Monday, September 25, 2006

Scent Lab

A few weeks ago we went to our neighborhood Starbucks and ended up joining a coffee tasting. The Coffee Master (like a sommelier of the bean) gave us sheets that explained what we'd be tasting, what aromas to look for, and how best to pair the coffees with food. I've done this with wine, but never with coffee, and it was a treat! Two things stood out for me; the pairing of the coffee with the food (I just think something dark--I'm a French Roast fiend--and something sweet, and that's about as far as I usually get), and the Scent Lab Starbucks has developed for its coffee masters.

When I took a wine course, the instructor had us all begin by smelling and tasting a base wine. Then she brought in four or five more cups of wine, all of which she had "tainted" with some other flavor. We had to guess what it was she had added to the wine. This was more difficult than it might sound on paper (or, uh, on screen), but essentially she added both flavors that would work with and against the wine, so we could tell the difference. When the course was over, she gave us a print out of a "wheel," and on this were listed all the flavors one might encounter in a wine. One thing I'll always remember: reisling wines smell of petrol. Something to do with the soil where the grapes are grown. If someone hands you a glass of white wine and it smells of petrol, then it's a reisling. Or that person hates you and is trying to kill you. You be the judge.

The Starbucks Scent Lab consists of nine different scents that can help you identify a type of coffee and its classification. Sadly I didn't think to write them all down, but the three I smelled at the tasting were smoke, berry, and citrus. (If you're curious and a coffee drinker, the coffees were French Roast (smoky), Arabian Mocha Sinani (berry), and Ethiopia Sidamo (floral/citrus).) We sniffed the bottles from the lab, and then we sniffed the coffee. Amazing! Now I drink enough coffee to know they don't all smell the same, but I hadn't ever paid specific attention to the real undertones or tried to classify them. We had the Ethiopia Sidamo with a bit of lemon poundcake to complement the citrus, and wow! It was seamless. If you've ever had something sweet with coffee and wondered why it just didn't taste how you expected, this might have been the reason. A dark French Roast can overwhelm a delicate lemon cake, and on the flipside, the cake can make the coffee taste bitter. Wrong pairing. Voila!

Quick aside: I know some people who eschew Starbucks. I met one girl who referred to it as "the evil empire." Of course, she worked as a photo stylist for the Neiman Marcus catalog. I'm not sure: What's more evil? A generally available good cup of coffee, or a custom Mercedes that comes with a pint-sized miniature for one's offspring to drive around the manse? And who knew Neiman Marcus kept a social critic on the payroll?

This got me thinking about creating a scent lab for myself for perfume. I've Googled away for "scent lab," "fragrance kit," "scent kit," and so on, but all I seem to be able to find are fragrance kits that make my lab better at identifying scents when I take him hunting. But I don't have a lab, I have a cat. And although civet or something might be of interest to someone's dog, I was thinking more long the lines of bergamot and ylang-ylang in oil form. If you know where I can find a (perfume) scent kit for beginners, please let me know. If not, then I'm going to set about creating one for myself. I'm getting a little better at picking out notes, but I know I'm confusing some of notes with each other. What I'm planning to do is to order some essential oils and train my nose to identify the scent. Geeky, but it seems necessary to have this basic level of knowledge. I don't know how any of the rest of you started out, or if you awoke one day after smelling a gajillion perfumes and found you could just name notes off the top of your head when you smelled something, but me...well, let's just say I'm no Luca Turin. I think my own personal “scent lab” will be a nice addition to The New Perfume Handbook, Second Edition, which I ordered but must wait for, as it was backordered through Powells. *Sigh* I’m ready to continue this education, but until all this comes together, I’ll keep sniffing.