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Coffee and Cleansing the Palate

(Image courtesy of the incomparable lileks.com)

Gourmands, foodies, wine tasters and others often speak of "cleansing the palate," essentially resetting the taste buds and/or the olfactory palate in order to unearth the true flavor of what they're eating. There are many methods used, with coffee being especially popular for cleansing the olfactory palate. That's all well and good if you're comparing perfumes or colognes, but if you're tasting multiple cups of coffee in one go, then more coffee may not be the best solution for cleansing the palate.

Surprisingly, some research suggests that there's no scientific or statistical upside to cleansing the palate. While I'm not a scientist, this is one instance where I tend to come down on the side of anecdotal evidence (not least because there was a difference of 29% between those who cleansed their palates with lemon versus those who just paused to breathe fresh air, which hardly seems statistically insignificant). If you've ever been in the vicinity of someone wearing too much perfume, or eaten or drank something with a long finish -- whether it's espresso or liverwurst with onions -- you know that some smells and tastes linger.

That's especially true when you're dealing with coffees that rely on brewing methods that leave behind a lot of oils or residue (espresso, Turkish coffee, and French Press all come to mind, though even a "clean" method like a Chemex, given the right beans, can still yield a cup with a long finish). When that happens and you're working your way through multiple cups of coffee, it helps to be able to cleanse your palate of the residue left behind.

How to Cleanse the Palate

Your best bet is plain water or plain seltzer. It's the universal solvent, after all, and will help to set the stage for whatever you taste next. Stray grounds, silt, and oils can be washed away with a quick swig and swish of lukewarm water. Seltzer can be used to much the same effect, and many people report that the bubbles leave the mouth feeling clean and refreshed.

If you'd like something with a bit of flavor, crackers work best -- and the plainer, the better. Galletas (thick, dry crackers often served before dinner at Cuban restaurants; try these from Goya) or Saltines are good options, since some other crackers will leave an aftertaste that's imparted to the coffee (Ritz crackers have a tendency to leave a buttery sheen that influences how your coffee will taste) and pretzels use food-grade lye or other additives to give them the slight bitterness that makes a truly good pretzel.

In either case, make sure that what you're eating is unsalted, since salt will noticeably alter the flavor profile of your next cup by muting some of the bitterness (if, on the other hand, you've got a cup of coffee that's entirely too bitter for your taste, a pinch of salt can be helpful). The dryness of the crackers is also helpful in clearing oils from the mouth, which helps if you've just had a cup that has a long finish or where its prep is oily.

Of course, there are other things that can be useful to cleanse the palate, whether you're sampling coffee, flights of beer, or a gourmet feast. One of the best of these is giving yourself a break between courses, resting your nose and your taste buds and literally giving yourself some breathing room. Do you have a favorite palate cleanse? Let us know! And if you need coffee, try our HiLine Ground Coffee Packs. They make a great cup of coffee for cleansing the olfactory palate (it's good to drink, too).