Why your brain has been lying to your tongue about coffee


Like Miley above, we are always trying to search for new tastes.

The problem is, our brain has been deceiving us about our tastes because of the myth that each area on the tongue is responsible for a taste sensation.

For years I believed that the tongue had certain areas for certain tastes. For example: Detecting bitterness at the back of your tongue and sweet flavours on the tip. My only rationale was that in caveman days, bitterness was a taste that often killed you so your body reacted by lifting the back of your tongue to stop the poison going down.

It seemed completely logical that when I broke down the different tastes of coffee, the bitterness was at the back, the sourness was on the sides and the sweet, fruity flavours were on the tip. Except, there was something that never quite made sense, I tasted bitterness on the sides of my mouth too. My brain told me that my tongue was wrong – what I had learned as a barista was that bitterness is only tasted on the back of my tongue, so what I was experiencing was actually SOURNESS. For a long time I was convinced that the bitter flavours on the side of my tongues were in fact, sour flavours.

It wasn’t until I was much older that I learned that I was right and the coffee world had mislead me. I WAS experiencing bitterness on the sides of my tongue – and the back, front and all around the outside.

The document explaining how the tongue maps all the different sensations was written in 1901 by David Hanig and was then translated by Psychologist Edwin G. Boring into English. The Original study showed a tongue map with 4 different sensations: Bitter, Sour, Salty, and Sweet. Each sensation was directly linked to an area on the tongue which seemed to show that each area was responsible for a specific sensation.

Here’s where it went wrong… The map wasn’t showing the areas responsible for the tastes, it was merely showing that in Hanig’s study, he found that there was a slight difference in the THRESHOLD of the taste. Meaning, you may experience the bitter flavours on the back of the tongue first but actually all four areas can equally detect the same taste. The sensitivity to the taste may be different on parts of your tongue, but the level of intensity is always the same which means it isn’t going to be sweeter on the tip of your tongue, you may just notice it more.

tongue map correct display of tastes

We can only assume this is why Miley always has her tongue out.

So there you have it, a hundred years of coffee drinkers are fooling themselves about where the tastes actually sit on their tongue.

PS. Another interesting note to add. The original study was actually trying to prove that no tastes are ever detected in the center of your tongue. This was confirmed again in 1974 by Virginia Collings who showed that yes indeed, the “taste belt” is around the outside of the tongue and can detect all sensations equally well.

For those of you who are interested – and can read German – here is the original paper written by David Hanig. Zur Psychophysik des Geschmackssinnes


Ryadan Jeavons

by Ryadan Jeavons

Ryd is a passionate coffee educator who started his career in 2000 as a barista. Having seen the coffee industry develop over the years and how much there is to learn about coffee still, his personal mission has become a role as the conduit between the industry and the consumer. He is passionate about educating the public on all the wonderful things we are learning about this golden liquid drink.

2 comments on "Why your brain has been lying to your tongue about coffee"

  1. A new reaction to a very old post. I have had the same experience and by now this myth has been solved. But the question still remains…How can we determine the right taste of a coffee…

    1. Ryadan Jeavons says:

      Great question Joeri. We know that SCAA have put out the flavour wheel which helps narrow down the flavours but of course, this doesn’t address the other words that we use like acidity and mouthfeel or even the fact that people still say “I want a STRONG coffee” (a common misconception because strength is just ratio of coffee to water/milk – eg: for stronger coffee just add more coffee.) when they actually mean I want a coffee that tastes punchy, or bold and has a mouthfeel that is strong tasting.

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