Monthly Archives: May 2013

Terminology and the Conceptualisation of Flavour – Blends

Flavour topics – part 3

In essence, these three posts have all been about the way we think of flavour; the way we consider it and turn it into concepts in our head, which are then discussed and exchanged. In the first post I wanted to touch on the fascinating nature of taste, that we can not only interpret flavour differently from a conscious point of view, but that we can have different sensory input altogether even from the same physical tasting object. As we moved in to the second post I wanted to look at the allocation of flavour, i.e., the expectation that something may be bitter or acidic, and that therefore the labelling may not be correct but just fits easily within what appears to be logical or within specific reference points.

This post will focus more specifically on language. How terminology can mean different things in different contexts, how it can be misused and how some of it seems to make sense, but then, after a little pondering, it doesn’t. I am going to use blends and blending as the case study for the article. It is not an anti-blend post. On that note what even is a blend? I will look at this definition shortly.

I would also like to clarify the difference between challenging the rationalisation of preferences and challenging preferences themselves. I have stated in many posts before that I don’t think everybody should like the same thing and that thought processes that don’t allow for different tastes are prejudiced and exclusive, as well as snobby and just plain stupid. First of all we need to identify what we are talking about – our goals, and even then we may disagree, but at this point it’s a more useful disagreement. This boils down to the fact that we are all entitled to like different things. However, it is worth questioning the way we explain these preferences, and more specifically, the reasons we give for thinking one thing is better than something else; and by this I mean reasons beyond, “I just prefer the way it tastes.”

Back to that question, what is a blend?

A blend is a mixture of component parts, but how exactly does this relate to coffee? Commonly, espresso blends are comprised of coffees from many parts of the world, from different origins. The term Origin in coffee is often very broad, as single origin only means country of origin, i.e. Ethiopian coffee or a Brazilian coffee. The coffees can easily be blended within that country. To make a comparison with wine: it would be the equivalent of saying a single origin wine is from France or Chile, nothing more. So let’s pick an instance in which there is more traceability and specificity: a single estate farm. Do we now have something that is definitely not a blend? Most single estate farms comprise of various Arabica varieties. What we happily call “not a blend” in coffee would in wine be deemed a blend (a blend of grape varieties – here a blend of Arabica varieties). More than anything, this just shows the lack of provenance and specificity in coffee’s history and the way it’s been traded.

To take this thought process further, even a plot made up of 100% Catuai is a blend, a blend of individual beans grown on different plants, each from their own coffee fruit, each with a slightly different origin, even if the differences in that origin are only 100 meters. Is this now a pedantic discussion? How discernible would this actually be to flavour? It’s hard to tell, because it’s not often done, but a few farms do, a good example is Hacienda Esmeralda, they grow the same variety (geisha) on the same “farm” but in different plots/lots, and the difference is amazing. There is a thread of similarity in flavour, but distinct differences in character. It’s rare (although becoming more common) that coffee is divided up and monitored in a way that allows these differences to really be highlighted. It’s arguable therefore that all coffee is in some ways always a blend. This is obviously not useful when describing coffees, but it is at the same time an interesting consideration, especially when the discussion of blends and single origins can descend into over-simplicity. What is the most useful conceptual line to draw when using the term blend in coffee?

A few pieces of terminology that accompany the term blend and are used in citing why a blend may be a superior approach to espresso are those of complexity and balance. To be honest, this kind of thinking has diminished greatly but it’s still worth considering the concepts themselves and the repercussion of this thought process. The terms balance and complexity have a wider reach that goes beyond blends.  I am not assuming that everybody feels and thinks about Blends in the same way but an often touted assumption is that blends are inherently more complex and balanced.

So, complexity. What does this mean as a taste descriptor? Well, from a physical standpoint, complexity denotes “something with many parts in intricate arrangement”

From a flavour point of view it is slightly different. A wine definition quotes it as follows: “many, different well merged flavours adding interest and personality to a wine to the point of being fascinating.”

Now what I would like to look at here is the easy confusion between physical notions of complexity and sensory complexity. It makes sense to suggest that a blend of multiple coffees is a more complex ingredient as it contains more parts, but does this naturally result in a more complex flavour? If this was the case, lets follow this path of logic and see where it takes us. It would suggest that more stuff equals more complexity, right? So then surely cramming the most coffees possible into a blend would result in the most complexity. How about 20 cup of excellence coffees – that would be twentyfold the goodness, right? No. I’m having a bit of fun here; no one thinks this. It makes no sense because of that wine definition of complexity – personality!

Complexity of flavour does not exist without character of flavour. Each of those cup of excellence coffees was judged on its character, its personality – importantly, on its own. What that means is that 100 percent of the available space in the cup was given to that one coffee and its personality – Its character and its complexity. This isn’t to say blends can’t have character and that therefore single estates are superior, but rather to establish that the character of each coffee in a blend will be affected by the other coffees in the blend. Each coffee no longer has 100 percent of the available space. You will no longer see their individual characteristics but something unique to their combination – that something will not and can not be the coffees sharing the stage equally, i.e. it’s not like you can see all the separate characters in the cup at the same time. They affect each other. Their acidities combine and alter each other, as do their sweetness’s and their bitterness’s etc. Your perception of flavour also changes.

This conclusion questions the logic of the commonly cited explanations of blend building. Often it may be stated that one coffee brings body, another coffee sweetness and this other coffee acidity. But the coffees are more complex than this aren’t they? Yes, this may be a way of describing a blending process, but at the same time each of the coffees has acidity, body, etc. So some of the acidity in the cup will be influenced by the other coffees, not just the one which was put there for acidity. Simply put, they all affect each other, and as regards complexity, it is arguable that a blend of many, many parts could very easily compromise complexity by compromising character. This may not be the case, but it’s also definitely not the case that more parts equals more complexity of flavour.

Now, at this point, it’s useful to consider that other word, the one that often sits next to complexity, and that is balance.

How much can these two really sit side by side? Well it depends on your definition of balance. Does it represent a set evenness or does it represent things working together to create something harmonious? These two may sound strikingly similar, but they are different and importantly so. Evenness is problematic, because it is in danger of flattening things out and homogenizing character. And without character we don’t have complexity because personality is lost. So we could very easily have something that is a balance of flavour parts but that displays very little complexity. Equally we could have something that has balance of sweet, acid and bitter and still has character, But if applied across the board it limits the complexity we can have coffee to coffee.  By trying to achieve the same balance of flavour components continuously we are always in danger of compromising the character of the individual coffees, the very personalities that give us complexity. But an even balance definitely doesn’t, by virtue of its being even, then equal complexity. The only balance that equals complexity is the kind of balance which allows for character and therefore complexity to shine, which is the second definition of balance – Harmony. It’s when something works.

Harmony can be more applicable to character. It can be applied to the way the coffee’s flavour components work together to create something with a positive balance. Going back to the last post – if the individual’s desired balance in espresso is chocolaty and very low on acidity, then it requires a different balance to something sugary, floral and citrus. Balance, as a throw away comment, is not particularly useful, neither is complexity. A positive balance is debatable.

Both of these words can have value, but maybe just not as much as they have been imbued with. And especially not without framing and context.

So, here we have established why blends don’t simply equal an achievement of complexity and balance simply by being a blend, by consisting of many parts. As well as why the simple notions that single estate or co-op coffee (more specific origin coffee) are destined to be simpler, is also illogical.

Now, this really concludes the main reason I wanted to explore blends, in order to challenge the simple links made between things like component parts and flavour complexity. While I am here I should also touch on blends full stop, and apply some of these thought processes to the blend topic. As explored at the beginning, notions of blends and non-blends are really too simplistic. I am not against blends or averse to trying some, but in reality I’m also not particularly interested in them. It will be no shock to anyone reading this blog that my reasons for adoring coffee are rooted in provenance and character of flavour, and the variety and complexity this affords by treating coffee as a broad culinary product with many flavour and character possibilities. It’s useful to look at the current speciality coffee scene. There has been more and more of a focus on provenance, on considering how things like variety, terroir and process affect the cup. These qualities are easier to see by not blending heavily in a traditional way.

It’s a bit of a chicken and egg question as to the current reasoning for this. You cannot ignore blending’s historical significance. There may be less want to blend now because there is less of a need to, because of improvements in cultivation at a farm level, more value in such a pursuit, increased knowledge and technical advances in brewing espresso, or maybe just a changing marketplace, a keener interest in the culinary aspects of provenance as opposed to the more singular espresso item. It’s probably a culmination of all of these factors.

This is not to say that blends cannot be valuable, but it is important to accurately assess why you may blend. I can see two logically accurate reasons for blending, first is the desire to pursue a more specific flavour profile like say, chocolate, nutty and a hint of fruit. Along with this is the commercial reason for blending: a consistent flavour regardless of seasons, or with cheaper coffee. Although, this consistent flavour, in itself, has to be an average of sorts, of coffee flavour, you couldn’t pick say the qualities of a specific farm (say peachy, light and floral)- and try to achieve them with a blend all year round, As there would not be enough coffees to achieve this specific character. So a constant blend limits the type of character displayed, as in some way it relies on average flavours – You have to choose more repeatable characteristics. The second reason for blending is exactly the same as the reason for pursuing provenance, roasting and all the other stuff, and that’s the pursuit of character and interesting flavour personality. This post should not suggest that blends cannot achieve this, but it depends on the blend and the goals of the very blending.  Blends can create something unique to its combination, but does this outweigh that of a singular part? It doesn’t need to be a competition. A blend can be more complex than a single estate, single variety and vice versa. Personally I have had more single estate espresso that I see as impressive, complex and exceptional than I have blended espresso.

From my point of view there is so much yet to be explored by stepping back form blending and focusing more on singular provenance that there is little incentive for me to want to pursue blending based on my goals and interest in the flavour of coffee. There are so many amazing coffees for me to explore and taste. If there wasn’t all this complexity, balance and character then I may be more interested in blending.

There is also the issue that blends can actually lead to more variable results. The percentage of individual parts in the blend cannot be guaranteed shot to shot. (they sit differently in the hopper and the bag)Meaning that it is harder to create a specific character cup to cup, and without character then complexity and balance are compromised. It, like god shot ideologies tends towards playing the flavour roulette wheel. Again, not my interest. I don’t feel I can fully explore the coffees character it the goal posts are changing like this.

I was thinking the other day that if hypothetically there were only very simple flavours that could be achieved from coffee then blending would make sense by possibly furthering our character potential. But then I start thinking about this article. With flavour products like coffee, it’s not like Lego, simple blocks stacked atop each other. I wonder whether I would even be interested in coffee at all if this were the case.

Anyway, back to reality. As explored at the beginning of this article, the term blend can be applied to nearly all coffee. Maybe we could have spectrum that could start with a single bean from one coffee cherry to represent complete specificity (not a blend). This could then stretch out along a long line finishing up with a blend made up of different coffees from 50 countries (you could keep going), and this could represent the other extreme – heavily blended. Where on this continuum is the line drawn between blend and non-blend? Let’s imagine we draw the distinction between the two right at the beginning of the spectrum (near the single bean) which would mean anything else is then a blend. If this were the case then yes I’m interested in blends, and I would still be really excited by the notion of blends as that line moves along and encompasses a blend of different varieties on the same location/farm. It’s amazing to think that the complexity discussion could ever be simplified to the point of single origin or blends. The difference in complexity and flavour variety to variety in different environments is exciting to explore. One variety may provide more complexity on its own while another may not? It may benefit by being blended with another variety. As the line continues to move along the continuum to the point where the provenance is lost and questions of variety and processing are not even considered at all, then I’m getting less and less interested in the notion of a blend. If your definition of a blend is that of the certified Italian espresso (INEC definition) which states that a blend constitutes between 7 and 21 parts then no, I am not interested in blends(at this point I actually find great character and complexity gets lost, unless of course the coffees aren’t great on their own to start with). We are then also moving away form the complexity of speciality coffee as a whole, which by focusing on provenance is allowing many different unique and complex characters to be displayed.

At this point I am just expounding upon my preferences and interests in coffee. More important to consider is the rationalisation of preferences. What is complexity and balance? What equals what? Preferences aside, What exactly are we achieving at each point, and how? It’s not as simple as 1 plus 1.

Thus concludes this little 3 part series on flavour topics. I’m not sure what’s next, but there’s plenty to write about.

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Why Speciality Coffee Isn’t Overly Acidic

Flavour Topics – part 2

 

Speciality coffee, single estate farms, lighter roasts, provenance and flavour notes are a relatively new thing, an emerging approach developing and gaining ground, sprouting out of the entrenched traditional approaches to this drink that make up coffee’s place and history. This isn’t just centuries of tradition but in the case of the North West coast of America and Australia, decades of coffee culture, yes they are sitting on the shoulders of older traditions, but in their own right the approaches are each established enough to set boundaries and define approaches. I have always found it useful to display speciality coffee as a new product, as a different option, an exploration of amazing potential that is possible, but only beginning to be utilised. It won’t be a surprise then to hear that in many a case, this in some way challenges the existing norms. Especially when you consider the fact that coffee is often seen by many an enthusiast and especially by many scenes as a singular thing. Then on top of this consider that with espresso this singularity is amplified. Think of the god shot, the golden fleece of espresso!

I came at speciality coffee pretty much fresh (as in no attachment to blends or a certain taste etc.) I immediately saw it as a different product, one full of complex flavour. I didn’t think it tasted like one thing, but was instead awe-inspired by the complexity and variety of flavour, the character, the culinary aspect of coffee as opposed to the traditional coffee flavour that I had previously equated with the beverage. I was amazed that I had only ever heard coffee described as smooth, or less bitter, round and rich. These descriptors were wholly inadequate for this approach to coffee. Through taste experiences I realised that this wasn’t a simple product but one full of amazing potential and flavour, that it’s a beverage that has so many processes and factors that impact on its possibility. I can remember the excitement of these realisations as if it were yesterday. I am still excited and enthused by coffee every day, but in different ways: the natural change that occurs when a relationship changes with experience. I do often think how wonderful coffee is, and that the more you spend time with it, the more it gives.

I had tasted single origin espresso that excited me, cups that were vastly different from each other, some chocolaty and delicately spicy (cinnamon, all spice flavours), and others with ripe juicy notes and floral aromatics. It was then a surprise to me to find these coffees being described in certain corners as unbalanced and acidic. The inference was that good espresso was only about a more traditional blend with nuance and complexity and balance. I struggled at first to understand what these terms meant. The various single origin espressos I had just tasted seemed more complex to me – isn’t supreme balance the quasher of character? Where does the line between boring and bland meet complex depth? Aren’t these words a bit vacuous and vague? What do they really mean? They don’t mean as much in other culinary pursuits like wine. Complexity and balance always sit within other context, they need framing.

I thought maybe it was two different groups of approach. I still in many ways think this is the case. And I think that the varying approaches are in themselves in danger of being overly biased when describing one another. It was also clear that there was a defence of the old guard. The common words employed in defence of blends and non-speciality coffee are clever because they are enigmatic; they are elusive and can easily justify whatever you pair them with. (Balance is interesting to consider, i.e. a certain coffee’s balance – sweet and peachy with low acidity but a floral bitterness – the character it displays is not a standard balance, but it does have a positive balance based on how its specific flavour parts work together).

Wondering about the origins of the debate didn’t change the fact that the polemic seems silly and simplistic in itself. These few posts are intended to look at perspective and concepts in tasting and how exactly that presents itself in the new versus the old approaches to coffee. Personally I think that it is far more valuable to present them as traditional vs. speciality, or say provenance driven. Coffee is a complex vast thing with room for a fair few approaches.

Before I go any further, and in my own way ratify a polemic approach, I am keen to recognise the issues with terminology and what each of us may mean when we say “acidic” or “traditional” etc. The tricky thing here is that when I read a blog denouncing third wave coffee as an acidic mess or someone bemoaning the lighter roasts and discussing the complexity and the superiority of blends etc, I don’t know what the reference points for the pieces actually are. I can often find myself defending speciality coffee’s virtues, and at the same time I am forgetting that I am often irritated by much of “speciality” coffee. That I have had many poorly made shots, or short acidic shots, bad, green, overly lightly roasted, etc.
I guess that much “speciality” coffee would not fulfil my definition of it. Maybe the authors of these blogs are talking about shots that I too would describe as too acidic, under developed and under extracted? If this were the case it would be easy to reconcile and It would suggest that we actually all want the same thing and that where we think we disagree, we actually don’t, we are each just citing examples of the other approach done badly. This, however, is not entirely the case. I started with the last blog to show that it’s not as simple as finding common ground, and that amongst us we can have different tastes, not just psychologically but physically. I think it is terribly useful to step back from coffee and look at the varying tastes people have, heavier, lighter, aromatic, spicy and on and on and on. Coffee is an incredibly complex flavour product, and part of the issue here is an attempt to singularise it. It would make simple sense that the different tastes that exist in our everyday lives also exist within the world of coffee. As I mentioned in this post – subjective/objective, fields like speciality coffee are built off of a collective agreement of tastes/flavour within that area.

After several experiences in which reactions to a certain coffee have actually been opposed, I have felt inclined to reconcile these differences, not by trying to force everyone to do things the same way, but by appreciating difference, then establishing what it is I value, what speciality coffee may value and looking at it all as various fields and approaches within a larger domain. Also, I very much wish to challenge the accuracy of how certain approaches label and describe the other.

It is really interesting to weigh up the various responses to the coffee we serve; the coffee I/we see as of “great quality”, and of which we then brew to display its character as we best see fit. The labelling of third wave or speciality as acidic has many problems, I am going to explore why I see this as a minority mind set which is labelling based on a context and expectation that is effectively very rare. Because these opinions are part of a scene or peer group, they gain more traction and ground and therefore outweigh their reality.

On several occasions I have had interactions with customers that go as follows “Hello, I am really in to coffee, which is the least acidic espresso you have?” At this point I get a little concerned that we don’t have what they are looking for and go about explaining how all of the espresso are single estate or co-op, they are a lighter roast focusing on provenance, that each will have an acidity, but at the same time, these are the three we have on (we have three espresso on at any one time) and I would say this one is less acidic”. On many occasion the drinker or in this case drinkers returned saying how none of the espressos they tried were too acidic, that they all displayed interesting flavour and balance. In this case I naturally surmise that their previous experience of “speciality coffee” was a super acidic shot, maybe very short on shot weight or low on machine temperature. An experience that I would also describe as too acidic.

On the flip side of this I have had a similar number of experiences in which the same interaction has started identically, but this time the individual has commented how all they could taste was the acidity and that it may be a good green bean but you can’t taste its quality because it is blinded by acidity. There have been varying versions of this. Sometimes the suggestion is that only a very narrow range of coffees should be used for espresso, i.e. a low grown Brazil. This leaves me in a space where I need to process this information, they contradict each other, and they conflict.

A bit like the allocation of bitter in the last post, I am interested in looking at a larger perspective, trying to be a bit more objective. Now although as we established in the last post, different people have different sensitivities etc. It is also fascinating to note that the latter reaction has only ever come from a form of coffee hobbyist, or industry person. Some one very involved in coffee from the perspective of a more traditional format. People who have built up a framework of expectation about what espresso should be. If anything such events are weird surreal anomalies.

We have endeavoured to create a shop where discussion of flavour is paramount, Focusing on honest discussion. This means that people will happily declare that they don’t like a naturally processed coffee or prefer another coffee etc. We get all sorts of interpretations of coffee’s flavour also, with many a customer cross-referencing their experiences with each other, some surprised that the person sitting next to them does find it sweet whilst the other said nutty and so on. It is rather wonderful that the drinkers themselves often question the subjective/objective nature of their own observations. Amongst all of this though, the claim of any espresso being overly acidic does not come up, and this is regardless of the coffee too, even if it’s a floral citrus Yirgacheffe on espresso as opposed to a natural Brazil. Acidity is discussed, but less directly like, ooh, this is tart like gooseberries, and a member of staff will maybe chime in with, yeah its got a tart acidity, as opposed to the more soft kind of sugary acidity of one of the other espressos that is on.

We have a very broad range of people visiting us, one of the benefits of the reputation we’ve built, along with where we are and somehow ending up near the top of Tripadvisor’s best restaurants in Bath, means that a lot of foodies visit, or anyone interested in tasting some interesting coffee, as opposed just for a coffee or aiming for a traditional coffee experience. This can add glorious perspective and I think this has proved a wonderful audience for speciality coffee, rather than just an existing coffee clique.
Interestingly I have noticed that more often than not the fruit notes which display themselves at the front end of the shot are harder for many to pick up on, mostly the initial responses are that the espresso they tried is layered and complex, they can get the caramel and some kind of juiciness but will need to contemplate it, There is not a knee-jerk reaction of “it’s acidic, sharp and lemony.” Maybe this is because the average framing is that coffee has heavier flavour notes, therefore witnessing the fruit notes, or the acidity is less likely. Maybe. I still think people would pick it up as super-acidic and sour if it was.

In fact, it very quickly becomes apparent that this acidity question may in many cases be a symptom of expectation and framing of this particular argument. Basically, that this topic of discussion exists, that such an argument is a part of the coffeesphere (“espresso must be a blend, lighter roasts are always too acidic”) means that having a speciality coffee from a certain roaster encourages the labelling of over acidic. That in the mind of the drinker who is aware of the argument, the allocation of “overly acidic” is just waiting to jump out of the judgement starting blocks. In the same way the likeliness of bitter association is waiting to occur with another group of people, this time with a different framing to begin with, that of the pop culture coffeesphere.

This isn’t to suggest they are wrong in preferring what they prefer or that they are not keen on the difference, it may however be that the difference is what is solely being focussed upon. However It is also fair for us to recognise the difference, especially when it’s surprising. So yes, the filters are comparatively weak if what your looking for is something gritty, roasty and bitter. But that doesn’t mean its weak per se on a more objective level. With many a drinker commenting on how much flavour there is in them and that they were surprised by this.

Espresso though is arguably strong on an objective level. In fact, ever since we started doing what we have been doing, I have been very eager to embrace presenting speciality coffee as having different goals, explaining what we are looking for when we buy, brew and taste coffee, as opposed to just saying that this is a good or tasty coffee, or that yes if you like coffee, then you will like ours ‘cos it’s good.
When looking at the natural differences in the product’s possibility and people’s experiences of it, it’s important to recognise the context and expectations set elsewhere. Most of the time there isn’t an issue at all, there isn’t a mind-set that espresso should taste a certain way, and focus on individual flavours like bitter or acidic become quite rare. More often than not there is a quick recognition of what it is we are doing, of why it’s different, often the reaction to one of our espressos, is ”wow, it really is like a different product.” This seems to have become much easier with environment and expectation setters – setting the stage

I don’t like the simplification of taste in a product like coffee. Would you ask someone what makes a good wine? You would definitely consider some specifics first, region variety etc. Yes there are some overarching qualities that define speciality coffee, but still, variety of character and flavour within that space is par for the course. The most fascinating thing here is how much this simplification is amplified when considering espresso. Often an individual will recognise the natural diversity of flavour that filter displays, but quickly assert that a good espresso is something singular, a narrower thing, a stricter definition. I remember once somebody saying how amazing and enjoyable a certain espresso was in terms of flavour and character, but that it wasn’t a good espresso. This kind of sums it up really. Issues with framing actually hindering espresso possibility. Obviously, I disagree with this.

Acidity seems to me to be an easy way to attack speciality coffee, well your approach may focus on provenance and variety of flavour but it is just acidic! So there, ours is the best. Big brands and cultural traditions are being challenged or at least not being allowed to have the stage all to themselves and this often seems to play into the reaction by this field that speciality coffee is overly acidic. In many ways it is the challenging of a belief system about what coffee is. It is quite interesting to hear the old guard in many areas say that coffee is about artistry and the journey rather than flavour…… If this is why you like coffee that’s cool, I am just not sure about the opinion that then follows regarding taste, regarding things like acidity, after all that’s not why you’re into it.

Let’s look at acidity. First of all there’s not one type of it. You’ve got lots, Malic acid, citric acid, and so forth. There are lots of reasons why each turn up In coffee and they’re not always good. But this is not what we are describing really, we really mean brightness: the sensation of acidity that raises the cup and that adds structure and vitality. A tonne of other things we consume and enjoy include acidity at higher levels than most speciality coffee, think of wine and all variety of juices. The quick retort to this may be that coffee is not a wine or a juice and therefore doesn’t need acidity. When I mention acidity I don’t mean that it just tastes of acid, but that it’s a positive part of the character and that it brings life and vibrancy to the cup. I don’t mean that it is the same as raspberry juice, just like an ale with tropical fruit notes doesn’t taste like Rubicon.

Maybe you have had a shot that is overly acidic or has an acid-based defect, but the sensible and logical movement from this point is not to assume that all acidity is bad. That is a misuse (or misunderstanding) of the term acidity.

It would seem that the spotlight is only displaying a partial view of a taste experience. It’s a bit like telling someone not to think of dolphins, all they then can think of is dolphins. This is probably highly evident in a lot of sensory evaluation.

This also raises questions about the expectation of a certain result based on other criteria that are known as one goes to taste something. The existing parameters set by a certain school of “coffee thought” can single acidity out as wrong. Here we come back to goals and values in coffee. What’s coffee about for you? What I’m trying to sieve through is the difference between framing by traditionalists that lighter roast coffee with acidity is inherently unbalanced on a wider culinary scale, or whether the judgement is actually only relative to a certain approach to coffee, and that on a broader culinary scale, speciality coffee is actually a more balanced product with traditional coffee being more of an extreme product. This would then challenge the assertion that speciality coffee is unbalanced towards the acidic. Actually it is just more acidic than other approaches which in themselves are arguably less balanced on a wider culinary scale. Now I don’t think that the success of a product is based on whether it is neutral or has the broadest appeal. I have mentioned before in subjective blog that there are parameters set by the field, and that there are interesting subjective boundaries about whether a certain flavour group or characteristic is a part of a positive cup or is not and sullies it. I am definitely not arguing for neutrality nor for brightness to be the sole objective. I am arguing that such a reaction to any acidity as well as mis-use of the word balance is in itself in danger of homogenising.

How accurate is this kind of information and opinion without correct context? Especially for those looking in. Other products can make the most of existing knowledge, ie. You know an IPA will be floral and hoppy and a stout will be heavy and round. Flavour notes can then sit on top of this expectation, i.e. it’s an IPA with tropical fruit aromas. It doesn’t just taste of tropical fruit though, its likely also floral, bitter, malty and yeasty. For a non-coffee person (or for people who haven’t tasted the product you are talking about) I feel a lot of description can be very misleading. A bit like the issues I have had with staff when they taste so much coffee that they focus on what’s interesting or different to them, such as wow isn’t the El Salvador Finca Argentina tasting full of caramel! They are used to the coffee and are forgetting to look at its fruity and aromatic notes. Their common ground with coffee is going unspoken, which is also what the heavier roast or less acidic coffee individual is doing, often taking for granted everything that is familiar to them, such that it doesn’t warrant a mention. When describing a fruitier shot all they are focusing on is the less familiar part of the view, Now imagine the view from the kitchen window, A truck drives into view. Now when explaining this view to someone else who lives in the house, there is no need to describe the whole view. Instead you would likely focus on and mention the truck when describing what you see out of the window. But, if describing the view from the window over the phone to someone who didn’t know it at all, you would also note the oak trees, the lawn and the garage.

This is how I feel about a lot of description in coffee, not just with traditional heavier roast but also with speciality coffee only focusing on the sweet notes, i.e. it tastes of peach syrup and candy floss. Come on it doesn’t just taste of those things. Of course some information and understanding has to go unmentioned, but it is useful to consider what is being left out, to consider the platform for understanding now going unsaid.

Describing taste and understanding in each other’s experiences is harder than describing and understanding views into the garden.

This is where we come back to describing coffee in more general culinary terms. If not deeply immersed in coffee, would you really describe a lighter roast espresso as lemony? (Again we would need an example of what I would deem speciality espresso). The dogma of previous coffee approaches can mean that a very typical acidity that we find in other food and drink is being labelled as extreme acidity, like chewing on grapefruit, when really it’s more like a slice of lemon or grapefruit dropped into some sparkling water. I am able to say all of this purely due to watching many people’s reactions to this kind of coffee. It’s really quite fascinating that a coffee enthusiast who sits in the more Italian or West Coast American field will say it’s light roast acidic coffee where as a curious individual who has drunk a bit of espresso but is into food wine etc. will just mention the fruit as a note in the coffee, whilst also focusing on other characteristics of the drink.

I had a customer on the bar today who said the espresso is so complex that personally they found the fruit less discernible but were getting the caramel and soft spice notes. Now this individual is a regular and is completely aware of and able to recognise what sour lemon concentrate tastes like and when I bring this up with her – that this coffee is being written off by traditionalists as an acidic nightmare – she is at first dumbfounded, and then intrigued. “Really?” She says, “but come on. Yes it has some fruity notes but nothing compared to a sour concentrate, that’s not a useful description.”

Maybe you’re reading this and if we were in a room together we would agree on what was overly acidic and therefore, actually we are just unknowingly using different examples for our argument, then again maybe not. But just forget for a moment that this is coffee. See it as a liquid full of flavour. Would you describe it in the same way?

Our shop’s goals are to display and present speciality coffee as a culinary product. We do all sorts of funny things at our shop. We are off the beaten track, you have to venture to us for a reason, that reason isn’t food because we don’t sell it. On top of that we don’t recommend americano’s and we don’t recommend sugar. It’s not looking very good is it? It’s looking like we’ve stacked the odds against us and that we are restricting peoples experiences. But wait a minute, there’s a product that justifies this approach and that proves itself in terms of sensory experience and flavour. It needs to, because otherwise it would not work. The model is saying that speciality coffee is worth pursuing in its own right and that it doesn’t just have to be a side product. Would this all really be possible with a little cup of concentrate sour, sharp lemon juice?

The kind of speciality coffee that wins barista competitions and which we endeavour to serve can safely be described as not being overly acidic. The origins of such allegations should be queried; You may want to wonder whether such a labelling actually reflects a desire for coffee to be singular, for coffee to be coffee and for it not to be a culinary product. In the next post I would like to look in more depth at how concepts impact on flavour judgement. It’s time to look at blends.

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Taste, Flavour, and Perception

Flavour Topics – Part 1

When talking of coffee, the discussion of flavour and taste are never too far away. In fact what defines speciality coffee is that it is a culinary product, one that’s all about flavour. The way we all experience flavour is something of a minefield to untangle, I find it to be a common  topic of discussion, it influences service, it drives the craft of brewing, it defines the livelihoods of those that grow coffee, those that roast and, well, everybody involved really. I have touched on taste and flavour in a fair few posts previously – Isn’t it all essentially subjective – communication of flavouryou me autumn and coffee

I think taste/flavour is fascinating and whilst working with and serving speciality coffee it raises many a question.

The following few posts will each consider a specific aspect of taste and flavour in relation to speciality coffee, starting with the super taster test.

So, there are a few definitions for what super taster means. One is that of a developed sense of taste assessment through training, basically that taste is in many ways like a muscle and that the ability to assess it in relation to a specific product improves with practice. The super taster test that I am looking at here does not have any relation at all to this definition and should be treated separately, in fact I think the name is kind of misleading.

The super taster test is a little paper strip coated with a chemical, and an individuals reaction to it when placed on the tongue indicates sensitivity, primarily to bitter but also to fat and sugar. Twenty five percent of the population are very sensitive to these groups of flavour on the tongue and there is still a spectrum of sensitivity within this group. When this group puts the strip on their tongue, the reaction is one of repulsion, it’s best described as chewing on paracetemol. Fifty percent of the population are mildly sensitive and experience a mild bitterness but nothing too unpleasant when tasting the strip. The other 25 per cent have very little sensitivity to these groups and cannot sense anything at all when the strip is on their tongue.

Now, a lot of (most of it) tasting is done with the olfactory system and sensitivity to the strip, which is looking at your tongue (gustation) has an effect but it by no means is the be all and end all. Sensitivity here does not equal the super taster I mentioned at the beginning. Jason who works for me has just won the national cup tasters championship and he sits in the middle fifty percent bracket. Interestingly, extreme sensitivity has drawbacks, resulting in a dislike of anything slightly bitter. But again there is a spectrum. It’s also important to note that this indicates one part of your tasting make up. Emotion, association and preference etc. all impact hugely on what we like and don’t like.

But this little test is interesting because it proves that two people can be having physically different experiences from the same taste input. It means that two people can put the same strip on their tongue and experience completely different physical and tangible results. It’s not (just) that people’s brains are getting the same information from the tongue and interpreting the results differently. Due to their physical make-up their tongue is sending different signals entirely. This is important because it raises some very specific queries for coffee in its breadth, especially the differences between more traditional coffee approaches ­– darker roasts etc. – and speciality coffee. As well as just communicating and discussing coffees taste.

I got a hold of the strip because throughout the process of serving  speciality coffee to many people I’ve come up, as I’m sure everyone has, against a few brick walls that made me curious. These are situations where I found it hard to chat about flavour. It was almost like we were tasting different things. I originally thought it was just different interpretations of the same thing or one of the communication issues that will often arise in the discussion of flavour sensations, that we have each very possibly allocated different terminology for the same sensory experience, the same taste.

An example of one of these experiences has occurred a couple of times when serving an espresso, and in essence I feel this discourse is centred on espresso, although it naturally links to other coffee formats. Now and then I have had the response, “God it’s bitter.” I’ve tasted the same coffee and struggled to find much bitterness at all, in fact I find less bitterness in the coffee we buy and brew than I find in products like high-percent chocolate and hoppy ales. Was it just the intensity of the espresso’s complex flavour and the fact it displays very different flavour groups to traditional espresso? Was the unique intensity and complexity being misdiagnosed as bitterness? Does the fact that it is labelled as “a cup of coffee” mean that any interesting ( possibly previously unlogged ) or strong flavour is quickly interpreted as bitter, and this led to the correlation with bitterness even if it’s not true? Or maybe I was just less sensitive to bitter. I thought I better get one of those little chemical strips and find out.

The strips can be picked up on line, two for a fiver. It was fun and interesting for everybody at the shop to do. Three people were highly sensitive and three were in the middle bracket. It was most amusing that the info sheet supplied suggested that you may be a sensitive taster if you don’t like hot, spicy food, or if you don’t like coffee… The irony of this being apparent when I tasted the paracetemol-ly horribleness of the strip. I should probably not like coffee. This may go some way to explain long-harboured questions about why I didn’t like my previous experiences with traditional and commercial coffee. It also tallies up with the ‘marmite (love/hate)’ nature that partly defines coffee’s general pop culture status, the notion that many a fair few people can’t stand the stuff… 25 per cent maybe?

This would also suggest that many flavour experiences can be rife with miscorrelation, which makes sense really, because although there are some crossover experiences, such as “I tasted a strawberry, so did you, and now we both agree on what a strawberry tastes like”. Bitterness is rarely tasted in isolation. In fact, most flavour groups and sensations are tasted as part of something. This then means that mental recognition of different taste groups is paired up with a product that often displays such a taste. So that bitterness is as closely linked to the taste of dark roast espresso and baking chocolate as it is with the individual sensation of bitterness. It would make sense then that other information and sensory data would put the term bitterness in a place where it barely exists, but where it is thought that it may or should be. It was particularly insightful to chat to the friend of mine who had told me about this little test in the first place as it had made him reassess his mental allocation of bitterness. He found out that he’s very insensitive to bitterness and that maybe he had been correlating flavours and experiences with bitterness that may not be bitterness at all.

This got me thinking about many interesting situations with speciality coffee.

The fact that someone less sensitive to bitter could enjoy aspects of a heavier roast coffee that I cannot. It may explain how traditional espresso is a more niche drink unless supported by strong cultural structures, although in most of those countries sugar is heavily used which would make sense, seeing as only a small percentage wouldn’t notice the heavy bitterness.

This makes me think about the irony of sugar’s reaction in much speciality coffee. An individual is most likely aiming to add sugar for the very reason I would suggest not to – to avoid bitterness and harshness. I’ve said it before. I personally can’t get on with a lot of traditional espresso without sugar. It’s amazing that a speciality coffee without sugar is actually far more conducive to a sensitive palate. Most of the time, the reaction to our espresso with sugar is shock and surprise, “yes it is more bitter and sharp! Weird.” Twice though, over the past 3 years the response has been one of “actually I prefer it with sugar.” The rarity of this suggests that maybe they have less sensitivity to bitter and that a sugar hit is being achieved with the espresso without as much perceivable negativity. Maybe. Sometimes the goal of the drink and its importance is not about flavour, but just a sugar and caffeine vehicle. And that then the flavours come to represent this experience, so they become enjoyed due to correlation. Products like cigarettes could follow a similar tangent of stimulant then making something desirable. Although, flavour in all its forms represent stimulus. Flavour stimulation is linked to bodily needs, but it is highly fascinating that we can also enjoy flavour for flavours sake.

The experiences show that on the whole the flavour information regarding sugar is useful, but there are anomalies. Which is where it’s interesting to remember these little test strips. We are (in our shop) trying to give taste-based information that benefits the customer and the product. These circumstances and tests show that it is not a 100-percent achievable goal. It would however seem that you can on the whole communicate successfully and the super taster test can go some way to help explain the anomalies.

Espresso is an interesting taste experience to analyse anyway. The complex flavour is in itself a massive sensory experience. The bitterness question is not the only one and it’s very easy to get into a narrow and wrong thought process of “you will like this because of your sensitivity,” this is wrong. Flavour choices go far beyond simple sensitivities to the basic four gustation senses – sweet, sour, salt and bitter. Our biggest flavour receptor is the nose (olfactory system) and we have all sorts of likes and preferences that are almost separate to gustation. A friend’s wife is a super taster (bitter sensitive) but prefers traditional heavier roasty coffee, she is less keen on speciality coffee. She has had a roasty French Press coffee from a young age and it means a lot to her. Interestingly, though she cannot drink traditional espresso without sugar.

This kind of bitter sensitivity only plays a partial role in our taste. I like many products with a reasonable bitterness even though I am sensitive to it. I like hoppy ales and grapefruit, but there’s a balance there and pairings with other flavour groups, it’s not just isolated bitterness. Bitterness can add complexity and structure, and balance. With products largely dominated by bitterness I do struggle to enjoy them, even as I attempt to be as objective as possible, as I try and appreciate them for what they are.

Sometimes when thinking about the many aspects that influence taste, I begin to write-off the sensitivity to bitterness as having a big impact, and forget about considering it altogether.

It was recently, when questioning taste in this way that a couple from France walk through the door and I began to lend it some weight again, and start writing this post. He explains how he has always been very fond of coffee but doesn’t get the richness he wants from our coffee, where as she says she can’t stand the stuff when they are in France but actually finds herself drinking our coffee as an enjoyment, as something she finds delicious. It’s interesting to find out that she can’t enjoy spicy food etc. and the mind starts to race again, thinking as to whether she is very sensitive and whether this has impacted on her taste.

This doesn’t mean that if you’re a ‘non-taster’ you can’t like speciality, but it may suggest that, as the sheet accompanying the little strips said, super tasters will be more unlikely to like heavy or typical “coffee”. Or that if you have developed a fondness for a bitterer, darker roast coffee due to less sensitivity, that speciality coffee may not immediately appeal.

Does this then suggest that even though speciality coffee is a niche product, that it does actually have a wider possible taste appeal? Not just the niche appeal it’s been labelled with? That maybe the context in which it’s tried is holding its appeal back. Due to the wrong context, say that of the more extreme product of traditional coffee (tending towards the bitter end of the spectrum), the more balanced product is then seen as the unusual and extreme product. Maybe. At the same time speciality espresso is a layered intense and complex drink, this in itself may keep it niche, regardless of bitterness.

This instance of looking for a richness, the classicness of coffee, is something that speciality coffee isn’t trying to do and by default is actually polemic to. The difference can be somewhat overstated and lead to the statement by other coffee areas that speciality coffee is overly acidic. This statement seems to always come from the corner of traditional coffee, the context of a drink with low sweetness and acidity, so it comes from an area with a product which is in itself quite extreme, it then by virtue of its difference suggests that the other is extreme. I don’t think that speciality coffee is as extreme, yes espresso will always be an more extreme taste product, but speciality is arguably more balanced in the terms of breadth of taste, yes it’s characterful, it’s not bland, some speciality coffees may be higher on acidity but it’s all about context and the next post is about why I don’t think speciality coffee is overly acidic.

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