The Taste of Coffee

Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, April 1996

This was the first in a series of articles entitled “Matters of Taste” that I wrote over a period of several years starting in 1996; it was published in April of that year by Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, ten years after I wrote an article regarding the soon-to-be-published Cupper’s Handbook by Ted Lingle. Taking both articles together provides a sense of the evolution our industry’s undergone, AND the impact and influence of Ted’s handbook.

And, obviously, this article and the others in the series were written for the coffee trade, not coffee drinkers.

Since then, FIRST of all, the coffee industry has gotten a whole lot more serious about describing their products (and I will leave it to you to decide if my writing has improved at all). In coffee houses and grocery stores you will see descriptions that are more specific, colorful and accurate. Why should folks try twenty different coffees, after all, unless the coffees don’t offer twenty DIFFERENT and exciting experiences? Over the years since 1996 many coffee companies have worked hard to create a lexicon of words that remind them of the coffee they sell and they use these words to great effect.

I have yet to hear any echoes with regard to my (presumably wacky sounding) theory that we can look at coffee as an information medium (or was it just obvious to everyone else and no one wanted to tell me they knew already?).

The Taste of Coffee
Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
April, 1996

A friend in the coffee business, Kevin Knox, [formerly] of Allegro Coffee Company, lamented the other day that , “There is no serious writing, no critical writing, in the coffee business today.” While this may or may not be true, the comment inspired the question, “What would serious coffee writing entail?” The answer has to be that such writing would at least occasionally discuss The Taste of Coffee. The taste of coffee is something that is seldom talked about in objective terms, even within the specialty coffee industry, much beyond notes on a coffee’s acidity, body, overall number of defects, etc. Most of what is written is either in flowery ad copy-like prose or comments such as, “The crop was low in quality this year.” This may be because we assume that we know what a good cup of coffee is, on the one hand, or that our perceptions at the cupping table are too personal, too idiosyncratic to be worth attempting to communicate. Despite this, though, many cuppers know that coffees from te same area, even from adjacent farms, are strikingly different — describing these differences can be daunting, however.

The much-lauded “The Coffee Cupper’s Handbook: A Systematic Guide to the Sensory Evaluation of Coffee’s Flavor” by Ted Lingle, currently published by the Specialty Coffee Association of America, is a case in point. The manual provides a great start in discussing the taste of coffee in an explicitly detailed way, yet how many of us have attempted to use the manual as a common language for the discussion or comparison of the taste of coffee? This discussion is important, even essential so that everyone in the production process understand the goal to be achieved: a coffee that tastes a particular way.

A cup of coffee is many things. It is a simple source of enjoyment (one hopes) , and for those in the trade a source of revenue (one further hopes) and a focal point of sociability for those that gather ‘round for a cup of coffee, to have a conversation “over coffee.”

More recently, many have claimed, some in earnest, and some with a cynical eye toward what they understand as the science of marketing, that a cup of coffee embodies, or at least potentially embodies, the sum total efforts of a long queue of master crafts people, that line beginning with a coffee farmer and ending with a roastmaster or, perhaps, the barista.

A cup of coffee is one final thing though, and this is not some tortured effort to be topical, to pay some reverence to the current fascination with the age of information but rather, very literally, a cup of coffee is a data storage device. In it is written the history of the coffee it contains; one taste and the experienced cupper can say how the coffee was processed, where it comes from, how old it is, etc. We take this information for granted, but ingesting this data is the reason people drink coffee.

It will be said that people don’t drink coffee to gain information they, they drink it because they like it. But the question has to be asked,, “What do they like?” The answer, the information, isn’t so hard to take if it is considered that people read novels because they like the stories they contain. A cup of coffee is a story of its history, it is a story of nature during the time that coffee came into being. Human beings are instinctively concerned about gathering information and interpreting it and this is enjoyable as long as the information isn’t so thinly supplied as to be boring or imparted at so great a rate that it becomes painful.

We enjoy music when its volume level is loud enough to hear without strain, yet not intolerably loud, if it is skillfully composed, and especially if it gives us new insight into our emotions, thoughts, or experience. We drink coffee for the same reason, perhaps on a less exalted level that the thrall with which we listen to a favorite song or symphony, (But this may be a pity, as there are some in the coffee business who have devoted no less effort toward producing a great cup of coffee that a great composer may have devoted to a now-classical work. Why shouldn’t their efforts be taken as serious or at least viewed from the same perspective?

Futurists discuss the possibility of having adapters that can feed information directly from our computer terminals into our brains so that we would not have to fo through the trouble of actually reading something with our eyes. Reading, these futuriss say, is a slow and crude method of taking in information; they suggest that in the future whole books might be completely and quickly downloaded into our brains. We would then have the information in that book immediately available; they suggest that in the future whole books might be completely and quickly downloaded into our brains. We would then have the information in that book immediately available for us to use in our thoughts, speech, and writing. Whether or not these developments come to pass is not the point, the irony is that there is already a way of taking in an immense amount of information and the at the same time completely bypassing the senses of sight and sound. That method is through our senses o taste and small, specifically, very specifically, a cup of coffee sends the information it contains to our brains along with some of the shortest and most direct pathways that are available. Unlike information that we take in by reading, however, where the words have to be interpreted before they can be experienced, we must first experience anything we smell, see, or taste before we can intellectually interpret it. Tasting a cup of coffee is a way of downloading months worth of history in a few seconds; what is lacking in completeness or accuracy of detail is made up for in the sheer volume of information imparted. It is essential, though, that the skill and experience be there to decode the information presented.

Why is it important to talk about coffee in such and obscure, almost arcane, manner? Perhaps all of this might be entertaining to a coffee aficionado, but why is it the least bit important to someone in the coffee business? It is, again, because the story that a cup of coffee has to tell us is the reason people drink coffee. The story that a coffee tells is the product that people are buying when they buy a cup, or a pound, of coffee.

How can so much information be stored in such a seemingly small storage device? We don’t have to drink a whole cup of coffee to know that a great deal about it and the history of the beans that went into it. The whole story is contain in on sip and drinking more only fills in the greater detail, but the overall impression does not change. As we sip, various memories, experiences, and impressions are conjured up and projected across our minds eye.

This is analogous to the way a holographic image is stored on a sheet of film. Look at the images on the film itself and all that can be seen is a repetitive patterns of blurry whirls. Yet when a laser beam is split and half the image is sent to reflect off this film before it is reflected back along the path of its missing half beam, the seeming visual chaos of the film generates a distinct three-dimensional image. More mysterious is that if the film is cur into quarters, eighths, or sixteenths, these fractions of the original are still capable of generation the shoe original image but somewhat less distinctly, as the fractional part is reduced in size. The three dimensional images are stored as the interference patterns that are generated but the original object when it [was] photographed with a similar split beam of laste light. It is theorized that information in our brains is stored in [a] similarly efficient manner and that even perceptions of taste and smell are perceived and stored in this way. Thus, one whiff of a particular perfume or food can generate a whole host of images and memories. (The Holographic Universe, a book by Michael Talbot published in paperback by Harper Perennial in 1992, inspired this comparison.)

The point of the holographic model is that all of the steps in the history of a particular coffee are stored, recorded in the final cup, with much of that history probably remaining locked in a code we will never be able to crack. Yet much of it is there for us, waiting to be “read.” The holographic model also underlines the importance o every step in the production of a particular coffee, whether it is a high-end, single estate coffee brewed and served bu the cup in a small specialty shop or a low-cost blend produced on a mechanized line that sends shrink-wrapped pallet after shrink-wrapped pallet to the loading dock: Every decision made in the production process is “written” in the final cup.

This is not to suggest that there is a right or a wrong way but rather pays respect to the importance of everyone’s efforts in the production of a particular coffee. It is from this point of view that this column will attempt to discuss the taste of coffee and differences between coffees — within a country or across the continents. It will not presume to fill the alleged gap in “serious coffee writing” but, it is hoped, that by enlisting the support of various coffee experts throughout the world it will pay some respect to the effort it takes to produce a great cup of coffee and the indelible importance of everyone’s participation in that effort.


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