SMILE AS YOU SWALLOW

Why We Love Espresso

It’s in Our Genes

Thomas Greene
Coffee Asylum
Published in
5 min readFeb 4, 2022

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An Acquired Taste (courtesy Wikipedia)

There’s been a major breakthrough in coffee science. If you’ve ever wondered why espresso is such a popular drink, you’re not alone. Researchers in Germany have been puzzling over that question lately, and they think the answer might be in our DNA.

So I traveled to Berlin, to a new research facility at the Max Planck Institute for Advanced Gustatory and Olfactory Biomolecular Studies. I wanted to speak with the research team to learn more about this discovery, since I’m interested in coffee myself. I was welcomed by the project leader, a Professor of Evolutionary Biochemistry who was himself a former World Champion Coffee Machine Operator by the name of Dr. Shamus Hough-Mann.

He told me about a coffee lover based in Geneva, Switzerland who appears to relish plain espresso more than any other drink. “Fine wine, aged whiskey, you name it, he’s not interested. He’s going to reach for that little cup of coffee every time,” Professor Hough-Mann said.

Naturally, my first question was, how would a researcher know if a person’s enthusiasm is genuine?

“Oh, we’re pretty hard to fool around here,” he chuckled. “Our rigorous analysis of facial micromotor activations and paralinguistic sounds reveals that espresso drinkers often put on a bit of a show, feigning pleasure. You could say that they gaslight each other about how good the drink tastes.”

That rang a bell for me so I said to him, “You know, I’ve always had a suspicion about that. And in all of this research, you’ve found only the one solitary subject from Geneva who appears to have a sincere appreciation. Have I got that right, Professor?”

“Oh, no need to be so formal,” he said cordially. “Call me Sham; everyone does.”

He went on. “That’s correct. You see, normal-strength coffee is often bitter and sometimes sour, but those flavors exist in a veritable ocean of others, in balanced proportions such that most adults find them pleasant. But espresso is uniquely — I dare say preposterously — concentrated. One might use twenty grams of coffee to make a thirty-milliliter shot! When we drink something like that, our taste receptors are overwhelmed by dominant sour and bitter signals that make it impossible to detect the myriad delicate flavors and aromas that make coffee so intriguing. We call this palate fatigue, and it sets in fast.

“So, in layman’s terms, straight espresso blows out your taste buds, which in turn spoils your perception of the coffee’s more subtle flavors. We can all stop pretending: no one’s palate is that resilient. It would be like getting hit by a cannon ball and ‘sensing’ the dose of gunpowder propelling it.”

That made me wonder aloud, “OK, but if it’s normal for us to dislike the flavor of espresso, then why do so many cafés rely on it, as, like, the backbone of their menu?”

Sham raised a forefinger. “I believe we have that one figured out,” he grinned. “Consider this: you can make a shot of espresso in about thirty seconds, so it’s naturally suited to delivering doses of caffeine to lots of customers very quickly. Its utility in commercial settings is unmatched. But notice that cafés sell mostly milk drinks, like cappuccino and caffè latte — ones where coffee represents only ten to thirty-five percent of the whole. It tastes far better when it’s diluted.

“So, think of espresso as primarily a caffeine ration. The drug is where the real pleasure comes from. That, and, of course, anticipating receiving our dose: the ceremony, the performance — the measuring, tamping, pulling levers… the sounds of grinders and pumps and steam. All that rigamarole really fires up our dopamine reward system.

“And as for the vile flavor, well, hot milk is the ideal thinner: the very process of steaming it changes the arrangement of sugar molecules, making it taste sweeter still, and further emphasizing those homey flavors that have comforted us since infancy.

“And don’t get me started on the flavored sugar syrups that people order on top of their warm milk, turning the drink into, literally, a liquid dessert, sometimes topped with whipped cream and cocoa sprinkles.”

“It helps the medicine go down,” I remarked.

“Indeed it does,” he chuckled. “And of course, all that extra sugar boosts the caffeine buzz. Let’s face it; most café drinks are meant for people who love caffeine and hate coffee. Single-estate organic Yirgacheffe land race, drowning in hot milk and vanilla hazelnut syrup… What a farce: like using dry-aged Kobe beef in a Big Mac.”

While I listened to him, another thought occurred to me: “So, people insist on drinking plain espresso as some kind of snobbery? Some proof that they’re not just another cream cheese and mayonnaise chugging Phillistine?” I asked.

“Precisely!” Sham exclaimed. “That’s why people pretend to enjoy it straight. Milk is for babies and little children, so, naturally, ‘grownups’ have to enjoy it neat.”

“But, just a second,” I thought. “If, as you say, espresso sucks inherently, then, surely, there wouldn’t be espresso, right? I mean, why would anyone have invented a drink that tastes awful?”

He was delighted. “Great question!” he beamed. “Outstanding! This brings us full circle, back to the Swiss man who, we are ninety-eight percent confident, genuinely relishes the flavor of straight espresso. We found that he’s got a mutated gene we’ve never seen before.”

He leaned in close and lowered his voice. “Now, I can’t call this proof, mind, but every other person we’ve tested lacks that mutation and they all loathe espresso, struggle though they might to pretend otherwise. We think that this bit of malformed DNA reduces a person’s olfactory and gustatory sensitivity by at least an order of magnitude.

“So, to answer your question about how our little foretaste of Hell in a cup came to be, we’ve got a hypothesis: my colleagues and I suspect that the Italian gentleman who invented the modern espresso machine, back around 1900 — Luigi Bezzera he was called — possessed the same mangled gene.

“So now, imagine him in his workshop, trying to speed up the process of making coffee from minutes to seconds, and he’s come up with this high-pressure gizmo that looks promising. But with his genetic makeup, the poor bugger could barely taste or smell anything, and therefore innocently believed that he was helping people to enjoy coffee by developing a quick method that tasted good — to him.

“And thanks to invention of the milk steamer, we’re still choking on this dismal concoction of pitch and battery acid over a century later, and paying entirely too much for the privilege,” he lamented.

One of his assistants signaled that they needed him, and we rose and shook hands, while I could be heard muttering, “So, a guy with crippled taste buds invents a drink that almost no one can stand, and in so doing, launches one of the most profitable beverage industries on the planet.”

“Ain’t capitalism grand?” Sham said with a wry smile, then turned and twinkled away.

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