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The smell of coffee and why it’s important to know.

As I sit at my breakfast table I sniff little bottles jam-packed with aroma and try to recall what I’m smelling. My brain searches for associations and memories that will give me a hint at what aroma is contained in each bottle. This one is straw, or so I think. I finish putting away my aroma kit and start the walk to work. As I walk the dark, quiet streets I’m thinking about the aroma of straw. It was quite caramelly and almost like corn syrup.

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Why am I doing this?

Science has shown that 80 percent of flavour comes from what we smell. Apparently our taste buds can only identify tastes that are sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami (savoriness – a topic for another time!). The remaining flavours are actually discerned by our sense of smell.

When I turned 30 I was given an aroma kit form a very generous person! The kit is called Le Nez du Cafe (The Nose of Coffee), which is a set of the 36 most common aromas found in the world’s top coffees. I’m fascinated with it!

As a young barista and roaster I wanted to learn as much as I could and believed that developing my senses were a key part of my journey. I knew that in order to brew exceptional coffee I needed to be able to roast it well. And it follows, that in order to roast incredible coffee I needed to be able to taste and appraise my roasts correctly on the cupping table and adjust my roasting according to what I was smelling and tasting. But sadly, no one teaches you how to smell and taste.

So this explains my fascination and intimacy with the “Nez” aroma kit. It has helped me to train myself to smell and taste.

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How to use it

There are two ways to use the aroma kit. You either read the corresponding entry in the book that comes with the kit and smell and try and take in as much as you can to remember that smell.

But I prefer the deduction method. Smell and try to discern the aroma. I think whilst smelling each bottle, is it woody? Is it acidic? Is it metallic? Is it chemical? I look up the number on each bottle that corresponds with an entry in the companion guide and hope I’m close. I think this method works better for me and I’m happy to guess as in the real world when cupping coffee we don’t have time to reference books to work out exactly what we’re smelling and tasting. It needs to be done in a few seconds. (See the video below on how I use it.)

People get intimidated and a little weirded out when their friends talk in depth about the flavours of their food, coffee, wine or beer. But this is the way some people enjoy and deepen their experience. And to be honest, my hope in the near future we get over this apprehension and grow this part of our culture. We’re already a nation that enjoys what we eat and drink and I look forward to that becoming a deeper experience. I honestly believe this will have an impact on our relationships with friends and family and the broader society and make mealtimes healthier and more social.

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My encouragement to coffee professionals

If you’re a barista, green coffee buyer or a roaster get your own Le Nez Du Cafe and start using it! Yes I know we now have great tools at our fingertips like refractometers, which have bridged the gap between great coffee and good coffee . And there is more sharing of information and books and blogs and courses. But, we should never forsake our own sense of smell and taste, and you cannot learn that by using a refractometer or reading the latest article. It’s a physical skill we all need to develop.

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My encouragement to the general public

If you want to deepen your experience and connection with food, focus on developing your sense of smell and taste. Something I do regularly is pause and smell and taste. When cutting cucumber I stop and smell the aroma and think of associations. Whatever it is, its likely going to be found in coffee and that my friends is a beautiful thing!

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Oh, I made a video of me using the Nez! It’s here if you want to watch it.




Dom T


  1. Hi. Thanks for sharing this article.
    I do believe that the smell of fresh coffee is what enhances the experience of it.
    Can you share some tips on how to roast beans to extract the maximum flavour? Im just an beginner when it comes to this with a coffee machine at home. But I love coffee and can detect the different brands by smell and flavour.

    1. Hi Ciaran.
      Thanks for your comments. Wow, tips on roasting! That’s a hard one to answer in a comment as there is so much to it. It’s a profession all by itself. If you are really keen to know how to roast, a great place to start would be to read Coffee Roasters Companion by Scott Rao. He is a legend in this field.
      Hope that helps.

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