A scent journey

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#1: Post by TomC »

This story is long-winded and is only tangentially related to coffee, but many folks will find a common interest with me in this sensory experience. I'm sharing a fun outing I had yesterday in Berkeley, California at a museum dedicated to the craft of fine fragrances, the history of the craft and all things associated with its production including creating absolutes, concretes and other extracts from things like civets, deer, whales, tobacco and yes, coffee. There's etchings, advertisements, and manuscripts dating back to the 16th century on display in this tiny sun drenched museum.

Our day started at Berkeley Co-Roast with my buddy Jeff Hulin of Rebellion Coffee who is cranking out some delicious stuff on a consistent basis. Just 9 minutes east into the beautiful hills above Berkeley lies Aftelier Perfumes which was originally planned as our final destination for the afternoon. A little (coffee) surprise awaited us after the end of our one-hour museum tour that I'll share at the end.

Aftelier Perfumes and Aftel Archives of Curious Scents, is only open on Saturdays, where they host intimate tours of their fine collection, museum and archive. The price is a very reasonable $20, and seeing how they are the keepers of materials that in some cases, the last remaining samples on earth, I found it reasonably priced. They have vintage elixirs and extracts of things like ambergris that date well over a hundred years old. This museum is the only of its kind in the United States. What a gem to have so close by.

The aroma of wonderful smokey BBQ/grilling outside was enticing. I made a mental note to ask once inside where the source of this beautiful smelling food was coming from. Turns out, their neighbor on the other side of their backyard fence just happens to be none other than Chez Panisse. Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse is to California Cuisine and farm to table dining as Alfred Peet is to the world of Specialty Coffee in America.

I know when we dive deeper into coffee, be it roasting, cupping, testing brew recipes, etc, we focus in part on the fragrance and aromas found in coffee. There's even a fragrance kit available via the SCA that helps train your nose, aptly named Le Nez. It's a useful skill being able to separate and identify different fragrances/aromas we find in coffee, and it's not often easy for many. For me, it was a nice reminder that many pre-conceived scent opinions actually fall apart when presented with the actual individual distilled essence you're referring to. Along with this, is the fascinating realization that most all of the artificially created fragrance essences we encounter on a daily basis and build our perceptions upon, pale in comparison to the much harder to afford, and far rarer authentic version, i.e.; we find synthetic rose extract in many fragrant objects (and not just feminine things), it smells almost nothing like the real thing. The same goes for jasmine, which we toss around frequently when describing delightful Geisha coffees from Panama, but in fact, the real thing actually has an animalistic, skunky note, not just its commonly referred to floral notes.

Onto the good stuff. The museum holds many interesting tools used for crafting a fragrance. Including this massive Perfume Organ, which has hundreds of distillates and extracts separated by where they land on the spectrum of longevity, top notes, middle notes and base notes, all alphabetically arranged. Above center, is a sketch called "The Muse of the Laboratory" from a loyal customer, musician Leonard Cohen, whom the owner created a custom fragrance Oud Luban that he wore daily. On the top ledge, is metal clips that hold paper swabs for visitors to save and take home of their favorite scent they discover on this Perfume Organ.

Similar to the Palm Civet, that is abusively manipulated to produce Kopi Luwak coffee, the African and Indian Civet create a musky scent glandular secretion that smells musky, animalistic, poopy at high concentrations and downright sweet smelling at proper dilutions.

A carving of a Sperm Whale, which produces ambergris. Costly stuff for sure. It is used as a fixative that holds the scent longer on the skin. It has barely any fragrance on it's own and only the very finest, oldest bottle ( I think it was at least 100 years old) had any real discernible fragrance and it was quite nice. I was really eager to smell this isolated, after reading about it for many years. Sometimes, beachcombers randomly find ambergris washed up on shore. Worth picking up, because I believe it sells for more than it's weight in gold.

A watchmakers toolbox, filled with the actual materials that many fragrances are obtained from. Not shown, but interesting to see, was benzoin resin. Slightly similar compounds exist today in random items like Betadine for wound cleaning and disinfecting, and they even put the stuff in bubblegum to make the flavors last longer. It smells faintly, but quite pleasantly of vanilla.

Everything was well described and available to pick up and smell. So many vivid scent memories were triggered just taking off the stopper of a random bottle. Memories of high school chemistry labs, parents and grandparents perfumes, colognes, medicine cabinets and even cooking came to mind in a stark fashion.

I won't list every scent impression, or this would be three pages of comments. Suffice it to say, there were many fascinating discoveries.

A small still used to extract/distill essences from their native materials.

I never heard of Deertongue. But both the raw material shown here, and the extract smelled incredible. Visitors are invited to take three samples home with them on thick paper wands to savor for a while. For me, Deertongue was one of them I chose. Very hard to describe, but it smells woody, dark, like old paper, candle smoke in old churches, etc.

Labdanum smells sweet, woody, warm and amber-like. It's used in all sorts of fragrances as a replacement for ambergris which is now banned from trade for the most part. There's notes of leather and incense and all sorts of neat things that come from this sticky waxy resin. It was originally harvested from the underbellies of goats and sheep, even combed out of the beards of billygoats, as they grazed in the fields where the Labdanum flower blooms and the sticky oil rubs up against their coats and gets trapped.

Most of us would immediately recognize the smells from these bottles on the left, that contain synthesized modern-day copies of the far more expensive and rare original extracts. Many of these are over a century old and have increased in complexity.

This material is incredibly hard to describe, but it's extracted out of these specific seashells (Onchya), and smells very fresh, ocean-air, new sawdust, maybe even dill. Some of these materials brought about memories of smelling old books, old musty cathedrals, etc. I think I've smelled something similar from the House of Creed, which has been making fragrances since the 1700's. Nosebleed prices, but they use the finest materials on earth. You would want a corner of your home to smell like this.

A few different forms of Jasmine, as mentioned earlier, they're quite skunky compared to the modern authentic synthetic version that smells much more like what we describe when we mention jasmine in Geisha coffees.

This Damascenone smelled exactly like maple syrup.

Wormwood smells like sage and mint, but even better, and more complex. Apparently it's strong enough that when harvested that you can actually taste it without even putting it in your mouth, its that strong, which you wouldn't want to do, because it's incredibly bitter. A form of it was historically added to Absinthe for its mild hallucinogenic properties.

Cassia (often from Ceylon) is similar to cinnamon. Many cheap forms of cinnamon bought today is actually cassia. The smell matches the taste of Big Red (cinnamon) chewing gum identically.

Pine tar is a big aroma. It's stronger smelling than just the sap you'd smell from a pine tree. It smells like an old smokey BBQ shack, out in the woods. It's beautiful.

Of course.....

So after asking the hosts about the wonderful smell of food outside (discovering it was Chez Panisse), they also mentioned a little cafe just 4 doors down, it just happens to be the original Peet's Coffee location, which has many artifacts of Alfred Peet's career, including a miniature museum dedicated to the history of his historic empire. I was gobsmacked. What a fun afternoon.

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#2: Post by happycat »

Thanks for sharing this. I seem perennially congested and my wife seems more attuned to scents and aromas. When we have coffee I'm always interested in what she experiences because her descriptions help me identify things I would otherwise miss.

It's a kind of mindfulness... smell and sound can become background noise without our attention.
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#3: Post by RapidCoffee »

What a wonderful read! Thanks for sharing.

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#4: Post by [creative nickname] »

So cool! Will definitely check this out next time we are in the area...
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#5: Post by bronsht »

Absolutely amazing. And then Peets to boot! Thank you so much.

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#6: Post by Balthazar_B »

Tom, what a great bit of writing. The kind of piece that makes me glad to be in the H-B community. And also glad I'm so close to Berkeley again. Cheers!
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#7: Post by jbviau »

Fantastic stuff, Tom (thanks). I've been intrigued by this place since reading a NYT article about it a few years ago (link). It's on my "must visit" list, for sure. I tend to follow my nose in life. For example, I've always thought coffee smelled better than it tasted. I often put my empty mug to the side once I've drunk its contents and then swing by for a whiff later on--something my wife somehow doesn't find odd. 8)

p.s. I have a hunk of ambergris the size of a baby's fist that I haggled for in a souk in Morocco 25 years ago. Well, now it's in several pieces because I broke into it looking for squid beaks. Didn't find one, but no worries since I later bought a few Humboldt squid beaks online from a retired CA fisherman. But I digress...
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#8: Post by TomC (original poster) »

I would definitely recommend it to anyone visiting the area. Mandy Aftel is incredibly warm and welcoming. She makes a point to check in with each guest multiple times, at first just to introduce herself, answer any questions and just engage in interesting conversation about anything scent/fragrance related. They limit each hour to a maximum of 8 guests, and between her, and her husband and son, there's a lot of passion and resources available. I inquired about what " Cade" was, since I couldn't recall reading about it before and it smelled incredible. Turns out it's a destructive distillation of juniper. They have extracts of tobacco, and I wondered if it was harvested and processed while green, or if the raw product was first fermented and aged like smoking tobacco is.

An interesting observation after the fact, they let you put any of their custom perfumes Mandy creates, on your skin to enjoy. I of course had to try the one containing oud (because I love oud and already have a lot of it in various forms), and because it was the scent she created for Leonard Cohen. At first smell, it was so light and fleeting that I was not very impressed. But the strength of it actually grew over a period of hours and I was able to smell it on the back of my hand until late last night.

I could easily see roasteries and cafe managers working with Aftel to do training classes in smell/aroma perception. I think it would add another level of learning to a skill we assume only happens with our noses over a cupping bowl.

Separately, I fixed a typo in the original where I intended to write sythetic that I didn't catch on that auto-correct had changed.I left the original wording with a strike through.
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#9: Post by TenLayers »

I've lived in SF, Berkeley and Oakland since 1982 and have never heard of this place. Thank you so much.

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#10: Post by yakster »

I'm going to see if my family wants to go.

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