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Palate Fatigue: Yes, Your Taste Buds Can Get Tired Too!

It can happen to anyone at any time. One minute you’re feeling an indescribable vibrancy and next an emptiness. It has sidelined the most talented cuppers in the field for minutes; hours in more severe cases.  We are talking about the world of professional coffee tasting and it’s most common ailment--palate fatigue! Professional coffee tasters, like our own Paul Massard and Stormin’ Norman, put their taste buds on the line every day by cupping coffee for hours. With the daily cupping process come hazards and risks like burnt tongues, self-inflicted tongue bites and worst of all, palate fatigue. What is palate fatigue? Also known as taste bud exhaustion or sensory enervation, palate fatigue occurs when tasting a multitude of comparable products consecutively. In the realm of coffee, palate fatigue often strikes during the cupping process. During a cupping, slurping and slurping for hours on end could take a toll on your ability to distinguish between the different flavor notes of coffee. Why does palate fatigue happen? Many believe that palate fatigue occurs when your nose and taste buds are simply overworked. But researchers believe otherwise.  Their theory is that your brain, not the sensory receptors on your tongue, becomes fatigued with similar sensory information. This is a more solid theory because our brains function like computers. When we experience something with our senses, it sends a data signal to the brain. The brain then decodes the data into a sensory profile we can then experience. When multiple similar data signals are sent in rapid succession, the brain begins to mix up the signals and creates false readings (AKA palate fatigue). Are there other types of palate fatigue? As a consumer, you’ve probably experienced a condition very similar to coffee palate fatigue at your local department store’s fragrance section. After sniffing several different fragrance cards, they all start to smell the same. This is a form of palate fatigue that affects the nasal palate (it just so happens that coffee is the palate cleanser to smell when trying on perfumes.  What a coincidence!). How does one prevail against palate fatigue? The simple answer is to just take a break from tasting--give your brain a chance to clear its cache. If you don’t have the luxury of time, do what the pros do and employ a palate cleanser. Lastly, as any athlete will tell you, the best way to prevent exhaustion is through conditioning and endurance. The most physically fit palates often belong to Q graders and chefs. This is because experts have spent years conditioning their palates with High Volume Taste Training (or HVTT). Palate fatigue knows no bounds; the key is to stop it before it (for lack of a better term) leaves a bad taste in your mouth.  Be prepared! Remember to do as the pros do--rest, cleanse or prevent palate fatigue all together by employing a little HVTT. Want to see how you stack up against the pros in the world of professional tasting? Take a tour for a chance to cup with the masters!