Coffee as a culinary experience

September 8th, 2006

I don’t think it can be argued that a coffee bean holds incredible potential for flavour. Hundreds of different aromatics to be teased about by both roasting and brewing. Drinking coffee can be a heady and intense taste experience, but like it or not this is not what has made coffee what it is.

I’ve been thinking about this more and more recently, especially wen I read accounts of the history of coffee. Coffee rose to prominence as a sober and hot beverage. We assume the taste captivated the world but that is unlikely, even though most accounts of coffee history are very explicit about the quantities of alcohol being consumed as part of the diet of Europe. 3 litres of beer per person is quite a staggering amount, and starting your day with beer soup could not have been conducive to high productivity. However, it was a source of nutrition and potatoes are probably to thank in some way for letting people let go of beer in the way they did to embrace coffee more fully.

Coffee probably did not taste particularly good in the 17th and 18th century. Roasting would have been crude, and the brewing process was likely to give a very bitter and harsh drink. (Recipes from the time mostly indicate it was ground and then boiled up in a pot, often for a very long time.) Looking through old accounts you are more likely to find the descriptors “soot” and “bitter” than “fruit” and “sweet”.

Up until this point I may well be preaching to converted, telling you things you already know. I am working very slowly up to a point which is that people do not, and have not always drunk coffee because of how it tastes. Since the spread of the modern coffee house it has been as much a beverage as a medicine. A question that I would love to ask a thousand people is “why did you start drinking coffee?” At first coffee tastes unpleasant. It is supposed to, as your body picks up the strong bitterness as a sign of poison. To enjoy coffee from the first sip is rare but to grow to like it once you see that there is a pay off (the caffeine). The same reasoning is how we stop noticing how bitter alcohol is. (Having not really drunk for 18 months it is something I am much more aware of now, which I found quite interesting).

So how old is the idea of coffee as a culinary experience? I don’t think it is necessarily the same thing as the concept of quality. Quality would have been used as a point of differentiation as soon as competition struck up between roasters and suppliers. (this itself would perhaps be worthy of research).

For most people coffee as the sensory experience many in the industry seek is something foreign. I am sure that within any commodity (sugar, for example) there are different levels of quality but within the best quality there is subtlety and nuance that, once understood, bring a great deal of pleasure.

So whilst we work hard to create the ultimate cup of coffee where should we be expending effort? How do we communicate all that coffee can be beyond a strongly flavoured and caffeinated warming beverage? Are we speaking a different language to the consumer and how do we rectify that? Should more effort and resource be spent on increasing product quality, as it is safe to assume that most people at home know their way around a Cafetiere but are often brewing cheap, badly roasted and stale coffee? I don’t think we can focus completely on the cup if there is nothing there that is really different and exciting to the person who just wants a cup of coffee. Do they notice the nuance that a trained cupper will pick out? Watching cuppers deliberate over the minutae is both impressive and also a bit frustrating as you wonder whether the consumer would notice? More so would the customer care?

Of course, I am open to discussion…..

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