A simple explanation

I am extremely grateful to everyone who responded in the comments of the last post about taste and temperature.  I learned a great deal and now have some more avenues to explore.

Partway down the comments I was guilty of wanting a simple explanation –  a short neat summary that I could tell my customers who kept asking about the change in a cup of coffee as it cooled. There are rarely simple answers when it comes to taste, or coffee in general.  The answer to most questions is usually filled with nuance and is quite complex – if known!

I suppose this is why I am increasingly uncomfortable with the trend in barista competition that a barista should be able to explain exactly why a coffee tastes the way it does.  Linking variety with a certain taste or flavour, linking processing with a cup characteristics are certainly pleasing ways of writing in some information about the coffee into the narrative, while also explaining the provenance of the coffee.

The problem I have is that we really know next to nothing about why coffee tastes the way it does.  We often mistake correlation with causation.  I’ve heard some competitors make very explicit statements about why coffee tastes the way it does but I have yet to see anything vaguely resembling proof.

I should add that this is not a complaint directed at competitors, but more at judges – competitors will deliver what they feel is asked of them.  Plain, raw statistics about a coffee are pretty boring to listen to.  Altitude, for example, is useful to know but very, very rarely interesting.  It isn’t something I’d tell a customer unless it was unusual or important.  Being able to tie it into a cup characteristic makes it more palatable for the judges and audience but saying something like “this green grape acidity and sweetness come from the slow development at 1900 metres” (while sounding nice) does a massive disservice to the complexity of growing great coffee and is (for now) very difficult to prove.  Or disprove I suppose.

This leads me into another topic – one that I really should have discussed by now but haven’t.  The Global Coffee Research Project.

This is an SCAA led initiative to raise funds to run a program to do research on coffee quality.  Quality is the key word here, not yield or disease resistance but growing better coffee.  This is important for two reasons:

1).  There isn’t enough speciality coffee.  Demand exceeds production, but we don’t have sufficient knowledge/research to quickly increase the quantity of high quality coffee.

2).  We know next to nothing about why good coffee tastes the way it does.  The work just hasn’t been done – and in a global industry of such size and scope this is more than a little surprising.  To quote Dr Tim Schilling “There’s actually been more global research into making better kiwifruit than into making better coffee!”

I had the pleasure of sitting across from Dr Schilling at an SCAE dinner a couple of weeks ago and I have no doubts whatsoever that this program is going to yield some incredibly valuable results.  He mentioned altitude as an example.  We don’t really understand the connection between altitude to coffee – we see a correlation certainly, but we don’t understand what it is specifically that makes coffee taste better – is it temperature, or more general weather, is it the altitude itself?  We don’t know – and for something so essential to speciality coffee that is (for the industry) a little embarrassing.

The press release (pdf) from the SCAA about it is here.  I’m hoping Peter Giuliano can add some more info here (his comment on the last post was wonderful – and definitely worth reading!)

I’m not sure how this post managed to cover two massively different topics but I’d be interested to hear people’s thoughts in the comments.  I will also post up more links to info on the Research Project when I have them.

22 Comments

  1. The thing I most like in your blog is that you write about topics that I haven’t even thought of. About things that we regard nearly self-evident like the altitude and its effect to the coffee, for example. I don’t really have any answers for your questions nor even educated guesses but I love reading the discussions and learning that way.

  2. I’m so glad to see someone talking about this research project – it seemed to be unveiled to a very underwhelming reception by the specialty community at large. Most people I’ve spoken to have not even heard about it. I think that it has the potential to move specialty coffee from a niche market into becoming a… mainstream market (for lack of a better term). We hope to post a dC interview with Ric Rhinehart on the subject very soon. Hopefully, even the very small companies like ourselves, which make up the majority of the market, can be involved in the project in some meaningful ways.

  3. I just enjoyed a wonderful meal at Restaurant Pierre Gagnaire in Paris and I’m continually puzzled by how we expend so much time and effort in the barista world on all these bizarre details. Do we do so because we’re compelled to fill up the fifteen minutes with some sort of banter? Is there something in the rules that force us to talk non-stop about any sort of minutiae? Or have judges been conditioned to want to hear everything and anything about the coffee?

    Walking along the rock strewn vineyard of Bosquet du Papes in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, do I really need to know more than the fact that this is some amazing wine? Do I care about the altitude, or the condition of the soil – do I need to care? Do I need some person telling me why I should like the 2000 Bosquet versus the 1990 Bosquet? Or do I just drink both myself and decide?

    At Pierre Gagnaire, I asked for a recommendation. Based on our menu, the sommelier recommended the 2008 Cuilleron Saint Joseph Saint Pierre – he seemed downright ecstatic without drowning us in descriptions, technical details and wizardry. He simply made a recommendation, was enthusiastic about it and allowed the wine to speak for itself with the food. He was spot-on. It was a monster recommendation.

    When do we, as a barista community, reach the point of creating an experience for the customer and the judge? Watch the videos and it’s non-stop blabber about something or another. If our captain kept yammering on and on about the dishes and drinks and everything involved in our meal it would drive me insane. How about we stop talking through our mouths and allow our service and coffee to speak for itself (yes, that’s a call to you WBC to get with the times)?

    Perhaps a component that drives this continual chatter is the spectator experience. Reality is that watching a barista compete is dry, dull and boring. I mean really, how exciting is it to watch someone drink a cappuccino?

  4. It definitely warrants some serious discussion – I feel bad for combining it with another topic, though they did feel intertwined in my head when I started writing this earlier this evening.

    The possibilities are very exciting – and as another small company we want to find a way to play a part too.

    I have no doubt that the project is in safe hands, I just hope they can raise enough money to do some really interesting stuff!

  5. I think there is growing acceptance that the current format for the WBC is an industry focused competition. The way it is scored, performed etc – it is for us to find an ambassador rather than for us to share what we do with the wider public. This is not to take away from the competition, but more to accept and appreciate it for what it is.

    In an ideal world (my ideal world anyway) the WBC becomes an umbrella for a number of different events. The WBC as is would be a big part, but surrounding that there would be other more engaging competitions. One of the goals (and I hope successes) of the UBF here in London was that we had a range of events where the crowd could either judge, or see immediately who was doing well/winning.

    There is a great deal of possibility for a range of ways to engage the public and highlight what can make coffee special and worth more as well as be more enjoyable.

  6. Yes, maybe it is closely related to how the same grape can taste vastly different with bottled at nearby vineyards. So much goes into it, with temperature being just one small facet.

  7. Is Barista Competition not a means of pursuing progress and instilling passion? A stoking of the fires if you will. Competition is the means by which the bar is raise for the specialty coffee community. Certainly a non-industry spectator would watch with a dull gaze. Maybe a better critic would be to question who the WBC is performing for?

    Personally, I believe the WBC is primarily aimed towards the coffee professional. We watch, we listen, we analyze, we grow. So that as a coffee professional, we might grow in passion and knowledge, and take that passion and knowledge to our home cafe’s and roasting operation’s, where we simply offer our coffees to the wider public and allow the cup to speak of itself. I watch competition, I read blogs, I learn, and I am encouraged, so that the plain & simple people of Nebraska might taste something unique, appreciate it, and find joy in the experience.

    Certainly a coffee consumer does not need to know the growing elevation, or why the flavor of the cup changes as temperature cools, but if a coffee professional might understanding something more about these processes, these absurd details, then the consumer might find themselves enjoying something truly special. Also, the coffee consumer might find joy beyond the taste, they might find joy in the details that brought it to be. Certainly the details aren’t a necessity of the experience, but the details are what brought it to be.

    There is certainly much yammering and many details behind a great culinary experience.

  8. Forgive my jumping from the topic of the post.

  9. I love the idea of the Global Coffee Research Project. I do plan on reading up on the group and studies. I’m sure some valuable research will come of it and I will do my best to support it. Thank you, I wasn’t aware!

    As far as “better coffee”, who is to say what is better… is the Mojo Extractor with a refractometer to tell us how many parts dissolved solids in a cup are ideal? Is it the SCAA and SCAE judges in competition to just give their , all be it educated, opinion? Is it the (above average) consumer to ask for less floral notes in their espresso?
    NO.
    Coffee flavor in the mass population is very subjective. Though standardization is a complete facade in my book, the births of subcultures and debated topics are the true gems of the the SCAA, SCAE, and Global “whatevers”. You, my friend, and this site are the gems. I’m new to your page, and you may have covered this, but I’d love to hear your opinion on “subjective or objective”…

  10. Now I know that we are moving even further away from topic here, but you started it James.

    The WBC frustrates me a lot as a competition, and I often find myself asking who is it for and what is it for, in order to diffuse my consternation at it’s often peculiar rules, judging and performance habits.

    It was taking a trip to penny university that made me wish it were able to better incorporate other brewing techniques and thus make it more about the art of producing what is best in a coffee, by what ever means. If it is purely an espresso competition then we are incredibly limited in what we can do the showcase our coffee.

    There are those that maintain WBC must be purely an espresso competition and maybe they are right, but can we please then create a new competition that enables us to do more.

    Mike Phillips was a worthy winner a couple of weeks ago, and I think his performance marked something close to a limit of what can be done within the constraints of the competition as it is.

    Can we have a new one please?

  11. To me, great foods always taste better when I know a little more about them. Last night I was eating in a Japanese restaurant, and the charming waitress was explaining foods I was eating- lotus root is crunchy because it grows underwater…it is rich in fiber…kids in Japan love it as a snack. Later, i heard her explaining differences in sake: the more you mill rice, the more you get to the “heart” of the rice, making it cleaner-tasting and more expensive etc. This engages the mind along with the palate, and when the big 3 are engaged (mind, heart, senses) it leads to great culinary experiences. That’s why a knowledgeable server is such a big part of good service. A culinary experience in isolation- no matter how great it tastes- is missing a crucial dimension.

    That’s what I feel the barista competitions are getting at when they encourage competing baristas to engage their customers (the judges) in pertinent, interesting discussion about the coffees they are serving. That’s a good thing in my opinion.

    I agree, however, that it leads to oversimplification of cause and effect in coffee. Us humans naturally look for simple answers and simple truths, and though we might want them desperately, they simply don’t exist. The problem isn’t that these little factoids are wrong, exactly, the problem is that they are a little bit right. We have all these little factoids in coffee that we carry around, and tell each other, and they may assume a level of “truth” that exceeds the actual weight of the evidence.

    And of course that leads us to the topic of actual study. Here’s the situation as it stands: what little coffee research is getting done today happens in the following ways:

    1. coffee growing countries do research as part of national agricultural development
    2. large companies (usually commercial coffee companies) guide and fund research
    3. scattered, independent researchers think up their own projects and do them, usually with no input from the coffee industry.

    Problems are that, in the first instance, research tends to be about quantity rather than quality; in the second instance the research stays secret; and in the third instance it is irrelevant and impractical.

    The Global Coffee Quality Research Initiative seeks to collaboratively fund and direct research from the Specialty Coffee community. This project is still in its infancy- a few visionary companies have pledged money that will go towards the first research projects, and the planning that will lay the foundation for research oversight and ongoing funding. SCAA and the Borlaug Institute have taken a leap of faith here- pushing forward in the belief that quality coffee needs this.

    It will be a big task to get this done. This isn’t a charity project, and therefore charitable money (as is used to fund other kinds of coffee projects) isn’t available. We are going to need to fund this ourselves, and direct it ourselves. We’re going to need to establish durable mechanisms for doing both. It’s time for the quality coffee community to mature and start taking responsibility for truly understanding what we do. And we need to come together in order to do that- it’s our only hope.

    Here’s where our organizations become so important. This project will require financial planning, government relations, interaction with universities, diplomacy, and academic planning. Good research requires good researchers, and academic research requires funding, intelligent direction, and stability in order to work properly. Representative organizations like the SCAA and SCAE are ideal to lead this- and indeed are already engaged in the task.

    So, at the moment the best things to do to be engaged and support this project are:

    1. If you’re not a member, join the SCAA or SCAE or SCAJ, or other affiliated Specialty Coffee organization. I know this doesn’t seem like it matters, but it does. Numbers make a difference, and the only way we can convince those who have the power to control funding that the specialty coffee community is economically and politically powerful is through our membership organizations. We’re going to have to do things like go to Congress and the USDA and things, and the more members we have the better.

    2. Tell the leadership of the association you’re a member of that you care about this. Your association represents you, and believe you me they listen. The SCAA board can be emailed here: http://www.scaa.org/?page=board.

    3. Stick together. There are lots of opportunities for us in the quality coffee businesses to underscore our differences. This is an opportunity for large companies and small, super-specialty and not-so-super specialty to work together to support a common good. There will be ample opportunity to parse and squabble, but the more we hang together on this subject the better off all will be.

    4. You can always write a check. There’s still time for you to support the founding of this project. I’m happy to give you the information of the Borlaug institute who has a fund set up for this purpose.

    Ok, thanks for the opportunity to pitch this thing, and I’m really inspired to get it done! I’m also excited to think about the first research projects. Research on varieties, altitude, processing, roasting, extraction…. this is really the key to amazing cups of coffee in our future.

    Peter G

  12. Hi James,

    I was talking to a lot of people while in London. I was (and still are) looking for information about how coffee varietals are processing the soil and anything of a specific terroir and to what outcome this leads. You could think of a plant being some kind of machine, processing several inputs and producing a certain output.

    I would love to find anything that describes how certain varietals would produce different results for a certain terroir. The only thing one can find today is according to pest resistance.

    I think this topic is pretty much related to yours. Would be nice to be part oftheresearch or at least be able to support it.

    Wolfram

  13. That information doesn’t really exist – not beyond anecdotal evidence anyway. The work hasn’t really been done.

    I remember looking for all the info I could on the Ge(i)sha variety – all I could find was a yield study done in the 60’s in Costa Rica in which it didn’t do particularly well. Nothing on taste, on soil quality etc.

    Hence the need for the research project!

  14. I’m always aware that in defending the WBC it might seem that I have ulterior motives in doing so, but I genuinely believe the WBC to be useful and important to the coffee industry. Maybe not the consumer, but the industry.

    If you want a new competition then my advice is to start one. That isn’t to be facetious – if you start a brewing competition I will absolutely support and promote it (assuming it is good, which I am sure it would be!)

    Competitions need volunteers – people to put time in, and there are no barriers to creating competitions other than effort and time. The World Aeropress Competition is a great example of that – it has grown and become more popular, has participants from across the world, is fun and engaging and costs very little to do. We were happy to support and sponsor it, and many other companies would love to see a brewing competition take hold.

    Your point about Mike taking the competition as far as it can go are interesting – I certainly look forward to seeing how people push and explore what’s possible next year, because there is always more….

  15. I love the idea of this research. I believe that we should support and encourage research in many different areas… particularly coffee.
    I must say that the SCAA’s title ‘Global research project’ sounds a little daunting! For example, in the fifties, Dr EE lockhart carried out his (relatively) famous research into people’s taste preferences for various strengths and extractions of brewed coffee. His findings are still considered valid today, as there is little movement to disagree with them, and no further research to disprove them.
    If this research alone were to be brought up to date, each test would need a minimum of 9 brewed samples. Forgetting about the logistics of how this could be achieved, (no small task in itself), it would be desirable to conduct the test for a number of varietals, origins, estates, processing methods, roast profile, altitudes etc. etc. (and then you could start on blends….!) That would need tests numbering in the thousands, and would be an enormous project.
    I can see the Global research project needing some definitive boundaries, as it could otherwise be a very resource hungry monster.
    Of course, I’m looking forward to it’s first publications!

  16. In addressing the first part of this post I have to giggle a bit. What you are saying is pretty much the exact same thing that my friend and coach Charles Babinski based his entire routine upon this year for the US competition. You can watch it here… http://www.justin.tv/joeespresso/b/262586304 it is a two hour clip and Charle’s part starts around 1 hour 42 minutes in. He serves three different coffees from one farm in El Salvador that are from different elevations, varietals, etc… He says at the beginning that it would be a generous stretch for the judges to believe him in saying that X varietals and Y elevation made the coffee taste like Z but he would simply be speculating. All he can really do is prepare the coffee using the tools he has and explain the differences in flavor as he perceives them. I think it was one of the most fantastic and well thought out presentations I have ever seen in part because it called BS on most of the other routines out there.
    What makes this even more humorous is the fact that my routine in contrast was the direct opposite to his. I served three coffees from one farm that were separated mainly by processing (they were all the same varietals, grown within 300 meters elevation of each other in the same valley and harvested within a week of each other) I then focused mainly how the different processing methods very directly affected the coffee flavor and in turn everything that came after it (roast, dose, time of extraction) While I am reluctant to say a bourbon/Pacas varietal tastes like X and an 18oo meter elevation gives Y body, I do feel that the effects of processing are one of the few things we are getting better at assigning at least a broad profile of the effect on coffee to. I too am a bit dubious of many of the correlations that are thrown about at competitions. Most of them are exactly as Charles says, simply speculation. However to some extant knowing this information and starting to develop a history for our palates that ties all of this together is one of the few routes available to most of us for attempting to figure things out. It is far from scientific and surely more work needs to be done to look into the things we suspect to be true. While I find it flattering for it to be insinuated I found the outer limit of what can be accomplished in competitions, I know it to be entirely untrue. In fact, in looking back on what I did this year compared to what Charles did I think that the really valuable competition routines next year wont be the ones giving answers about why and how things like processing effect flavor, they will be the ones asking questions that no one can answer just yet and inspire the rest of us to find out.

    PS for the record I would love to see brewing competitions get off the ground but I think the first challenge to this however is to have more shops actually brewing to order.

  17. I definitely had Charles’ routine in the back of my mind as I wrote this, and am somewhat ashamed I never credited him with giving such a genuine and enjoyable performance.

    As for your routine – what I think made it so interesting and enjoyable, and above the kind of criticism I made in the post – is that it was not speculation masquerading as knowledge about a single idea (elevation x = flavour y) but it was the presentation of three coffees that were defined and distinguished by their processing. This is a rare opportunity for most people (lucky judges!), interesting and worthy of discussion. Plus it had Dire Straits.

  18. Forgive me if the relevance of my rant is beyond the original post. I did not read all of the poster’s answers.

    As we struggle to determine the why in a very complex issue, I submit that the wine industry has provided research that varietals have a sense of place. I believe that it is important to take a page from our brethren and acknowledge that indeed the beautiful fruit that is cultivated for our gain is in fact affected by altitude, soil, macro-climates and cultivating methods used to develop its distinctive character(s).

    Competition provides the opportunity to introduce an audience to the intrinsic value and the capacity of our craft.

    Perhaps the trade winds of the pacific waters have not imparted any varietal character on the slopes of Kona. But I am certain Peter has turned many a non believer to experiencing better coffee.

  19. Forgive the non sequitur, but has anyone heard of coffee plants being grown hydroponically, indoors, without soil as a variable? It would be a lot easier to nail down mineral/nutrient variables, for sure, not to mention a controlled climate. We would come to understand at least a few things better (if nothing more than a “let’s keep growing this stuff in dirt, please.”).

    Hydroponics has definitely helped more than a few cash crops to improve over the years… Just wondering why this isn’t being talked about in coffee circles.

  20. Being able to tie it into a cup characteristic makes it more palatable for the judges and audience but saying something like “this green grape acidity and sweetness come from the slow development at 1900 metres” (while sounding nice) does a massive disservice to the complexity of growing great coffee and is (for now) very difficult to prove.

    Is there not enough correlation at this point to say, with some authority, that altitude has a heightening affect on acidity? I have been led to believe that there was. “Proof” is hard to come by, after all. Strong correlation can tell you much of what you need to know as long as, as I said, the relationship is strong and able to be consistently reproduced. Is this something that The Global Coffee Research Project is going to look into?

    Speaking of The Global Coffee Research Project and in reference to …

    To quote Dr Tim Schilling “There’s actually been more global research into making better kiwifruit than into making better coffee!”

    … I am all for research but I hope that the very research one would hope might lead to increased knowledge of the hows and whys of great coffee, doesn’t lead, as well, to a splintering of the specialty coffee industry. We may know how to grow more kiwi fruit than we did before just as we now know how to grow more tomatoes than we did before but it seems that discerning people are not looking for the products of increased production anymore – the typical, under-ripe tomato, for instance – but are after those products that represent quality over quantity, i.e. the heirloom tomato, etc. We learned how to increase agricultural production long ago but it seems we have not yet learned how to do that without sacrificing real quality or, for that matter, sacrificing our environment. Let’s hope that when it comes to coffee, we can change the story of our past production advances with other forms of agriculture from one of a single-minded focus on quantity to one that reflects some sort of balance between quantity and quality.

  21. You know, some people it seems get all up-in-arms over the coffee-to-wine analogy but I think the practice of comparing and contrasting the two – of sometimes using one as an analogy for the other – is instructive and useful.

    Maybe all of the “blather” going on both behind the counter and at barista competitions represents the fact that the majority of people still see coffee as a useful drug and a commodity and not as a (dare I say it) gourmet quality product. Maybe all of the talk reflects a certain insecurity or anxiousness on the part of the specialty coffee industry or maybe a bit of impatience: “when the hell are people going to start seeing coffee en masse the way it deserves to be seen and how much effort am I going to need to expend to make that happen?”

    Wine has a certain amount of respect built in to it. It has long history of association with the types of cuisines – and the areas that they come from – that have been associated with fine living. People tour these areas. They go on vacation there. On the other hand, much of the coffee we drink comes from countries and/or areas of countries known more for their poverty (I know the specialty coffee industry is trying to change that). As of yet it is a more widely held romantic notion for a rich retiree to move to Napa or the South of France to grow grapes and produce wine than it is for that same person to move to the mountains of Guatemala to grow coffee.

    There are many perceptions as well as realities of the coffee industry that need to change before we are able to put as little effort as the wine industry puts into its product convincing the consumer of its quality.

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