A simple explanation

July 6th, 2010

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.

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