Do you really like acidity?

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……

34 Comments

  1. As a flavor, acidity has a context, and can’t really be looked at isolated from the other flavors. At best, it’s about providing an overall balance, as that relates to stimulating flavor receptors that trigger positive brainwaves.

    However, as usual, words fail us again, because acidity is not something that is automatically prized if it is quantifiably high. We’ve all had coffees that are highly sour, but can’t be considered objectively high-quality.

    You could use the analogy of eyes on an attractive woman or man. They are considered one of the most important parts of the overall attractiveness of a person, but only in context.

  2. What I dont like about the overall “concept” of acidity is that if you really want to enjoy “bright” coffee, you have to get used to it. And that’s something that confuses me. Why should I get used to something if I want to enjoy it?

    It’s the main reason why I am careful about buying coffee from British roasters. Some of them roast the coffee so light that it is nearly undrinkable for me (SQM coffee is delicious, but Hasbean is too acid for me).

  3. I really enjoy these philosophic taste thoughts. And also I really enjoy a nice glass of wine (as I just did a minute ago). The acidity of wine also comes in many varieties and strengths. Heavy oaky tannins in a fairly young read wine are not my cup of tea. The refreshing (firm) acidity in a pinot-grigio on the other hand is something I do like….. a lot! So what is the difference? Should I carry a pH indicator to establish my likes and dislikes? Would there be a pattern?
    In the same way I (as an amateur-coffee-nerd) enjoy, some level of, acidity in a coffee. And probably, the absence of acidity would be missed.
    A Michelin-starred-chef once told me that every meal should have at least one hint of acidity in it otherwise it would be boring and unbalanced. Unfortunately I forgot to ask why but intuitively I agree.
    So if people learn to drink wine and enjoy a vinaigrette dressing on a salad why would they not drink coffee with a touch of acidity? is it maybe just something the majority doesn’t expect to find in their cup?

  4. James, your topic is one that I have given much thought to recently. Most of my consideration has stemmed from working with Hawaiian coffees. I personally have found most Hawaiian coffees lacking in major acidity as compared to what the specialty industry has been veering toward. My point of view comes from experience with a broad customer base, so I have very little scientific basis. What stikes me in particular with this topic is that a majority of the general consumer base are not nearly as impressed with acidity as we might be. Like you mentioned, to use the term “acidity” with most consumers strikes an instant dislike on their palates, and little will convince them the flavor is good. I chalk this largely up to misconception. However, even a well produced coffee with great acidity comes across sharply by that large percentage and when most of these people think of “good” coffee the terms “smooth”, “easy to drink”, and “rich” come to mind. These terms may or may not have any real meaning, but what it indicates to me is that the general population isn’t looking for “zippy acidity that dances across your toungue like flavor imps injecting your soul full of grapefruit”. One concern I have is that we are removing the actual paying customer from where we are wanting to take coffee. Where is the line crossed between education and pushing our own tastes? I personally subscribe to balance in my coffee and I in no way am saying coffee doesn’t need acidity. Just some thoughts to put out there.

  5. It’s an interesting question – my wife will ONLY drink coffees that in the industry we would say have a high acidity. She can’t abide dark roasted coffee, so the crisper and brighter, the better! She prefers coffee in a Chemex to coffee in a French Press, and Latin American coffee to Indonesian.

    Why? Because she loves orange juice. She drinks 8oz of it every morning, and there is no liquid more pleasing to her on this earth. What she looks for in coffee is akin to what she looks for in OJ – bright, assertive acidity.

    As I’ve moved through the industry, from the Dark Roasting Giants to the smaller, Light Roasting Independents, she’s been much more willing to try the coffee I bring home. So to her, and her demographic (who knows how large that is?), acidity is not only important, it has primacy in how they choose coffee. Some days, I count myself in that demographic. There are mornings I just can’t imagine anything more pleasing than a light light Kenya. I won’t say coffee NEEDS acidity, and I’d hate to see that become THE litmus test for quality coffee, but it sure is nice.

  6. You know, I’ve never really liked acidity. I worked at a specialty shop as a barista for a few years, and while I don’t have a golden nose/tongue, I could still taste subtle flavors. I mean… having a crazy tasting Kenyan coffee is cool, but I would never drink it over a comparably good less acidic cup.

    My favorite coffee I ever remember having was pretty low in acidity but had some nice flavors, and that has always existed for me as the ideal.

  7. I would agree that an affinity for acidity (and for that matter coffee) is a learned habit. Perhaps it is similar to how many people love hot peppers and its basic compound- capsaicin. We love it because it hurts a little and lights up our taste buds. A recent article in the NY Times discusses this in depth: http://nyti.ms/8Y6dms.
    Most of us in specialty coffee abhor boring, and a bright, fruity coffee is anything but. When considering who we are selling coffee to, this is certainly something we should keep in mind. But as long as we stay self-aware, I think we should pursue these lively, acidic coffees, because they are so darn good!
    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  8. I worry less about people not liking acidity and more about us thinking that all that matters is acidity and sweetness – or us not understanding that high acidity does not mean high quality (but rather high acidity in balance with all other flavours).

  9. I don’t think I necessarily have much of a palate, and I certainly haven’t tasted as many coffees as others hereabouts, but for me, acidity per se is not desirable. The best coffees I have tasted have possessed some acidity, but have balanced that out with other things, so that the end result would be described as “bright” or “fruity” but not “sour”.

    This last week I’ve been running a bag or two of SqM Autumn espresso at home. At first, it was all toffees and caramels, and I liked it. As it aged a little, the acidity came through, leading to some grapefruity edges which balanced beautifully against the toffee and caramel. A day or two on, the acidity really came to the fore, and I didn’t like it at all. Having neither the time, skill, nor supplies to try redialing it to reduce the acidity, the last few shots were way off the heights reached in the middle of the week. Ho hum…

    My guess is that James is on to something when he suggests that acidity — taken on its own — is not necessarily a good thing, but the presence of acidity is correlated with the presence of other good things, and with the potential for a complex yet balanced taste. At the same time, speciality roasters and baristas can use acidic coffees to give an easy-to-taste demonstration of how their product is different from the bitter (or if you’re lucky, caramelly) norm. But it would be a terrible thing if “acidic” and “good” became identified.

  10. James,
    I know people who will squeeze lemon juice on their salmon, pour viniagrette on their salad, splash vinegar on their chips and neck cola as if it’s going out of fashion. If I tell them I have a coffee with great acidity, they will be afraid of it! Whilst we all know that lemon juice is full of citric acid, and vinegar is acid, we never describe it as such… it’s just food. From an early age, we have acidic food and drink, as it’s brighter, tastier and more interesting. When was the last time you asked for a ‘low acidity G&T’?
    If we describe coffee with lively or interesting acidity in different terms (like ‘bright’) which are more usually used with food or drink, maybe we can drag the laymen, the coffee novices along with us, instead of scaring them away with chemistry terms like ‘acidity’.

  11. Acidity is not a good thing if it’s completely unbalanced (by sweetness and mouthfeel) or of a character suggestive of unripe fruit/vegetables or metals.

    Balance really is everything as far as taste goes. A coffee can have tremendous acidity and still be balanced. The simultaneous sensations on the tongue and in the mouth is what makes a coffee “pop”. It’s basically your sensory impressions being pulled in all sorts of directions at the same time.

    But great taste and no or lacking flavour complexity is again a bad thing.

    Anyway. Acidity? Yes please. But not alone.

  12. Do we like acidity?

    My girlfriend likes to eat lemon off the rind. I cannot stand lemons, not off the rind, not in my water; heck, I can’t hardly stomach (or enjoy) sour candy; it makes my face hot.

    With coffee the problem becomes more complex because of habituation. People have to get used to acidity only (only?) because they’ve spent their whole lives drinking something that tastes different, be it Maxwell house, Starbucks Signature Dark Roasted Sumatra, or a low grown, no acidity Kona.

    It would be an interesting experiment to start one group of teenagers drinking bright Kenyans or Guats and another group drinking dark roasted Sumatra. When they get to be 35 or 45, see what they think of the “other’s” coffee.

  13. Balance is the best way to overcome a straight line, but how do coffee excel wine or beer?

    Coffee is coffee, not wine or beer.

    The biggest challenge in the speciality coffee is to overcome the obsession to compare it with an established taste tradition and start to build coffee a name of it’s own.

    If you were to impress friends over a dinner table, the last thing you want to talk about is acidity, buy you may require a smile accompanied with big eyes.

  14. Apple like flavor

    One day I though about making a signature drink with a hint of apple, so I went out in my garden to pick some fresh apples, put them in a blender with some water and at the end of a normal Hario pouring (Mugaga from TW) I would add a hint of fresh apple juice.

    The oil formed perfect circles, almost like Esmeralda, in the cup. It gave me hints of Esmeralda in the taste as well, but you could the difference. At least the cup became more crisp.

  15. I tend to think Acidity is vital is Coffee, provided it’s balanced out with the right amount of sweetness. A good example is how much sugar to add to the Lemonade, with the right amount of sugar the lemonade can be delicious and very refreshing. But with no sugar it’ll be harsh and undrinkable. On the other hand too much sugar will reduce the flavour of the lemonade and the drink will tend to lack any Kick; as sugar starts to dominate Acidity. Other examples are when you have a good Apple or an Orange. An Orange with little sweetness will tend to taste like Lemon… which is not pleasant to have on its own.

  16. There is food, where acidity has nothing to lurk around. (Tiramisu, Vanilla cream, etc.)
    Modern recepts add here some lemon, there some berrys. The result is, everything tastes somehow the same. Mostly little sweet, little creamy, a bit sour, a hint salt, sometimes hot.
    The same happens with high grade coffees.
    Go and try to find the perfect espresso-coffee tasting coffee; little earthy, little bitterness, chocolate, acid just the first fast impression, long sweet aftertaste. Its hard to get and seems to be out of fashion.
    If i like to drink something fruity, I order a juice or a frapee.
    Oldfashioned? Maybe, but not the less a challenge to find out there.

  17. Read your blog for a while, never commented before. I’m not a coffee professional, I’m an enthusiastic consumer.

    Really interesting conversation and great comments!

    How does one talk about acidity? This appears to be quite a problem, yet as you point out – it is a key descriptor. I’m not convinced you will get the general public to be bothered about what might be considered jargon. I think your post speaks more of a ‘disciplinary anxiety’, insofar as you relate this issue to defining ‘speciality coffee’. So, while I respect your thirst for knowledge and a more specific means of description I think the retreat into a scientific orthodoxy for terminology is a dead-end.

    FWIW – I like what I have come to know as ‘acidity’ in a fantastic spectrum of flavours and ‘oral sensations’ that coffee can provide. But its not the be-all-and-end-all of coffee. I’m a little disappointed by what appears to be a headlong rush into what a few friends have called the ‘ribena’ shot of espresso. There are a lot of other ‘variables’ to the experience of consuming coffee which can be tinkered with, I would humbly suggest it should be about balancing them. The best shot of espresso I’ve ever had was Stumptown’s “Hairbender”, around June this year. One of the wonderful things about that coffee experience was its balance of sweetness, acidity, body, mouthfeel – a real sensory pleasure. So, totally agree with the comments by Chris Kolbu, Dave Xu and CoffeeLots.com.

    Having said all of this, I think there’s a lot of value in the old addage – variety is the spice of life. I appreciate that lovely fragrant acidity of a Kenyan you described all the more when I experience something contrasting like a luxurious chocolatey medium-dark. A plea to the ‘speciality’ coffee people: Don’t give up on variety!

    Kudos on the BoingBoing free advert btw.

  18. I’ve also been thinking about acidity, and I’ve admitted it in the past, I love bright coffees, although the quality of the acidity has to be in check too. Sumatrans tend to have a not so enjoyable acidity, but I would never stop drinking Sumatrans. I think an important note should be made about judging coffee. We should never try to judge all coffees by the same expectations. Not every great coffee needs to taste like a child’s candy, fruity, sweet, and sometimes acidic, and so we can say not every coffee needs high acidity.

    I still never really understood how someone could misunderstand acidic and bitter, perhaps astringency can also confuse. Something astringent is prickling sensations and considered bitter. But acidity to some might be like bitter in coffee. If you were to remove all bitterness in coffee, or for that matter, beer, wine and tea, you would get a boring drink.

    Bitterness can be learned, so can acidity. But many didn’t learn to love acidity, we loved it since a child, and many love fruits that are acidic but stay away from acidic coffees. Part of it is a mind set, but I think we shouldn’t over look the experience of acidity in coffee from a home brewer. If you have someone using an electric drip, or any way they use too could of water, or under extract it, the coffee’s acidity turns out horrible to them, and this can stick with them as they try to taste acidic coffees.

    Some people have stomach issues and can’t drink high acidic stuff, even if ph acidity and tongue acidity are only moderately correlated, they still will prefer the less acidic coffees. Although I think if you want something like a low acidic but roasts taste, there are a lot of beverages out there like that, especially heavily roasted oolongs, but that is overgeneralizing taste.

    All this said I still think coffees with low acidity can be specialty coffees, and I think the more variety the better for coffee in general. When coffee becomes too similar people have a much more difficult time distinguishing the difference in high quality versus low quality. Any one with average taste buds can taste the difference between a Sumatran and a Kenyan in general, and I think that’s very important aspect in solidifying the coffee is special, and a specialty drink. Coffee most definitely has terroir, and it something even unrefined palates can taste. I think that is the first step into dismantling the idea that coffee is coffee.

  19. Without questions acidity is one of my favorite flavor to taste in coffee. When acidity bounces of my tongue and brings with it citrus or tropical fruit I get really excited. When acidity is backed up by it’s friends body and aftertaste I am ecstatic! I personally cannot see a coffee receiving a score in the 90s unless it has good acidity. This for me will always to linked to a coffee being a truly great specialty coffee. This is not just true in coffee tasting but wine as well.

    The fact that sourness would be connected to acidity does make sense just because of where it hits on your tongue BUT there is a very marked difference for me between the two. Pretty shocking that so many Coffee Sites would describe acidity as sour.

    In regards to NOT liking coffee from the start OR having to “learn to like it”, I could not disagree more. I have liked the flavor of coffee since my first sip of Specialty Coffee. I think many people can attest to starting in the same place. My 5 year old son is case and point. He has been sneaking coffee since he was 3 and has always liked the flavor. My point in saying he is sneaking it is that he didn’t have to have someone tell him, “Smell this, taste this great fruit in the coffee.” He just new he liked it.

    On the opposite side, I would have to say that simply teaching people to: Smell, Slurp and Describe the coffee they are tasting without cream and sugar will do wonders for helping them “get it”.

    ACIDITY = AWESOMENESS

    Jason Coffee
    Coffee Cup News

  20. For me as a consumer, the distinguishing point between different cups of coffee was the amount of fist-in-the-stomach it contained.

    Furthermore, coffee was known to me as a taste of its own right – with not much differences in between the big roasting brands available and with no sub-tastes like strawberry, chocolate, or else. Coffee tasted like, well, coffee.

    So that were real revelations for me I had when visiting those 3rd-Wave-Coffeeshops all over London. I had read that sourness in espresso is a sign of a badly prepared shot. So I was close to confronting some of the baristas with that knowledge when I was served those typically acidic shots. Luckily I remembered that you better do not cause waves too high before you are able to swim. And so I learned about the difference between sourness and fruityness.

    There are some roasts and shots who taste just acidic, even when well prepared. And there are others who taste fruity-acidic in the sense that I can relate a fruit taste to them. The latter is completely ok with me, while plain acidity pops up out of nothing, stands out and interferes with the rest of the flavours.

  21. Lovely topic, Mr. Hoffmann, thank you.

    This very notion that maybe us coffee geeks are liking something that the majority of consumers don’t embrace is what prompted me to write an article in the July/Aug of Roast Magazine (can be found on my website in the “about us\selected literature 2″ section). A preference for acidity is just that- a preference. With nearly 6.9 billion people walking this earth, we’re all going to like and want something different. Far be it for us geeks to dictate that what we like is the best stuff on the planet.

    I advocate for a different way of thinking of and talking about coffee. Let’s leave our preferences inside our heads and move towards describing what we taste.

    Yes, low or no acid coffees are specialty coffees. They are just different. What’s so bad about different?

  22. While I think it’s important to have industry common scoresheets to facilitate a baseline “language” for purchasing and evaluation, the cupping sheets we have designed at Spro look towards flavor components and descriptions rather and are a distinct departure from the SCAA/CoE style sheets. For us, coffee is about experience, flavor and personal preference. What may be great and desirable to one person or customer may be disagreeable to another. We want to explore those possibilities without getting wrapped up in jargon or numerical scores that really only mean anything to industry insiders.

    Because a 94 from Ken Davids only means great coffee if we share the same taste preferences.

    That said, on a personal preference note, I’m not that fond of acidity in coffee. When it comes to coffee that I desire to drink for personal pleasure and consumption, I prefer fruity and chocolate-y coffees. Coffees that some industry pros consider “defective” due to their natural process are the very coffees I enjoy most.

    At Spro, we have the unique opportunity of offering a selection of coffees from a wide variety of roasters. Tasting the breadth and depth of these offerings is giving us insight into coffee that would not have been possible with only the catalog of one roaster. Through this, we’re able to compare and contrast and delve deep into the coffees.

    Recently, we selected the Kenya Thiriku roasted by Counter Culture for service. It’s a bright and acidic coffee with heavy notes of citrus. Very acidic and a coffee that a number of my baristas (and in turn, customers) loved. However, it isn’t a coffee that I would choose to take home for morning breakfast. It was a coffee that we discovered paired amazingly with certain items and then it’s brilliance was unmistakeable.

    What I mean to say is that taste and presence of coffee is a very subjective thing. Far too often we, as a community, regard ourselves with too much pomp and circumstance, take our “authority” too seriously and end up issuing ridiculous dogma that we think everyone should obey. Coffee is a diverse product and that diversity should be celebrated rather than being forced into categories that arbitrarily deem it “good” or “bad.”

    Over the years, when manufacturing flavored syrups, I had the opportunity to learn more about the impact of acidity in flavors and beverages. It is a very important component, but what I also discovered is that acidity is best in either context or balance.

    I equate it to the use of salt in cooking. Too much and it’s very pronounced, sometimes overwhelming. It’s absence leaves everything flat. Use just the right amount and the flavors sing, they dazzle and they make the experience. It can be transcendental.

    Also, we should try to not get wrapped up in believing that simply because we like acidic characters in some foods that it must apply across the board. While I enjoy orange juice and need the phosphoric acid of Coca-Cola to cut across some meals, to say that I should also like acid-forward coffees is fools game.

    Gerben poses a great hypothetical: “Should I carry a pH indicator…?” Gosh, such great irony and commentary on the dogma that burdens our community. It reminded me of both the tastings and outings I’ve had with chef and sommelier friends – people who are very knowledgeable about wines. In all the tastings I’ve been to over the years and all the wines we’ve drank, not once has anyone ever talked about measuring the wines with instruments as a means to our enjoyment. If it was acidic, we simply stated it. Tannic? Same thing. Wine is about consumption and enjoyment. Did we need to run it through a chromatograph to determine whether or not it was good? Or if we enjoyed it? That would be ridiculous.

    At the Spro, we offer a range of coffees based on our own personal preferences. We cup coffees, debate (argue) their merits based on our individual tastes and then select the coffees for service. What we end up with is an offering of coffees with a diversity of flavors that our guests can then explore. What happens is that our baristas are excited and informed about our coffee offerings. In turn, our guests learn and explore coffee in a way never before experienced.

    And isn’t the exploration and enjoyment of coffee by our guests the real goal here?

  23. I should really clarify what is at the route of the initial post:

    It wasn’t really to discuss preference for acidity – though the discussion that has come out of it on the subject is extremely interesting.

    It was really along the lines of where speciality coffee is going – in terms of raw materials and roasting style.

    The preference for high acidity in coffee is generally higher within the industry compared to outside. I’d also say that in many cases preference for acidity develops with involvement and interest in coffee.

    My concern is that speciality coffees (I really, really do hate the term) start to be a leap too far for many people. Something I think Pete touches on in the post above.

    Exploration is absolutely a goal, helped along by explanation and a guide to what we understand about what makes a coffee terrifically enjoyable and interesting.

    @Jay You seem exceptionally irritated by the use of metering in the coffee community. What confuses me is that you seem to indicate that people are using it as a method of approval, which I don’t really think anyone is. It is a great tool for understand change, adjustments to recipe and understanding the impact of technique on taste. I don’t think anyone is blindly chasing numbers, serving perfect 19% brews that they’ve never tasted. I’d like to understand your resentment towards it better – I’m not trying to pick a fight.

  24. The whole stomach acidity thing confuses me a little bit – as I can’t think of a coffee that comes close to the acidity of Gastrich acid. I’m not saying that coffee doesn’t have an effect – I just wonder how the mechanism works.

  25. But there are, I would think, proportionately less superb coffees with low acidity. I am struggling to think (because it is late and I am tired) of some truly outstanding low acidity coffees that could be described as being clean (because this will always be important) and have articulate and pleasing flavours.

  26. James-
    If I seem “irritated” it’s because I think we’re getting off track with the metering and forgetting that our product is about taste and enjoyment. In my background, I’ve used instruments to measure a variety of specifications, however, the ultimate proof of any specification is the way it tastes and if that taste performs in the desired manner.

    I have to disagree with you on your assertions because I have noticed that many in our community seem to think that they “must” hit the proverbial 19% or else it isn’t worth drinking. In fact, at SCAA Anaheim, there was at least one person who articulated that he brings the refractometer with him when going out to drink, runs it through the calculations and won’t even taste the coffee unless it hits within certain parameters.

    We’re certainly off the deep end if our community is headed in that direction.

    I see a place for instrument measuring but I’m concerned because the direction of recent discussions over the past year has been increasingly towards hitting some fabled number and away from the actual tasting of the coffee.

    When you state that you’re concerned about specialty coffees (seems that you hate that term as much as I dislike “third wave”) leaping too far for many people, I share that concern. So much so that our company of baristas is committed towards keeping our selection of coffees as accessible to our guests as possible. I think here the key is delivering service without pretense. Certainly describing coffees in the manner that we can, with all sorts of flowery and intense interpretation, might put up a wall between ourselves and our guests. We combat that by drilling our interactive descriptions (meaning face-to-face discussion) down to the most simple language possible. We guide our guests by having an open discussion with them about the stuff they like in order to help them find a coffee on our menu to enjoy.

    We’re finding that while our interpretations and our menus may be intimidating for some, our approach to service is what bridges any gap that may exist. We’re finding that our coffees – even the high acidity ones like Kenya Thiriku, are very accessible for our guests to explore, simply because of the way we present them: in a very modest, humble and unpretentious manner.

    In fact, our lack of pretense and our methodologies for brewing have actually increased our interaction with guests, and have resulted in deeper conversations about the coffees, the brewing methods and everything associate with what we do for a living.

  27. Interesting topic. I am passionate about acidity- here’s why:

    We’re apes, after all. And as apes, we evolved a sophisticated set of senses that help guide our food choices. Of course, the wonderful thing about being human is that those same senses- which evolved for survival- provide a basis for a sensory, aesthetic experience of the world. Viva taste and smell!

    As apes and proto-humans, our species survived in great measure on ripe, sweet fruits. We developed flavor preferences for the compounds that always accompany fruits that are likely to be safe and nutritious: namely sugars and acids. Our preference for sweet and acidy things is very likely an extremely useful evolutionary adaptation. (just as our craving for savory helps us with protein sources and our craving for salt helps keep our minerals in balance)

    Ok, so as humans we have a built-in love for certain acids, especially the fruit ones. Malic (apple) acid, phosphoric (berrylike) acid, citric acid, are clearly associated with their fruit families, and we love them for it. Some acids are even important nutrients themselves, like ascorbic acid.

    It doesn’t stop with fruit. Virtually every food we eat is acidic in some way. Milk, bread, vegetables, etc. etc…. we love it and we can’t get enough of it.

    So, have I convinced you that humans naturally love acidity? Now I have to convince you that humans naturally love acidity in coffee. That’s tougher, because people aren’t initially attracted to coffee because of acidity necessarily. I think that people are attracted to the “brown-ness” of coffee: the deliciousness that maillard reactions and caramelization flavors bring to food. Coffee is concentrated brown flavors, and gives us a solid hit of what we love in toast, chargrilled steak, brown gravy and chocolate. This is the basic flavor that we love in coffee, and what our imaginations tell us pure “coffee flavor” is.

    But here’s the thing: coffee is the seed of a fruit, and a ripe coffee, cleanly processed, and reasonably roasted will always have acidity. Acidity adds dimension and complexity to the “brown” flavor of coffee, and makes it so that coffee stimulates as many as 4 of the basic 5 taste sensations simultaneously!

    That said, I understand you James that you were talking about the fact that as our professional corps have grown, our presenting of super-bright coffees as “the best” coffees may create a chasm too large for casual coffee drinkers to leap. I agree, although I must say that I am continuously pleasantly surprised by how open-minded and diverse even inexperienced coffee drinkers can be. My brother’s mother-in-law- who never drinks coffee- has become a Kenya fanatic- it’s the only coffee she loves or ever drinks. I don’t think that is all too surprising, really….

    Also, one more thing: remember that cupping forms aren’t measuring the “amount” or even “intensity” of acidity, they are meant to document the “pleasantness” or “appropriateness” of the acidity. It’s a common cupper mistake to think those are quantitative measures- they are meant to be qualitative.

    Interesting thoughts everybody.

    Peter G

  28. In wine classes they teach that acidity “super charges” other flavors. Both within the wine and with foods the wine is paired with. I think the same could be argued for coffee

  29. The comparisons of presence of acidity in some foods with acidy in coffee is completely misplaced..of course a lot of us like our salads with some acidity, and our fish. and our chips….but we don’t like our chocolate with acidity right?…the same applies to coffee, if given the choice, a lot of consumers would prefer a coffee with only hints of acidity.

    On the other hand, we, as the people shaping the course that the speciality coffee industry will follow, have to be really careful of where we’re taking it. As we most of us know, the higher the altitude of a coffee farm, the higher the acidity of the coffee, by continuously demanding high acidity coffees we are making the coffee farmers to look for higher and higher altitude regions where they are setting up new plantations. This high altitude areas are very fragile because of their steep slopes, when you combine that with the increase in rains brought by climate change then you have a recipe for disaster. Look at the serious landslides problems experienced in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, etc. this year. We have an environmental responsibility that is being forgotten because of our “acidity” quest.

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