But don’t you taste…?

I read way too many blogs online, and some of them review coffees. Sometimes I’ve tasted the coffees they are talking about and we’re clearly having very different experiences. Don’t worry – this is by no means a rant about reviews or other people’s coffee, though I am sure that would probably get more traffic and discussion than this post!

I’m currently of the opinion that there is a before and after in the coffee tasting world. I’m going to use baristas as an example, but please don’t see this is negative commentary. By and large when baristas get hold of a new coffee they look for positive characteristics to talk about. This is to be expected, their role is a mixture of sales and preparation. This is purely anecdotal, but I’m interested in the reaction from those who’ve moved from being a barista to having a formal QC role. I’m also aware this viewpoint is wildly simplistic.

Cupping coffee regularly, from a roaster’s perspective especially, is a different exercise. The game changes from what you like, to looking for the things that you don’t like. By cupping the same coffee regularly and comparing to other roasts and profiles you learn the tastes associated with defective or undesirable roasting (such as underdeveloped tastes). Over a period of time you also clearly come to learn the taste of coffee ageing and starting to degrade. (I still really like the term “loom-y” proffered by Trish and Colleen on the portafilter podcast a while back, short of Loss Of Organic Material. This is preferable to “baggy” which does jute a disservice because coffee that has never seen jute will taste “baggy”)

These tastes don’t really stand out as sharply to those who haven’t learned them because they don’t understand their significance or meaning. Roast level, to some extent, does get assessed by a typical consumer but even that changes for many people when tasting regularly and assessing roast success.

My point here is not that I think those who QC are “better” tasters than those who have never had formal training because I think that change can have some issues – especially when it comes to communicating experience. (They have functional taste skills specific to their job requirements. Some days most probably wish they could turn it off.)

More than just communication to our customers, I want to discuss the idea of how this might impact a coffee reviewer. There’s been a lot of talk, online and offline, for a long time now about the need for reviewers in coffee. I think there are two camps of people who want a reviewer: Those who want someone to be able to call-out those who are doing a bad job with their coffee and getting away with it, and to perhaps praise those doing a good job. There are those who want a reviewer to guide consumers, to add to the perceived value of the category, as well as to help drive quality up through aspiration and feedback.

Taking someone who thinks like someone in coffee QC to be a reviewer means that the language and perspective of the review will end up being quite technical, and while this may change over time the language and content of the review will be alien to many who want a review to guide them into which coffee they should buy, as interested but not overly knowledgeable consumers. Do those who’ve worked in film production make the best reviewers, as they more aware of the technical aspects of a film? Their technical analysis would doubtless spill into the review of a film, and may not be directly correlated into how enjoyable the film is to people who just like watching films.

The challenge a non-industry reviewer will have is gaining acceptance from the wider industry if they don’t think and talk in our language. Perhaps this is why there is no effective coffee review with any impact on the market. I should clarify that in all of this I’m talking about reviewing coffee itself – either whole beans or cups of coffee (more likely the former) rather than cafe review which is a whole other animal (though still done pretty badly).

I don’t read reviews for much other than films, music, restaurants and cafes. I put limited stock in all of them. I don’t actually mind the lack of a coffee reviewer, though in the past I’d probably have been in the angrier camp once or twice. I can’t actually conceive of how an effective review would look. I’m not sure of the language – perhaps if a professional wrote with the goal of being engaging and helpful, rather than constantly being technically correct.

I’m always interested in the experience of tasting with untrained tasters, especially when those untrained tasters are passionate, and interested in coffee. I hope people don’t dwell on my use of “untrained” and take it as negative commentary, it isn’t meant to be that. It doesn’t mean I don’t think people can taste, or shouldn’t taste or that their opinions don’t matter. They simply haven’t been through a formalised process of developing specific language and learning the correlations between specific tastes and issues of roast or raw coffee viability. It isn’t meant to be patronising in the slightest, but I worry that language is working against me here. I just thought I’d throw this idea out there for a bit of discussion.