February 1, 2016

Coffee Synesthesia: A Creative Multisensory Taste Perception


Coffee is a gift for all the senses and, when it comes to sight, we’re talking about more than just latte art. For some people, the very taste of coffee is a painting – and one of these people has been kind enough to share her paintings with us.

Synesthesia: When Senses Mix

We use our senses to perceive the world. With our eyes we can see, with our nose we can smell, and so on. They are usually separate – you open your eyes and you see, you breathe in through your nose and smell, but you don’t usually see with your nose, right?

SEE ALSO: Coffee Cupping: 5 Key Steps to Cupping Mastery

But for some people, the senses can mix. A stimulus in one sense can trigger a reaction in another. This blending of the senses is called synesthesia, and there are different types, depending on the particular input and output senses.

Here’s an example: my friend Henry has mirror-touch synesthesia. He’s able to feel a tactile sensation if he sees it happen to someone else. If Henry watches as I tap our friend Ashley’s shoulder, he will also feel his shoulder being tapped, even though no one has done so.

Victoria brewing coffee

No Fire, No Glory: It’s from this Berlin café that today’s story comes…

Taste-Color Synesthesia: A Whole New Coffee

Another of my friends happens to be a talented barista with a rare gift. When Victoria tastes something, colors appear. She simultaneously sees both the scene at hand and the color-taste of the item. The taste appears as semi-translucent clouds, like a filter through which she sees the world. How does this happen? Essentially, both inputs, eyes and tastebuds, generate images. These then combine in her brain.


But remember, Victoria’s a barista. As she brews (and tastes) coffees all day, she sees these taste-generated colors flowing around her. Can you imagine how dazzling this must be?

Cupping Coffee with Synesthesia: 6 Pictures

I was curious to better understand what Victoria sees, so she agreed to paint some coffees for us. I prepared a few samples following cupping protocol and she tasted them blind.

We brewed one coffee at a time and she painted the colors the coffee generated in her mind. If you follow the paintings from left to right, they are a timeline of her impressions: the initial senses are on the left, with the impression progressing to the right as the coffees cool.

taf coffee

Taf, Sumava de Lourdes, Costa Rica, Ethiopia Caturra

This was the oldest roast. Perhaps you can sense this, especially as it cools on the right?

Machörndl coffee

Machhörndl, Finca El Salvador Red Bourbon Natural, Filter Roast

This is my father’s farm. What’s interesting here is that this coffee above and the next one below are the same beans. Above is the filter roast and below is the more developed espresso roast, allowing you to see how roasting affects which colors pop up.

Machörndl coffee

Machhörndl, Finca El Salvador Red Bourbon Natural, Espresso Roast

I find it curious that, for Victoria, a light roast natural gives off reds, pinks, and pastels – while the same coffee, roasted a bit darker, gives her purples.

I think many of us would associate naturals with the reds and purples, so it leads to the question: where do Victoria’s color combinations come from? Is her brain applying cultural associations to match tastes to colors?

coffee collective coffee

Coffee Collective, Don Nacho Pacas Honey, El Salvador

This year I sourced and dry milled two varieties, one cultivated and one honey processed, by Don Nacho: his Pacas and his Pacamara. His Pacamara won 1st place in the Cup of Excellence for the third time and, in fact, just won the Turkish Barista Competition with Nisan Agca.

Pacamara is, by now, world famous, but what many people don’t know is that this variety was created in a lab in El Salvador through the cross-pollination of different varieties. One of the parents of Pacamara is Pacas (the clue’s in the name). And it was Don Nacho’s Pacas that Victoria painted for us.

Bonanza coffee

Bonanza, Chelchele Ethiopia

The barn coffee

The Barn  Kangunu AA, Kenya

The Barn’s slogan is sweet, juicy, and clean. And it definitely looks like they got that down with this filter roast.

Taste-Color Synesthesia: Does it Have Real-World Benefits?

Victoria’s paintings are stunning. Yet perhaps this different way of seeing the world could give you more than just the ability to create beautiful artwork – especially if you’re a barista.

I can think of several ways synesthesia could help. Maybe the colors would allow a barista to be more consistent. If the color is off, you quickly know your brew is not the best. Or perhaps, somehow, the barista just might have a deeper understanding of a coffee.

In fact, most of us will never be able to understand what it’s like to see artwork every time we have a cup of coffee.

Yet just because we don’t see artwork through coffee, it doesn’t mean that we can’t understand coffee through artwork.

Coffee Paintings: A New Kind of Packaging

Most roasters use words to tell you what you will taste. They’ll choose two or three adjectives for each coffee and put that on the bags. While it might be helpful for some, I don’t really like someone telling me what I’ll taste. I feel it takes away some of the joy of discovering a coffee for myself.

At this year’s London Coffee Festival, I noticed that Assembly was doing something different. They’re a roasting company that wants to communicate a coffee’s taste visually.

assembly coffee

Assembly’s packaging promises a sensory delight

Instead of putting some words on the packaging, they put an original painting. They get together, cup a coffee, and then, working with a painter, their cupping notes are translated onto a canvas. It’s a subtle way to help you decide which coffee you would like to try, without telling you what you’re going to taste. Beautiful, right?

I started collaborating with them last year by supplying them with one of our microlots, Vista Bella Honey. Here’s the painting they made of our coffee:

Vista Bella Honey

Vista Bella Honey – the painting speaks for itself

While I don’t imagine that “notes of red” and “purple mouthfeel” are going to replace “hints of apricot” at cupping events, these pictures give us a whole new way to conceptualise our favorite drink. A beautiful, intuitive, and sensory way.

Perfect Daily Grind