attendees have a choice of dates: Saturday, July 6; Sunday, July 7; and Monday, July 8; at the Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management at Florida International University Biscayne Bay Campus, 3000 NE 151st St., North Miami; 305-919-4500; Tickets cost $250 via
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Nicole Danna is a Palm Beach County-based reporter who began covering the South Florida food scene for New Times in 2011. She also loves drinking beer and writing about the area's growing craft beer community.
Contact: Nicole Danna