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The Coffee Department explores "The Fifth Taste"...

Wait, 5th taste?  OK, lets review… there’s sweet, sour, salty and bitter…. and Umami??  What the heck is umami?  If you’re asking yourself that very question, you’re not alone.  For our monthly ‘Taste Personified’ I decided to bring the ubiquitous Mr. Umami to the experts and open up the dialog around what it has to do with coffee!

So, what is it?  In Japanese, umai means delicious, and mi means essence. Loosely translated, umami means ‘brothy’, ‘meaty’, or ‘savory’.  It’s that synergy of flavors that when put together induce the added deliciousness to your tastebuds.  In Japan, many people call any food that reaches a state of perfection ‘umami’.

Umami has been around for thousands of years, but it was first officially discovered in 1908 by Dr. Ikeda, a chemistry professor at the Imperial Tokyo University.  By extracting glutamate from Kombu, (a brown algae and base for Dashi – Japanese fish stock) and pondering the unique flavor profile of the savory soup, he found that umami is actually a taste.  In the year 2000, another team of umami researchers found the actual taste bud, or taste receptor; ‘taste-mGluR4’ which when combined with umami rich foods defined it’s fate in our stimulated senses .  The concept of having a 5th taste was only introduced to the western world about 30 years ago, and the first book published about umami in the United States was in 2005!

Since umami comes from glutamate (glutamic acid, an amino acid) it is also prevalent in many different foods such as parmesan cheese, green tea, sardines, tomato juice, soy sauce, and many cured meats… among others.  If you think about the flavors of all those foods, you can start to imagine how they all share a common taste… they all can add an incredible flavor boost to what ever they might mingle with.  Can you say pepperoni pizza?  Hot and Sour soup?  There’s even a burger joint in California that specializes in Umami burgers… its all about synergy.

So how, then, does umami relate to the coffee world?  First think about how and why our Thanksgiving Blend was created.  It was all about being able to successfully blend different flavors together to enhance the whole dining experience.  It’s the base of how we approach all of our coffee blends.  For example, when putting together the intense herbal qualities of Sumatra and the clean citrus acidity of Guatemalan coffees, what we get is a synergy of flavor that stimulates taste buds in a unique way… the harmony of aroma, acidity, body and flavor.  Taste buds everywhere stand up and say…’Heck yes, that’s delicious!”

Umami… what a glorious word.

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