Aromatic Brew: Exploring the Rich Tapestry of Coffee through Fragrances

2023 . 11 . 10 | written by Ermano Picco

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Speaking about origins, there are at least two pleasures humankind owes to goats, and both are fragrant, intoxicating, and addictive. The first is labdanum, a resin seeping from a tree named cistus ladanifer, a bush found almost everywhere along the Mediterranean coasts. In his Histories, Herodotous says about labdanum “It is gathered from the beards of goats, where it is found sticking like gum”. He also fully describes how shepherds would harvest it by combing their goat’s hair, as they loved grazing on cistus, rubbing themselves up against it. In fact it is likely that labdanum’s fragrance magic was discovered by smelling flocks.

The latter is coffee, whose history begins around 850 CE in the lush hills of Ethiopia. According to legend, a young goat herder named Kaldi discovered the invigorating effects of the coffee bean observing his goats acting strange. Their usual calm behavior was replaced with prancing, frolicking, and dancing. They had so much energy they didn’t sleep at night! At first, Kaldi thought they were possessed. After some investigating, Kaldi found that the goats had been eating from an unfamiliar tree with red berries. Feeling adventurous, Kaldi decided to try the berries himself. After eating a few, he joined the goats dancing and frolicking around, becoming the happiest goat herder in the land! Later on, a monk was passing through and observed Kaldi and the dancing goats. Intrigued, he stopped to see what was going on. Kaldi told him about the red berries, and the monk was convinced they were an answer to his prayers. He explained to Kaldi that he would always fall asleep mid-way through his prayers. When he ate the mysterious red berries, he was able to stay awake! He stayed up for hours and hours, praying in the state of divine ecstasy he had always desired.

Coffee plant

The word coffee itself originates from Kaffa, the Ethiopian region from where coffee's stimulating properties spread, journeying across the Arabian Peninsula, and gaining popularity in Islamic communities. By the 15th century, coffee had found its way to the bustling coffeehouses of Constantinople (the first one known as Kiva Han dates to 1475!) sparking a cultural revolution.

Coffeehouses, or "penny universities” as they were often called because for a pence only you could listen to proper lessons, emerged in 17th-century Europe as intellectual hubs where diverse minds converged to discuss ideas over cups of coffee, and some of them are still famous today. The oldest one is Tahmis Kahvesi in Gaziantep, Anatolia which opened its doors in 1635 and still serves the legendary menengic khavesi, a sublime delicacy flavored with pistachio. Paris flies the flag with the second oldest coffeehouse still in business today, Café Procope founded by the Sicilian immigrant Procopio Francesco Cutò in 1686. Since then, many personalities from Voltaire and Diderot, to Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac went there for a coffee. The third legendary one is Caffé Florian established in Venice in 1720. Those halls, with alternating large mirrors and decorated panels, saw the love affairs of Casanova and Foscolo’s heartaches , as well as the musings of Goethe, Lord Byron, and Oscar Wilde. Let’s not forget also Goldoni who titled a 1736 famous subject for the theater “La bottega del caffè” (the coffeehouse).

Cafe Procope, Paris
Caffe Florian, Venice
A steaming cup

The beverage's popularity soared, leading to the establishment of coffee plantations in the colonies. The "coffee craze" reached the New World, setting the stage for the development of coffee plantations in the Caribbean and Central and South America.

Whilst the last century witnessed the rise of coffee as a global commodity, nowadays while you gulp down coffee in a traditional roastery or sip it at a global chain like Starbucks that legitimized coffee as a street drink, do you ever wonder how coffee is grown or harvested? Do you know when coffee blooms? Most consumers ignore all of this.

Coffee plant is part of the rubiacee, and like the heady gardenia and bouvardia, there are different species among which the most known are Arabica native to Ethiopia and Robusta, discovered only during the last century in Congo, though there are others just recently discovered. Of course every species has its own organoleptic profile according to variety and provenience, depending on the biodiversity surrounding it.

Unfortunately we lack the education to understand these nuances as the coffee we usually drink is mostly a blend of various species. During its ephemeral bloom, the coffee flower exudes the hypnotic sweetness typical of white flowers like jasmine, and quickly turns into a ripe cherry-like berry whose stones are used. The seeds are then extracted by drying or squeezing them (natural coffee), or by washing and fermenting them (washed coffee). These two methods result in completely different aromas, but both ways it is incredibly rich; almost eight hundred odorant molecules are present in the smell of coffee, at least four times than in wine odor profile. So the more aromatic it is, the higher the quality.

To better understand the magic coffee and its aroma do to our mood and brains, what a better way than asking a Neuroscientist, or Neurosmellist as she likes to name herself Anna D’Errico, author or various publications among which her latest book Profumo di niente (Perfume of nothing) focusing on the spread of anosmia during the pandemic.

Hi Anna, let’s start talking about the coffee beans we are presented with in perfume shops to “clean the nose” while smelling fragrances. Some people even believed they have magic virtues, how do they work?

A: In science, but indeed in every “investigative” approach, there’s a basic principle, that is before racking one’s brain and desperately looking for an explanation of a given phenomenon, make sure that phenomenon really exists. Here, that’s the case with coffee served to “reset” the nose. It’s an appealing gesture lending a sense of ritual, but it has no scientific meaning. Coffee bears at least 800 different aromatic molecules that all together contribute to its olfactory facets. Olfactory receptors perceive all the odorant molecules and there’s no scientific evidence that proves smelling coffee can affect in any way how this works. What happens is mainly a psychological mechanism that is linked to what we are smelling. After sniffing something for a few minutes, olfactory receptors naturally go in standby mode for some time, and don’t respond anymore to odors. This happens because smell is an alerting sense that is more sensitive to odor shifts around us, so when we are continuously exposed to smells, it starts to be less responsive. Moreover, perfumes are mostly in alcoholic-phase which might cause a slight dryness of the nasal mucosa, making olfaction harder. The “cleaning” sensation of coffee simply relies on the non-alcoholic nature of its odor, which is different from the smell of perfume. Therefore, this odor shift is perceived as different. Smelling the inside of your elbow, or going out for a breath of fresh air instead of smelling coffee beans would get you the same result.

Anna d'Errico

"When I get up in the morning, I tell everybody to go to hell. After coffee it’s the same, but faster". Drinking coffee gives energy thanks to caffeine, but even just its aroma works wonders. How does science explain this?

A: Odors can leave a strong imprint on our experiential loads linked to both the emotions felt, and the importance we attach to them. Drinking and tasting coffee is deeply rooted in our culture, it has a ritual component which amplifies its meaning. Moreover, the brain usually associates it to waking up in the morning and its energizing power, consequently its aroma – a bit like the “Pavlov effect” with dogs, it is able to immediately trigger the association with our wakeup routine, boosting the physiological effect of caffeine.

Your followers know well you often travel between Italy and Germany, your adopted home, and I can imagine you in pursuit of an espresso... How different are coffee consumption and perception among Italians and Germans?

A: I’ve got a confession to make… I love long German style coffee, and nowadays I drink this more than espresso! Actually I like both and I drink one or another depending on the situation. Admittedly, there are major cultural differences reflecting also different lifestyles, starting with how the traditional bar is conceived. The bar, intended as a place where you can have a quick break to drink coffee on the go at the counter, is a completely Italian concept, so to speak. Overseas, not only in Germany, there are coffee shops that seem more like tearooms, in a way, or like Italian historical coffee houses as a mindset; people come in, have a seat, drink something and spend some time inside. Therefore, also coffee consumption flows accordingly, becoming a full cuppa often served with milk, even better if it’s a cappuccino. A small curious note, out of Italy cappuccino even more than espresso is particularly enjoyed and perceived as a nice and delicious drink. That’s why it is normal to drink it all day long, while in Italy it is culturally related to breakfast. Once again, the appreciation of aromas goes hand in hand with cultural traditions and customs.

From science to industry, let’s talk about coffee taste and how to better enjoy it, as well as how different varieties of coffee and blends can result in a totally different aroma. To learn more about it, I was happy to talk about the subject with Marco Bazzara, CEO of Bazzara S.r.l that pursues coffee excellence for three generations now. Marco not only is an authorized Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) trainer, a Q-grader (that’s a professional skilled in sensory evaluation of green coffee), and a sommelier, but in recent years he ventured also in perfume composition and aromatherapy. Last but not least he also established Bazzara Academy which is the educational branch of the company offering since 2017 training programs suited to both professionals and enthusiasts.

Marco Bazzara

In Italy we tend to consider ourselves connoisseurs. Let’s get started, maybe, understanding it’s not exactly like that. How can we tell if we’re getting served a good coffee?

M: First of all, even before drinking our coffee we can understand much by observing the bartender preparing it. First the coffee grains in the machine must be not too dark, which means they are not so oxidized and they have a good turnover. Then the inner surface of the transparent container should be a little oily, which means the grains are full of aromatic oils and are not too dry. The general status of the machine itself is important, for most of the unwanted flaws of coffee, like a bitter burnt aftertaste are given by remaining waste. An indicator of good machine maintenance is to look at the milk frother steam wand. If it’s covered in a thick dried milk layer, that’s never a good sign.
Then looking at the coffee cream and smelling the aroma, we can understand more. For example, some use this rule: if you put a spoonful of sugar on top of the cream and it doesn’t sink, then the coffee is good. This is a popular belief among our Eastern European customers, but that’s not exactly true. For example coffee of the Robusta variety tends to have more carbs and to embed more bubbles, so it forms a thicker cream. The texture is coarser though, and the aroma is less rich than Arabica. So a good blend is mostly the best choice in this context.

As an evaluator and coffee tasting expert and blender, how do different varieties of coffee, their provenience and processing methods impact the final aroma?

M: As with wines, the impact of varieties, their provenience and the processing method are key to the final result. For example you can understand this well by trying our Luxury Blends which I especially imagined as a delightful journey around the world with coffee. This is the haute parfumerie of coffee in a sense, where each blend is inspired by a specific continent. The journey starts from the roots of coffee with Panafricana, a 100% Arabica blend aimed at rediscovering all the scents and nuances of the African continent. This coffee combines wild nature and inimitable taste reawakening the primordial alliance between man and nature with lively citrus and vinous notes backed by the mineral warmth of African lands. Landing in America, we walk on the traces of the ancient Pan-American route, rediscovering the passion and the scents that characterize it. Hints of exotic fruits, and cocoa pulp blend with honeyed pastry notes, giving a sweet and balanced flavor to a unique blend. The last adventurous stopover is in Asia, traveling along the ancient spice route and savoring the richness of oriental traditions in a 100% Arabica blend. In a syrupy body, the bold scents of the peaks of Nepal meet the fruits of the lush Indonesian forests and the enveloping peppery flavor that recalls the spices of Indian markets.

I guess your company trades in various markets. As an expert coffee blend composer, how do you mix a blend, and how much do you keep an eye on the preference of each market?

M: As you may know, while speaking of taste for coffee, it’s better to say aroma as about 80% is given by smell. And since the odorant molecules found in the aroma of coffee are over 800, you can easily guess composing a blend is like composing a perfume.
Bazzara trades mostly with overseas markets, and has quite a niche top quality offer, so it is important to know and consider your customer tastes. The company was established in Trieste in 1966 and my father is very proud (and a bit nostalgic) of the deeply rooted tradition for top quality coffee. Being located here also means having since the beginning a strategic hub in dialogue with foreign countries. Our main markets are Eastern Europe where more roasted coffees with a higher percentage of Robusta coffee are well received, and Northern Europe where they favor blends of 100% Arabica giving a softer and more complex aroma, almost like a connoisseur’s tea. Italy is in the middle, and to be even more precise, in Southern Italy they still prefer a more roasted aroma, while in the North a nuttier, slightly gentler blend never disappoints

Though speaking about the smell of coffee sounds familiar, the note surprisingly entered the perfumer’s palette only in the last decades. The first coffee extraction to hit the perfumer’s organ was coffee absolute that’s classically obtained from roasted grains through volatile solvents. The result is intoxicating, liqueur-like with evident nutty facets and grilled hints. In recent years also coffee oil is less frequently produced by distillation. The profile is aromatic with marked licorice, bitter chocolate, as well as burnt facets with hints of sesame unctuousness. The newest natural materials available are for sure supercritical fluid extractions like coffee CO2 extraction that bear a very complex profile harmonizing all the above mentioned hues. Moreover the coffee smell has fostered the search for synthetic raw materials expanding the perfumer’s range even more with molecules like mercaptanes (metallic), pyrazines (nutty), and specialties like the woody mokawood by Mane.

Speaking about fragrances, it seems like perfumers lurked for a longtime on coffee as a note, probably because it tends to take the stage when poured into a composition. That’s why it made its debut in niche perfumery but it took a few decades to flood the shelves of commercial perfume shops and give way to successful amber hits. Let’s conclude this overview by getting through some iconic fragrances that paved the gourmand territory establishing coffee as a key note in perfumery.

Everything started in 1980 at L’Artisan Parfumeur where the genius of Jean François Laporte imagined L’Eau du Navigateur. Together with a young Jean-Claude Ellena, they conceived a perfume inspired by “the spices discovered by the courageous navigators in the wedge of caravels” as well as by “exotic wood and strong coffee resins” as the official storytelling said. From a colorful cloud of spices playing the opening bars, slowly emerges the warm spinto voice of coffee, marking with its roasted bittersweet register the whole evolution of the fragrance. Myrrh and cedarwood are the accompanying cello line unveiling tobacco and leathery hints. In this way, Coffee made its big entrance in artistic perfumery.

In 1996 coffee debuted in commercial perfumes thanks to avant-garde fashion designer Thierry Mugler. Four years after Olivier Cresp’s groundbreaking Angel, its masculine counterpart A*Men composed by Jacques Huclier subverts the codes of masculine perfumery. Metallic, cold, and aromatic with mint and lavender, the opening juxtaposes the sticky and sweet soul of the fragrance filled with amber, caramel, milk, and honey. Coffee and patchouli perfectly fit as the balancing pillar with their green, dusted and smoked bittersweet hues. For the first time coffee was featured in a designer perfume, bringing it to a wider audience.

Thierry Mugler, A*Men

The global brand Lush back in 2004 introduced one of its top sellers still in production today, Dear John. Co-founder Mark Constantine confessed to draw inspiration from his entrepreneur’s wound, for he had been abandoned by his father as a baby. So the fragrance is a tribute to his lost father, for all the men he ever adored. The invigorating mix of citrus and spices gives way to a familiar masculine accord of cedarwood, vetiver and mellow roasted coffee redolent of familiar memories of freshly groomed men, morning cuppas, nostalgic notes on calendars , and pencil shavings. Finally cleared through customs, the fragrance served coffee as a mass-appealing popular note.

The list might go on and on, as indeed coffee has entered the pyramids of many compositions, pairing with more obvious gourmand notes like vanilla, chocolate, and fudge or nutty hues like hazelnut and tonka bean, but it also proved to go very well with cold spices like cardamom and black pepper or warm ones like cinnamon and saffron that add texture and depth. Woods like sandalwood and patchouli go along with coffee like bread and butter and even animalic notes go very well like civet which adds its hypnotic honeyed warmth. The most surprising pairings though are with lavender, and incense both of which add a unique modern freshness. In the last decades entire collections have come out such as the one from Maison Tahité, the Xerjoff Coffee Break like, and the O Boticario one. Nevertheless, there’s still so much to be explored of such a complex and intriguing aroma in perfumery, we can’t help but look forward to a dark, bitter, and superhot future!