It tastes like….. coffee

Anette, Gwilym and I were having a chat in the roastery yesterday and the topic turned to expectations. Obviously as a start up you feel there is a certain level of expectation about the coffee we will produce, and whilst we certainly have very high expectations of our own, it is very good to be grounded now and again.

Really this harks back to the first time I read tasting notes online for blends like Stumptown’s Hairbender, or Intelli’s Black Cat. All across coffee forums users of varying degrees of expertise were writing about these coffees with such rich and vivid descriptors it made me terribly paranoid that I wasn’t doing it right. Not only were people loving the shots they had at home but their descriptions of drinks they had had at the retail outlet’s of these shops were often even more tantalising and so far away from what I was drinking. Perhaps we should blame the colourful language on Tacy because around this time (2005-ish) no one was writing as much like this or being as well read (when it comes to coffee blogs anyway!) I was a big fan/reader of his blog but it did make me feel a little inadequate.

So eventually we travelled across the world, and we had shots pulled well in the places and they were interesting, delicious and amongst the best I’ve had.

But they still tasted like coffee.

Yes, I could get how someone could write about a shot being a chocolate covered cherry bomb, but it was still just a nice espresso not dissimilar to the better espressos I had made at home.

There is an increase in demand for coffees that don’t taste like coffee – Aricha lots, some Biloya and Misty Valley lots, perhaps even last year’s Gethumbwini and of course the Esmeralda. I wonder if they are really as far away from coffee as we think. If I gave them to my Mum’s would she even have a moment’s hesitant before telling me it was coffee? I don’t know – I am too close to coffee I guess, and what might startle and amaze me may not faze someone who doesn’t cup a lot of pay that much attention to their coffee. We also worried that coffees that do taste like coffee – that aren’t huge fruit bowls, or lemon teas – don’t get the recognition they deserve for being simply delicious.

Overall I am not complaining about this, or being derogatory towards evocative descriptions, crazy coffees coming from forward thinking producers and washing stations, or my Mum’s palate. I think we, especially me, needed to be reminded that it still tastes like coffee.

17 Comments

  1. Thanks for this post. I’m reminded of a story Mark Price told about how he was raving to his dad about how a particular coffee was tasting incredibly like blueberries, to which his dad asked, “Why would I want blueberries in my coffee?”

    Well, sometimes you do, but sometimes you just want good coffee. I love sampling coffee from around the world and educating my palate so I can understand why I’m responding to a particular taste. As I learn more however, I’m sensitive to not letting that level of analysis get between me and the cup.

  2. James, thank you for this post… i remember another thought you posted awhile ago about just sitting back and actually just enjoying a cup of coffee, rather than criticizing and deconstructing it into vivid descriptors and tasting notes. It really stuck with me, and is a sentiment I often come back to. Not that we should ever stop pursuing high quality and interesting coffees… but sometimes, it really is just about a nice, tasty cup. enjoyed in comfortable surroundings.
    not every cup has to have God in it, no?

  3. wait till you read my taste observations about your coffee’s.
    :-)
    (btw : still in search for some extra info about it)
    upfront : happy with every sample you gave me and overal good or very good results, but still a couple of things to point out.

  4. It is refreshing to hear you step out of the culture we are surrounded by and hear you talk about coffee in the way that most people know it. It is important for those of us who view coffee as a culinary art to remember to present it to people in the way that they understand it. If we speak about coffee in a way they won’t comprehend, they will never grow to love it in the way we do. I work in a cafe where I struggle to present coffee in a way that people will understand while pushing them to a higher level of appreciation.

  5. We actually just got to talking about this today during cupping; Andy said it best when he referenced how “after you’ve been cupping for so long, you kind of forget what it’s like to just drink coffee. It kinda becomes a foreign concept.”

    To a degree I think this is where “specialty coffee”/”third wave coffee”/”insert ambiguously defined temporal designator here” tends to have some conflicts of interest. Getting the general public to understand/appreciate the variety and depth of flavors and tastes sometimes becomes the “I’m searching for something novel in the cup and if doesn’t appear, it’s not worth my time”. The coffee as wine sort of paradigm forces each cup to be distinguishable from the next, or similar to it in a very parochial kind of way. This sometimes comes out on the service end of things, sometimes not. The matter, methinks, comes with the balance of concepts, not necessarily either/or.

  6. If you ever drank Asian coffees which is made in the kopitiam (Asian type of coffee shop), people will just want a good, strong & delicious cup of coffee that just tastes coffee. No matter how far or forward thinking the coffee people involved, coffee may be a precious commodity to them but for the public, it is still the same old cup of joe. Even then, that is why coffee is so intriguing and has play an important of every individual’s life somewhere along the road.

  7. it seems like this is one reason people say they like “bold” coffee or “rich” coffee. vague descriptors that more or less mean “strong” and “yummy.” i’ve seen some simple drinkers grow TIRED of the delicate, elusive notes of what we’d call a fabulous single origin.

    my dad, who is back from six long years in africa, was introduced to his first cupping while i was with him earlier this month, and while he got the “green beans and coke” in the costa rica and the “honeydew melon and thyme” in the guatemala, he gravitated toward an (overroasted) yirg on the table because it was …. “bold.” that simple.

    humbling, to say the least.

  8. James, I cannot only submit my my thoughts of this issues as well. I think you are having a very good point in this topic. 2 weeks ago I was asked to make an article for a Danish Magazine – suggesting 5 great coffees. The first Coffee the editor suggested to write about was Kupi Luwak – which after 1 hour I convinced him, that I find greater coffees for les money. We agreed to write about 5 coffees where a normal person without these trained palettes could distinquese between flavours and taste. In my oppinion there is still a big gab between expectation and experience. And too often the expectations are hyped to high dimensions with words there doesnt match the experience. Like booking a room at a 4 star hotel – to discover when you enter the room it looks different than on the picture…or the promising words.
    Sometimes simple is also good – as you mentioned…its just good coffee. I still supprises me when I serve good coffee that you get the comment “ohh, that taste good” ehh, yes!!! eventhough its a simple coffee. I think the biggest mission is to learn the avarage consumer to drink good normal coffee instead of continuing accepting drinking all this bad coffees which are around….because they still do it???

  9. I come across this from time to time with the regular Joe Public or a non-coffee drinking member of staff. Of course it tastes like Coffee it is Coffee, that in itself could be a compliment.

  10. Its a really interesting point that James has made, and one that Liz and I struggle with a lot.
    We roast a range of coffees, and through our well adjusted commercial kit each has their own characteritics. However, we always regularly ‘cup’ our coffees via standard cheap domestic kit, and a lot of that uniqueness goes and it just becomes ‘great coffee’. Many of our customers try different coffees regularly, but seem to come back to those that distinguish themselves only because they give the most flavour in cheap kit. So, who do you cater for ? your newbie regular or you connoiseur customers ?

  11. For me, the realisation that it is in fact just a great coffee came when I tried coffees made not texbook style but in a desert, made on sand, using generations of experience, passion and secrets. Where I didn’t know how exactly it was made or what was added to make it taste so heavenly. I didn’t have any criteria to “judge” it on and I was simply left to enjoy. I’d like to think that now I’m a little less critical and far more open minded, I hope.

  12. Nice one james, maybe next we can move away from some of the younger baristas obsession with pouring latte art in shops and get them to concentrate a little bit more on getting better and more consistent extractions. Sé

  13. It is indeed interesting to experience the average “Joe’s” reaction who happens in during a cupping. (Of course you invite them to participate)

    I marvel at the simplicity of their experience, without the pretension, the tasting notes, the profiling…

    Simply; they enjoy the coffee for what is – coffee.

  14. Well sir, you sure did mention my signature “extraordinary” bean (Aricha/27) and at least one standout flavor (Misty/blueberry). You didn’t spotlight the fresh-lemons-to-die-for aroma and taste (lord willing) on the hot side of the right-roasted Yirgacheffe cup but your point is made.

    Nevertheless, I see it the other way around. The only problem with all other coffees is they AREN’T in some way spectacular like Aricha/27 or they lack a nuance that makes for pause and thoughts about silken richness of body, or lemons and berries and chocolate.

    Tastes-like-coffee coffee is already too easy to find. And that fact is worsened by so-called professionals who start with great beans, then under/over roast as if sweet-spots don’t exist; by those who refuse to tag bags with a roast date and – mercy – by brew-purveyors who don’t know 195*F water from 195*C water.

    We need more blueberries in the cup. Shoot – if you don’t want blueberries, just roast it wrong and brew it on the boil.

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