Wake up and smell the coffee?


Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

It’s morning. You trudge over to the kitchen and as you grind your fresh coffee, the beautiful aroma entices you with the promise of a ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ moment. Coffee almost always smells better than it tastes. There is a reason the phrase is ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ and not ‘wake up and taste the coffee’.

Why is it so rare for it to taste as good as it smells? Conversely, why does horrible smelling cheese often taste glorious?

Recently, scientists have done significant research and think they have found the answer to this conundrum. It all has to do with the link between taste and smell, and the fact that we smell in more ways than one…

The Tongue, Overrated?

Taste, which we perceive as coming from our tongue is actually largely down to receptors in our nose. The tongue can only give us so much information. It tells us whether food or drink is sweet or sour, salty or bitter but it’s the nose that gives us a much more complex set of taste indicators. You don’t believe me? Try eating your next meal whilst pinching your nose and you might realise just how important it is!

Smell is a pretty amazing sense, in that it is the only dual sensory modality. What exactly does this mean? How can we smell in two ways?

The receptors in our nose can move two different ways, depending on whether we are inhaling things from the environment into us, or whether air comes up through the nasal passage and is breathed out of us. The dual sense of smell has a huge impact on the taste of both coffee and cheese and how we perceive flavours.


When we smell the lovely scent of freshly ground coffee, it is the result of our receptors that are directed towards the outside of the nose, that send that message to the brain. This is a different message to that sent when we taste coffee. When the drink is swallowed, the aroma travels up through the throat and encounters the receptors facing towards the throat, that send a different message to the brain, resulting in a much less satisfying sensation.

cheese plate smell

Unless you have a penchant for smelly cheese, most people would agree that certain cheeses have a pretty unpleasant aroma. However, often, the nasty aromas that are emitted from cheese are very different from the delicious taste we experience when we consume it. Just like coffee, our dual sense of smell plays a role in this. With cheese, it is the reverse. The odour is more pleasant when it is in your mouth and passes out of the nose than when it passes in.

This phenomenon does not just relate coffee and cheese, mind you. I’ve never tried Durian fruit but apparently the contrast between taste and smell is even bigger in this case! Banning a fruit on certain modes of public transport must signify that it smells pretty bad!

Interestingly lavender and chocolate appear to have a consistent aroma, whichever way they are smelt.

Next time you smell that beautiful coffee aroma, just remember that it might not taste as good as it smells. It’s another reason to be happy when you have a really awesome tasting cup of coffee!

cheese photo by ulterior epicure

Henry Clifford
is a coffee enthusiast intent on sharing useful information about coffee and exploring the best independent coffee shops London has to offer! Aside from my love for coffee I also love running, art, football & jazz (in no particular order).
Henry Clifford

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  1. Henry Clifford

    I wish I could remember that moment! Unfortunately I have a rubbish memory so I can’t remember the first time I had that (wake up and) smell the coffee moment. Thanks for sharing your thoughts :)

  2. CoffeeKrave

    I remember truly smelling coffee for the first time around the age of ten when I walked past a coffee shop in a mall. It smelled wonderful and I thought to myself, “I’d love to come here everyday.” I’m sure the mall coffee’s taste did not quite live up to its smell, however. Great advice, Henry.