Do you really like acidity?

October 12th, 2010

From time to time thoughts crop up in my head, half formed and useless. Usually they sink back into the murky deep, and if they were really worth anything I assume they’ll bob back up again.

That said I should probably confess that this post isn’t really fully formed, which is why I want to share it.

Acidity and speciality coffee are inextricably linked. On any score sheet we weight acidity with the same numerical power as our most desired of all tastes: sweetness. When we talk to each other, as an industry, about certain coffees it is an aspect we’ll almost certainly describe when sharing a particular coffee experience.

What I am wondering, as I try and sit back from the table, is whether we (as humans) really enjoy acidity. I often thing that we’ve learned to like acidity because our brains, ever eager to find patterns in things, have noticed that coffees with interesting and delicious flavours often have a higher level of acidity.

It is rare for a coffee to have that crisp, apple-y acidity but be aromatically lacking. It is also rare for low acidity coffees to come with bushels of fruit – though it could explain many people strong preference for naturally processed coffees.

We know that in the world of retail the word acidity is unwise. People don’t like sour coffee, and they’re often eager to make that plainly clear to you. Yet, if we distract them from it – waving a red rag of blackcurrant and rosehip flavours – they find that they really enjoy that juicy cup of coffee from Kenya you’ve been trying to sell them.

You could argue that we don’t really like coffee. Not to start with. Our tastebuds initially caution us to reject the bitter liquid as it is likely poisonous. It isn’t until we work out that in this case the poison has a rather pleasing pharmacological effect that we’re able to tell our brains that this is a good thing and we should definitely have that second cup.

Some people just don’t like acidic things – coffee or otherwise. I don’t mind admitting that I’ve always loved sour candies (and hope to continue to do so for some time!). Roll something gelatinous and flavoured in sugar and citric acid and I’m there. I am aware that lots of people can’t understand them at all, and find them truly disgusting.

This may be further compounded by the problem many people have distinguishing sourness from bitterness. This isn’t a patronising look at the proles who haven’t learned to taste yet – sour-bitterness “confusion” is a valid term and issue in taste research. Serve most people an underextracted espresso that is like sucking on unripe lemons and many will reject it for being bitter.

What is clear is that many people are aware of their preferences around acidity, and in many cases they aren’t particularly flexible on them.

Does speciality = acidity?

As an industry, as we push forwards in raw coffee quality it is unlikely that coffees are likely to become less acidic. We’re often trying to roast a little lighter too, trying to preserve what is unique, exciting and interesting. Are we going to end up in a place where we leave behind a large section of our potential audience because they’re unwilling to overcome/ignore acidity in order to revel in the myriad of flavours coffee is capable of?

I’ve looked a bit but I couldn’t find much in the way of information about taste preference and acidity. Many resources seem to prefer the term “sourness” instead of acidity, which isn’t particularly helpful when much of our industry is working to separate sourness from good acidity. In fact research for this post turned up ten times more questions than usual. (For example – I understand that the mechanism for detecting acidity is basically to count H+ ions crossing a K channel, but how do we tell one acid from another. Which bit of us detects that it is quinic or acetic or malic acid?)

As I said at the start – this isn’t a fully formed idea. More a bundle of curiousities wrapped around a central point of concern. I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on this, I’d also love to see any link to related subjects if people have any. I’m guessing that 90%+ of people who will comment/read this will quite like acidity – in coffee and in the rest of the world too……

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