Flavor Amplitude

November 10, 2011

Flavor amplitude describes the fullness and balance of a flavor. Iconic food and beverage brands that have high flavor amplitude include Coca Cola and Heinz Ketchup. No matter how other brands try, they can’t topple these two brands when it comes to taste. These companies have found the perfect blend of ingredients that resonates just right with consumers.

Malcom Gladwell wrote an article for the New Yorker in 2004 exploring flavor amplitude. Professional tasters use the word amplitude to describe flavors that are balanced and ‘bloom’ in the mouth.

The difference between high and low amplitude is the difference between my son and a great pianist playing ‘Ode to Joy’ on the piano,” said Edgar Chambers, in Gladwell’s article. Chambers runs the sensory-analysis center at Kansas State University. “They are playing the same notes, but they blend better with the great pianist.”

“When something is high in amplitude, all its constituent elements converge into a single gestalt.  You can’t isolate the elements of an iconic, high-amplitude flavor like Coca-Cola,” Gladwell writes.

From the espresso side of life, flavor amplitude is the combination of all the flavors, bitter, sweet, acid and the body that come together to make a perfectly delicious espresso. However, creating huge batches of soda and ketchup are much easier than consistently producing individual espresso drinks, where so many variables come into play throughout the day. This is where this analogy falters and a piano analogy picks up.

Steinway, located in Queens, New York, still handcrafts each piano. It takes a year to build the L1037, the nine-foot concert grand. With over 12,000 parts and 450 craftsmen and women, each step is carefully and masterfully done by hand, just like espresso. In fact, tuning is still done by ear, just like we taste coffee. Sure, there are tools to analyze the sound quality of a piano just like the ExtractMoJo will analyze coffee.

Pianos are amazingly similar to espresso; they’re both fickle.

Each hand-made piano is unique and has its own special qualities that shine under the hands of different performers. For example, the fascinating documentary, Note by Note, produced and directed by Ben Niles, documents the birth of the L1037. Different pianists from Harry Connick Jr. and Hank Jones to Pierre-Laurent Aimard, talk about how different pianos speak to them; some sound great, and some don’t match their style of playing.

In the film, Aimard is set to perform in New York and is looking for a piano. During the course of the film, he tries numerous L1037s, but none seem to resonate with him. He does not find high amplitude until he tries one that has just returned from another performance. The piano is “ice cold,” as it just came off the truck – not ideal circumstances.  But he knows the moment he sits down and plays the first few notes that this is the piano for him. This piano will perfectly represent the music he wants to convey to the audience.

Think of it in these terms. The barista is the pianist; the equipment and the espresso blend are the piano; and the combined result is a product that resonates with the audience. Each person has a slightly different amplitude when it comes to finding the fullest yet balanced flavor. Tools come in handy to scientifically analyze what makes a good espresso, but ultimately, the flavor is the deciding factor.

That’s what makes judging a good espresso so difficult and so personal. Ideally, the barista and customer would be calibrated with each other, but that’s not very realistic. So, it is the job of the barista to practice, like a concert pianist, so they know how to create high amplitude in the cups they serve.

A great cup of espresso is a hand-craft, just like a Steinway – and ‘Ode to Joy.’ The lure of perfection will never be found in the super-automatic machines found across the nation in fast-food joints. Certainly having a well-maintained machine and a great espresso blend are critical, but ultimately it is the barista’s job to know how to create high flavor amplitude consistently.

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