Coffee inspires perhaps more ardor than any other beverage (booze included). Yet coffee is rarely a “love at first sip” affair — even regular coffee drinkers admit that their fondness was far from immediate, and that developing it involved plenty of cream and sugar. So why do we come to like coffee if it’s initially unpleasant?
For answers, we caught up with Linda Bartoshuk, a professor at Yale University’s Medical School whose research focuses on the sense of taste. Bartoshuk — who was in New York to attend a coffee-themed panel convened by the gourmet coffee company illy at its temporary Galleria in SoHo — says that the sense of taste is hardwired. There are four basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. We are born liking sweet flavors, and a predilection for salty develops within months. Alternately, we are born disliking sour and bitter flavors. The purpose of this is largely utilitarian: Infants express a preference for sweet, for instance, because sweetness indicates those edibles that contain sugars that the body can use for energy; their innate aversion to bitterness makes practical sense, as many poisons are bitter. But since coffee is, even at its best, slightly bitter, doesn’t this all suggest that we would avoid it, along with such culinary delights as broccoli rabe and — heaven forbid — dark chocolate?
We might very well avoid these foods if only the basic taste system were at work. Smell, however, contributes considerably to what we think of as flavor. Bartoshuk explains that when black coffee enters your mouth, you perceive bitterness with your tongue, but you also perceive a complex coffee odor with your nose as the java molecules are pumped from your mouth into your nasal cavity (appetizing, huh?). Positive and negative responses to smells are learned, not visceral. And with coffee, it seems, these preferences override our preprogrammed distaste for bitterness. Although she insists that she can only speculate, because comprehensive empirical evidence on the specific subject doesn’t exist, she believes that people like coffee because its smell becomes associated with its accompanying rush of caffeine and pleasures of cream and sugar. Enough instances of this pairing, and many people come to crave unadulterated coffee. Social learning could also play a role, since many coffee drinkers link the smell of java to the pleasure of taking part in an adult ritual. “Imagine a toddler who sees his grandpa take a sip of coffee and like it, “ Bartoshuk says. When the child tastes the coffee, “he thinks it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.”