That Coffee Smell

What is it about the smell of coffee?


If you close your eyes, can you summon up the smell of coffee?

The talented Haruki Murakami writes about that glorious coffee aroma in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

‘Haida was very particular about coffee, always using special aromatic beans, which he ground with the small electric mill that he brought along. His devotion to coffee beans was the one luxury in his otherwise poor, meager lifestyle.’

and later…

‘He was lost in his thick book, off in another world, but as soon as Tsukuru appeared, he shut the book, smiled brightly, and went to the kitchen to make coffee, omelets, and toast. The fresh smell of coffee soon wafted through the apartment, the smell that separates night from day.’



Yale psychologist, William Cain, ran a classic study where participants were challenged to try and identify 80 aromas.  The Top 20 most recognized scents are listed below. In first place? Coffee.

Top 20 Most Recognized Scents

  1. Coffee
  2. Peanut butter
  3. Vicks VapoRub
  4. Chocolate
  5. Wintergreen oil
  6. Baby powder
  7. Cigarette butts
  8. Mothballs
  9. Dry cat food
  10. Beer
  11. Ivory bar soap
  12. Juicy Fruit gum
  13. Orange
  14. Cinnamon
  15. Lemon
  16. Tuna
  17. Banana
  18. Crayons
  19. Cheese
  20. Bleach


In 2017, the Sensory Analysis Centre at Kansas State University released an in-depth analysis of coffee that identifies its 100 aroma, flavor and texture qualities.



The Sensory Analysis Centre’s coffee reporting included: ‘new, globally available references for 24 attributes:  Sour, Bitter, Salty, Apple, Grape, Coconut, Pineapple, Acetic acid, Butyric acid, Isovaleric acid, Fermented, Peapod, Fresh, Papery, Musty/Earthy, Musty/Dusty, Moldy/Damp, Phenolic, Petroleum, Brown Spice, Almond, Vanillin, Floral, and Jasmine.’

Psychology researchers have found that merely smelling coffee’s complex aroma can have positive cognitive effects. In 2018, Dr. Adriana Madzharov and her cross-university research team found that an ‘ambient coffee-like scent’ led subjects to perform significantly better on algebra questions from the Graduate Management Aptitude Test.

Follow-up research revealed that these subjects expected that the smell of coffee would both make them more alert and improve their performance . These epectations might have had at least some positive impact on their math results.



We’ll leave the last word to the brilliant Gabriel Garcia Marquez and No One Writes To the Colonel.

‘The colonel took the top off the coffee can and saw that there was only one little spoonful left. He removed the pot from the fire, poured half the water onto the earthen floor, and scraped the inside of the can with a knife until the last scrapings of the ground coffee, mixed with bits of rust, fell into the pot.’

Header: Miryam Leon

Photo 2: Mae Mu

Photo 3: Nathan Dumlao


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Elizabeth Newton