February 20, 2023

Does coffee taste different as you get older?


There are many variables which influence how we perceive flavours in coffee, including brew temperature, water quality, and even altitude

However, we also know that you need a well-developed palate to pick out more nuanced tasting notes. But in order to develop your palate, you need to drink a range of coffees – including different origins, varieties, and processing methods.

One of the most common situations where industry professionals taste and evaluate coffees is at cuppings. However, when it comes to tasting and scoring coffees, we often overlook the influence of age.

There is clear evidence that as we age, our senses of smell and taste begin to temporarily (or even permanently) change – which undoubtedly influences how we perceive coffee flavour.

So, this leads us to an important question: should we account for age differences when cupping and scoring coffee?

To find out, I spoke with Gary Au, co-founder of Urban Coffee Roasters in Hong Kong, and Nick Castellano, Product Marketing Specialist at Cropster. Read on for more of their insight.

You may also like our beginner’s guide to cupping coffee & improving your palate.

Gary Au conducts a coffee cupping session.

Do our palates change with age?

It’s an inevitable fact that as we age, our senses start to deteriorate – albeit at different rates depending on a number of factors. These can include existing health conditions and access to medical care, for example.

Most people tend to think of losing hearing and sight when discussing ageing, but research has shown that we also lose our senses of smell and taste, too.

For instance, a 2006 study found that our senses of smell and taste begin to decline around the age of 60. Moreover, by the age 70, there is a “severe” loss of both senses – meaning our ability to distinguish between flavours diminishes, including for coffee.

This is largely a result of a decline in the number of olfactory receptors in the nasal cavity, which we use to recognise aroma – which also plays a key role in perceiving flavour. As well as this, there is also a decline in the rate of the regeneration of receptor cells as we age, so our senses of smell and taste eventually become less sharp.

Conversely, childrens’ senses of smell and taste are highly sensitive – especially to sweet and salty flavours. A 2005 study from the Monell Chemical Senses Centre found that newborn babies could detect sweeter flavours, and would often prefer them over non-sweet flavours. 

Evidence shows, however, that somewhere between adolescence and adulthood, our palates begin to develop more. This is largely a result of trying different foods and cuisines, which exposes us to a wider variety of flavours and textures. In turn, we become more accustomed to the five taste elements: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami.

Brewing coffee using a Hario V60.

What about unconventional flavour notes?

In simple terms, there are five main aspects of a coffee’s sensory profile: acidity, sweetness, bitterness, body, and aftertaste. But alongside these aspects, we also discuss specific tasting notes.

Many industry professionals use the Specialty Coffee Association’s Flavor Wheel to identify specific characteristics and flavours in coffee. There is certainly criticism of the Flavour Wheel – mostly because it is geared more towards European and North American palates than those in producing countries.

The wheel was first published in 1995, and has since been reworked to include a more diverse vocabulary of 110 flavour, texture, and aroma characteristics. For instance, the “fruity” category alone includes four subcategories, which all contain at least another two subcategories – including raisin, cherry, coconut, and lemon, to name a few.

For the most part, notes of chocolate, caramel, nuts, and fruit are fairly common to find on coffee packaging. However, in recent years, it’s been impossible to ignore the rising number of specialty roasters who use more unconventional flavour notes.

Why are flavour notes becoming more distinctive?

In many specialty coffee shops around the world, it’s not uncommon to see more niche and interesting flavour notes. For example, some of the 2021 World Barista Championship finalists used “cake batter”, “melted chocolate ice cream”, and “banana custard” to describe the flavours in their coffee.

While Gary thinks this is largely a result of using more unique coffee species and varieties, as well as more experimental processing techniques, Nick says he believes it’s also the influence of younger generations.

“Generally speaking, I think younger people are more inclined to try [these types of coffees] – such as the ‘new’ or ‘crazy’ fermented coffees which have unique and interesting flavours,” he says. “In my opinion, it also helps people who are new to specialty coffee to engage with it more.”

Gary agrees, saying: “In my experience, people who are new to specialty coffee tend to prefer the new and interesting flavours, and they are often able to taste the flavour notes described on the packaging.”

Should we factor in generational differences when cupping coffee?

Research indicates that as we age, we are less likely to perceive the full spectrum of flavours in coffee. Undoubtedly, this is especially important when it comes to cupping and scoring coffee.

Gary and Nick both attended the 2022 Best of Panama Auction last year, where it was clear that age made a significant difference in scoring coffees. It’s important to note that all of the judges at the auction were experienced cuppers and Q-graders. 

However, after the judges’ calibration session, it became apparent that there was some discrepancy between scores awarded to the coffees. Typically, a one or two-point difference between the judges’ scores for the same coffee is to be expected, but at the 2022 BoP auction, there was a five or six-point difference between certain coffees. 

Moreover, Gary and Nick told me that one coffee received 100 points from two judges, which is practically unheard of at the auction.

“In my opinion, it was because the cuppers who were older favoured the more ‘traditional’ Gesha flavour profiles, which are more floral and delicate,” Nick says. “However, the cuppers who were younger seemed to be scoring more points to the more complex coffees.”

Gary, meanwhile, believes that level of cupping experience and cultural background also affected these score discrepancies.

The award given to the winner of the Panama Cup in 2022.

So, what does this mean for cupping protocol?

Although age may have played some role in influencing cupping scores at the 2022 BoP auction, both Nick and Gary agree that the level of cupping experience was by far the most important factor.

Moreover, in Gary’s experience as a judge, he finds that people from Southeast Asia or the Middle East often prefer more fermented and winey flavour notes in coffee. He adds that North Americans and Europeans tend to favour more traditional flavour profiles because of cultural differences in cuisine.

Nick believes that it is also important to understand how differences in international or regional markets influence flavour preferences

“For example, in Chile, Santiago’s specialty coffee market is more developed than Buenos Aires’ in Argentina, so the market for more unique coffees is bigger there,” he says.

Addressing these issues

The SCA describes this cupping bias as “intersubjectivity”. This is when professional cuppers assess coffee quality based on which characteristics are desirable to a specific market, rather than objectively scoring a coffee.

As a result of this, the SCA started to develop its Coffee Value Assessment System, which essentially seeks to eliminate any kind of intentional or unintentional bias when cupping, as well as aiming to be more inclusive of different cultures and cuisines.

Several coffee professionals perform quality control at a coffee cupping.

While age certainly plays a role in how we perceive coffee flavour, it’s clear that we should also consider how other factors influence this too – including experience and cultural differences.

Whether intentional or not, bias is an inescapable part of assessing coffee quality and flavour. However, as we continue to see more and more experimental processing techniques and new varieties and species, it’s clear that the spectrum of coffee flavour will also continue to widen. 

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on how to ensure consistency when cupping coffee.

Photo credits: Gary Au, Urban Coffee Roasters

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