When talking about flavours in coffee, acidity, sweetness, and bitterness are all commonly discussed characteristics. However, in more recent years, coffee professionals have started to talk more and more about umami.
Umami is a Japanese word that is often used to describe savoury flavours in food. It is commonly associated with meats and broths, fish, shellfish, cheeses, soy, and some mushrooms. It is considered by many to be a “fifth taste” alongside sweet, salty, sour, and bitter – but it can be more complex than that.
However, as far as coffee is concerned, which umami flavour notes can we expect? How do we look for these? And should they be considered desirable? I spoke with two coffee professionals to find out more. Read on to find out what they told me.
You may also like our article on koji fermented coffee.
What is umami?
It’s widely believed that Dr. Kikunae Ikeda was the first person to describe umami as a concept in 1908. It’s said that Dr. Ikeda was eating a bowl of tofu hot pot when he noticed a distinct taste in the kombu dashi (kelp broth) which was not salty, sour, bitter, or sweet, but another flavour altogether.
After carrying out some research in Germany, he discovered that the umami flavour is a result of free glutamate, which is a salt derived from glutamic acid (an amino acid). Our taste receptors respond to glutamate in a similar way to two nucleotides also found in meats, cheeses, and vegetables: inosinate and guanylate.
When these nucleotides are combined with glutamate, they give food a strong umami flavour – around 15 times more than when consumed on their own.
There is no direct English translation for “umami”, but today, the term is used by many around the world to refer to savouriness and similar flavours in food. Dr. Ikeda created the term by combining the Japanese words umai (うまい, which means delicious) and mi (味, which means taste).
Foods with a strong umami taste include meats and broths, mushrooms, seaweed, some tomatoes, cheeses (especially those which have been aged), fish and fish extract, shellfish, and fermented foods such as miso and kimchi. Umami can also be used to describe mouthfeel, such as aftertaste, coating of the tongue, and “roundness”.
Although the concept of umami is becoming increasingly prominent around the world, it is most prominently discussed in Japanese cuisine. But in Japan, umami is not used exclusively to describe savoury foods or those which contain free glutamate.
In fact, the concept of umami as a fifth core taste is more prominent in Western cuisine than Japanese. The alternate spelling 旨味 (which is pronounced as “umami”) is generally used to express that food tastes good.
Another term, kokumi (甘み), is used in Japan to describe balanced and full-bodied textures in food, but it can be difficult to explain the sensation to others who haven’t experienced it.
Can coffee have umami flavours?
So, what about umami flavours in coffee?
There are some glutamates in all foods, including coffee. However, if we describe a flavour in coffee as umami, it is unlikely that these flavours are a result of free glutamates. This is because there are so few of them present in green coffee that any similar flavours we can taste are likely not caused by them.
Dr. Fabiana Carvalho is a neuroscientist and the founder of The Coffee Sensorium project. She explains to me how we might experience umami in coffee.
“It is more of a gustatory illusion,” she explains. “Our taste receptors cannot identify low levels of umami molecules in coffee, but we can perceive umami-related flavours through retronasal smell.
“Regarding the perception of umami flavours, we’re talking about flavour notes. That may probably be how we taste umami in coffee,” she adds.
She explains this further by citing some similar research carried out in 2020. Scientists at the University of California, Davis published a report which concluded that the quantity of sweet-tasting molecules in coffee are actually not high enough for our tongue receptors to identify them.
In their findings, the researchers explained that if you hold your nose while you drink coffee, you will only be able to taste bitterness and acidity. However, when you are also able to smell the coffee, you will be able to experience the flavours as well.
“Sweetness is present in the coffee, but there aren’t enough of these molecules to stimulate your receptors to make you actually taste the sweet flavours,” Fabiana says. “Flavour sensations must have aromas. When you block your nose, the sweetness will go away.
“However, sourness and bitterness will not subside because they are a result of high levels of certain molecules, so we can perceive them more,” she adds.
Are umami flavours desirable in coffee?
Irrespective of how we experience them, if umami flavours are mostly associated with meats, cheeses, vegetables, and fermented foods, can we consider them desirable in coffee?
Takahito Koyanagi is a roaster and the 2016 New Zealand Cup Tasters Champion. He explains that while some coffees can have umami qualities like complexity, depth of flavour, and balance, he often finds that these characteristics are more similar to the concept of kokumi than umami.
This is because he doesn’t believe the salty, meaty, and broth-like umami flavours are the most suitable descriptors for coffee.
Takahito says that he found these kokumi qualities especially prominent when drinking a flat white made with buffalo milk. “It had a very rich flavour and thick texture that I would associate with kokumi,” he adds.
However, he tells me that some umami characteristics in coffee (mainly salty and meaty flavours) can often be as a result of a defect during roasting when the beans are “baked”.
During roasting, the temperature of the beans continues to rise between first crack and the point at which the beans are transferred into the cooling tray. If the temperature remains stable for a prolonged period of time, and the total roast time is extended, the beans can be “baked”.
“If you bake coffee, it can result in meaty, salty, and savoury flavours,” Takahito tells me. “Since acidity is usually burned during this process, baked coffee can often taste very flat.”
Understanding the language of umami
Language plays an important role in taste perception and recognition. While salty, sweet, sour, and bitter characteristics have been used for centuries around the world to describe food, umami is a relatively new word – especially in Western cultures.
It took around 100 years for Western countries to recognise the concept of umami in food, but as it emerged, it largely became synonymous with monosodium glutamate (MSG) for a time. MSG still has something of a negative reputation because of health concerns, but many of the claims regarding the additive have been largely unsubstantiated.
Nonetheless, continued cultural differences around the concept of what umami is makes it difficult to identify it as a flavour in coffee.
“Westerners can perceive umami because they have umami receptors, but Asian cultures have a specific word for umami, so they learn what it is at a younger age,” Fabiana says. “If we have a word for something, that makes it easier to identify.”
For instance, she explains that during a virtual robusta cupping hosted by The Coffee Sensorium, some participants from Asia found it difficult to identify salty flavours, but could easily describe the umami characteristics.
Fabiana believes that in order for the global coffee industry to identify more umami flavours in coffee, there should be specific flavour wheels for species such as robusta and liberica. These coffee species generally have more earthy and spicy notes, which are more commonly associated with umami qualities.
What’s more, with the increasing use of fermentation in coffee processing, coffee consumers around the world are steadily becoming more familiar with fermented flavours in coffee (which often exhibit more umami characteristics).
Although coffee can have flavour notes which we associate with umami, the low levels of glutamate in green coffee means that we don’t actually taste umami in coffee. Instead, we can perceive some savoury notes and experience a balanced mouthfeel – which are traditionally associated with the flavour.
While more research on the sensory experience of umami in coffee is certainly necessary, we could well see flavours associated with umami become more commonplace in the years ahead, especially in the specialty coffee industry.
Ultimately, we should also try to account for cultural and linguistic differences, especially when cupping coffee. This will help to ensure that roasters, baristas, buyers, and consumers all experience the same flavours.
Enjoyed this? Then try our article on how microorganisms affect fermentation & the sensory profile of coffee.
Photo credits: Rachel Keen
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