Coffee as a culinary experience

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…..

7 Comments

  1. jim:

    i hope your comments section goes berSERK. because this is a topic worthy of massive discussion.

    as an outsider to the professional ranks, it’s my observation that, in general, people take the “taste is everything” moniker — which is absolutely true in one sense — too far. meaning that while people’s eyes are indeed opened by superior taste in the cup, it ISN’T everything to the consumer, particularly given the instrinsic nature of coffee you have noted.

    i enjoy jabbing the elite establishment on my own blog — while acknowledging its indispensability — because it’s almost too easy. as i watch, i see a whole lot of self congratulatory pontificating on extreme subtleties of taste, and even so-called “innovation” happens inside a clicky bubble that leaves what’s relevant to the consumer out in the cold. there are notable exceptions.

    writers have to know their audience. performers even more so. i think it’s time third wavers started thinking more like their target demographic — without sacrificing one iota of quality.

  2. This evening I was sitting in the shop where I work doing a little studying and overheard a customer talking to her friend about the coffee she had just ordered. She explained that she liked our coffees because “they actually taste like coffee… unlike Starbucks”.

    The lady had ordered a decaf soy vanilla latte.

    The average consumer’s perception of coffee as a warm, caffeinated beverage with a unique “coffee” taste has been formed due to the fact that previous generations almost exclusively, and the current generations by majority, have only enjoyed coffee in the form of what I like to call a “coffee cocktail”. If you’re enjoying a gin martini, you wouldn’t say you’re having a glass of “gin”. The addition of vermouth creates an entirely different taste experience. The same goes for coffee cocktails, as the addition of sugar and milk creates an entirely different taste experience from straight coffee. The problem is the consumer’s identify coffee’s taste as what they experience in a coffee cocktail.

    Because coffee has traditionally been downright aweful on its own, consumers identify coffee as an ingredient undesireable on its own. It’s as undesireable as taking a straight shot of vanilla flavouring syrup.

    The battle can be won on some fronts but not all. There are a large number of consumers that would love to benefit from an educated and experienced pallete that would allow them to enjoy coffee as “coffee people” do. To do this there must be A) greater awareness that coffee is capable of pleasurable taste experiences on its own, and B) there must be more outlets where people can train themselves to enjoy quality coffee. It doesn’t do us any good that huge companies serving poor quality coffee are labeling their products with speciality coffee adjectives when what they serve doesn’t actually display any of these qualities. This just ends up confusing consumers.

    It has to be conceded, however, that a great portion, probably a majority, of consumers do not want to experience coffee the way we do. They really, really like the coffee cocktail experience and can’t be bothered with the subtle nuances that we so enjoy. A 20oz decaf soy vanilla one shot latte is what makes them happy, and there’s no reason these people should not be catered to. Just like gin, coffee is capable of being legitimately enjoyed on its own or as an ingredient in a more complex, if less complex tasting, beverage.

    Keep up the good work James, your blog rocks.

    Ian

  3. I believe there is a distinction between all this talk of quality and a true culinary experience. Coffee as a Culinary Experience: I really believe there are distinct flavors coming from these new coffees and that this is a concept with huge potential beyond traditional coffee drinkers. Maybe a bit ahead of the curve, as I found on the forums you are likely to get chastised for making such a statement. If you can find references for where this concept started, I would love to see. My friends and I have been enamored with it for a while.

  4. this subject evokes so many fellings its unreal. Jim after a long hard day playing octopus on a three group i just wanted to surf a bit but had to throw in my humble offering to what i have to agree is going to be great subject matter.

    my own induction into coffee was mearly as a caffeinated stimulant and was not that impresed by taste , just effect. after all one account for the history of coffee being that the berrys were consumed for the energizing effect after seeing jumping goats or something …lol but having not tasted a freshly picked fruit cant comment on the taste.

    as a fanatic I hopefully do speak a different language but thats because its my passion.to the extent that i have to catch myself being a little harsh when customers are not a appreciative of what we try and do for them.

    its a bit of a vicious circle and frustrating at that. the populus will only ever expect a standard a great as the best cup they have ever had, unfortunatly we know that usually this is quite low and has no challenge in recreating at home. then again if someone was drinking just for the fact of getting drunk, i would find it hard to belive they cared if it was a 15yr old malt or a bottle of cheap single…….

    for my fanatical part, I just try and convert as many people on a daily basis.

  5. I am in no means an expert in this topic, but i manage a cafe that has no drip coffee and serve all our customers what they call “regular coffee” with the clover. This allows us to slow the customers down enough and get them involved in choosing a coffee and really appriciate the differences between them. If they have time we encourage a small tasting where we compare two of there choice and its amazing to see with just a little motivation what they can start to taste.

  6. I did a cupping today that made it very clear to all that different coffees have clear and massive differences in the cup, and I think it is great methods like press pots and the Clover allow you to interact and push a customer to try new things.

    However I think we have to be very careful not to get ahead of the curve before leaving the customer so far behind that what we are talking about, have worked very hard to get better at creating as well as worked at enjoying (palette development etc), that this third wave level of coffee (or beyond I guess) becomes the Emperors new clothes. The flowery language of our best and brightest leaves someone thinking “watermelon? dutch process cocoa?! Are you serious?!”

    It is interesting in the UK to see how the publicly accepted wine critics have changed in style from the now ridiculed and overly detailed and descriptive pundits (whose descriptions were, of course, right on the money) to more down to earth ambassadors for the industry who speak in broader terms to encourage the idea that maybe spending a little extra on the bottle will yield a tasteable results but you do not have to be a connoisseur to get it.

    I don’t want to drink a coffee so suble, clever and nuanced that I need three years of cupping under my belt to “get it” because I am a consumer and I just want a cup of (really, really good) coffee.

  7. I would like to say that it’s obvious and not so subtle but in truth there are only two out of dozens of commercial roasters I have tasted who source/roast effectively signature in taste coffees. So many are playing on nuances and subtle roast obscured flavors and then you have a roaster making a statement with unique signature flavors. When you can put a coffee on the level of a Kenya Tegu with a Brazil Cachoeira, and a Guatemala Injerto or really any top CoE @ light enough roast levels that roast bitters are nearly imperceptible, you can see even a novice exclaim the differences in the unadultered cup. It is that so many in the general population are associating coffee with roast profiles rather than origin tates that things get muddled. Woody earthy roasty tones in coffees are what many people have come to expect and it may take time before many can fully appreciate the perfume of a great Yirg. Or maybe there aren’t enough pefume Yirgs and rather are a lot of burnt fermenty yirgs out there mucking up the issue. It took me some time to get into it but I have seen many customers in the cafe move quickly into origin flavors. That gives me the boldness to ignore all the punditry and just go with it. I have seen customers make decisions based on origin flavors. I have had customers sit and define cup flavors for me. It all comes down to the cafe floor and being able to present a lineup of coffees that any novice can come in and see the stark contrast between all of your offerings.
    Look to the CoE and you see the future of coffee. Possibly a model like french wine. Origins with flavor descriptors beyond full-bodied body, mellow, and smooth(which scream generic). Then we can have ‘coffee critics’ but right now it’s just not defined enough.
    Why do we have darker ‘production roasts’ that obscure the tastes of the beans? Why do we so often look for chocolate in the roast flavor, woody or earthy notes in the cup… and so many other flavor obscuring traits? Why do we roast over flaws and defects in coffees instead of searching out cleaner defect free and sweeter cups? If you could put a lineup of defect free sweet cups from distnct origins with crystal clean and defined flavors, then you got something.
    I don’t want to sound like a wine snob and all this flavor talk has to come down to customers being able to experience it. You have to be able to sit down with your customers and say here it is… do you see now? The cafe is where all this means something.
    I sound like a ‘terroirist’. He he.

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