What the duck is Umami?!

Umami. No, for real, its a word! I didn't believe it either.

I guess firstly its important to know what umami is. Science recognises 5 basic tastes; sweet, salty, bitter, sour and (as of the start of the 20th century) umami. 

Until the last few weeks I hadn't heard anything about it, but it became one of those things which I was now seeing and hearing everywhere. Such is my stubbornness for not knowing, I began my research...


Day 1 - Online research

According to the official Umami Information Center, “umami is a pleasant savory taste imparted by glutamate, a type of amino acid, and ribonucleotides, including inosinate and guanylate, which occur naturally in many foods including meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products.”

To simplify, Umami is a long lasting meaty, brothy taste which coats the tongue. It is mostly found in foods enhanced by MSG (monosodium glutamate).

But is this present in coffee? 

Day 2 - Experiment

To further put this to the test I came up with a little experiment. 

(Disclaimer: I am not a scientist, in fact the last time I took part in an experiment was GCSEs (Not including the alien abduction and probing). I am a barista and coffee enthusiast and simply wanted to do some research)

Myself and a few others had a cupping session. This is a practice used by coffee roasters and Q-graders to taste the coffee in an optimal state. Half of us knew the purpose of the experiment and the other half were tasting blindly with no prior knowledge of what we were looking for. 

We used 4 coffees of differing origin and processes and tasted them, writing down what we tasted along the way. As I had expected, the flavours noticed initially were what one would expect from the region, if not fairly similar to the roasters flavour notes (stone fruits, citrus, nuts, chocolates etc.)

I had prepared a small platter of umami rich foods and drinks (list below) in which we all had a few bites. The idea of this was to activate or awaken the umami sensitive tastebuds so that they could more easily pick out those flavours in the coffee. The food/drinks were: 

  • Spinach
  • Fried Prosciutto
  • Feta
  • Tomato
  • Green tea

We cupped the coffee for a second time, again writing down flavours as we went along. I will admit that I maybe wasn't as impartial as I could have been as I was quite sceptical about the whole thing from the start. However, the results shocked me.

Some of my lovely cuppers!

Some of my lovely cuppers!


I wanted it to be bullshit. I wanted it so bad... 

We compared our tasting notes from before and after our little umami party. Flavours such as fruit, nuts and chocolate had now changed to include things such as nettles, celery and even tequila! 

The blind tasters had a general theme of savoury sometimes even writing just that. This alone was almost enough to prove that there may be something to this umami thing. 

I feel I must add that the conclusion wasn't one that was now so outstanding that it was undeniable, but more so that umami flavours were present. They were still less present than the typical coffee flavours but I believe if we become more aware then we can hone in on these and possibly make it something we aim for. Who knows, in a few years we might be pairing coffees to food like we do wine. 


p.s. Sometimes I drift off for a little think while writing these thoughts down in the blog. For this one I looked outside and the street was bustling, I drifted all the way into a mini existential crisis in which I tried to imagine how big the population of the world was and it started to freak me out, A LOT! I may have had enough coffee for today.