Is Coffee Tasting Useless or just Bullshit?

It would seem that coffee has an identity problem. Specifically, a low self-esteem problem. In a vain effort to make itself recognized seriously it has borrowed taste terminology and quality identifiers from another, more reputable industry: wine. For years I have heard of this image problem with coffee, in how do we get consumers to respect the care and effort that goes into the creation of high-quality coffee? The answer appears to be to ape another's reputation hoping it will enhance ours. We're like the unpopular kid hoping that if he wears the same clothes as the popular kids he will finally get some respect.

Of course, for much of coffee's history here in the States, it was always a drink of the masses controlled by a few commercial conglomerates that chiefly gained market share through couponing and promotions. There was little in the way of customer loyalty to brands and so each attempted to out-price the other, knowing that customers' principal motivator was price. This resulted in a few brands that maximized profitability by managing blends that incorporated the cheapest beans, and roast profiles that minimized shrinkage. From the consumers perspective there was little reason for loyalty since all of the coffee brands tasted largely the same: thin, acidy, and stale.

Making matters worse, the market in which all were competing was shrinking. The National Coffee Association performs an annual winter drinking study each year and the trend was unmistakably down from WWII right through the 1980s. The blame for this shrinking market varied, mostly centering around the idea that younger consumers were more interested in soft drinks or energy drinks and coffee couldn't compete in this new market. It just wasn't hip anymore. Not only were fewer people drinking coffee each year, those that did were using more "sweeteners and whitening agents."

Not until a few intrepid individuals came along and introduced customers to high-quality coffee, craft roasted, inspired by traditional European roasters, that the real culprit in the declining market share was exposed: taste. When an alternative to the thin, acidy, stale excuse for coffee was offered, customers responded, consumption trends reversed, and Specialty Coffee was born.

A funny thing happened on the way to the revolution though, we became Specialty Beverage Retailers rather than Specialty Coffee Roasters. Instead of continually innovating coffee quality, coffee bars diluted the focus, dumbed down the process, and promoted the next hit drink from a blender. That's what the Third Wave Movement is suppose to be all about, correcting this back to be about the coffee. That's a good thing that deserves support.

The Specialty Coffee Association of America has been instrumental in this movement. What began as a small group of like-minded souls dedicated to raising awareness of quality coffee has grown into a serious market changer. With the establishing of the Barista's Guild, the Roaster's Guild, the Brewer's Cup, Cup of Excellence and Q Certification, much has been accomplished to improve the knowledge and skills of coffee professionals. Today there is a veritable army of young coffee professionals eager to share their passion for coffee with the public. Coffee cuppings are no longer the purview of just coffee roasters, they can be found in any number of coffee bars.  Baristas are commonly heard deftly describing the coffees they are preparing.

But, as Alexander Pope said, a little learning is a dangerous thing. What dominates coffee conversation today is pretentious snobbery masquerading as intelligent analysis or helpful information. Here is one example of what I mean from a popular website describing a "94 point" coffee:

Crisp, finely structured, quietly distinctive. Dark chocolate and a shifty, anise-toned fruit (orange, blackberry, grape) dominate in aroma and small cup, with backgrounded complications of cedar and butter. Creamy, full yet buoyant mouthfeel. Berry and chocolate in particular persist in a rich, deep finish. Round, quietly balanced in three parts milk.

Okay, this description jumps the shark from being simply useless to utter bullshit. It is not about the coffee but about the taster. But this nonsense is now commonplace. Few coffee professionals would go this far attempting to bullshit their clientele but some get pretty close. Most these days limit themselves to random lists of various fruits, candies, and the occasional dessert dish, such as, look for: peach, mango, tamarind; or, apricot, marmalade, orange zest. Its as if they got stuck in the enzymatic and forgot about sugar browning and dry distillation in the aroma spectrum. Others are so caught up in describing the variety of the coffee tree and the ancestry of the farm that any hint of a flavor description is lost in the miasma of horticulture and geography.

Now, we all know that bullshit exists and we like to think we are pretty good at being able to recognize bullshit when we see it, but the problem here I think is that we are so steeped in bullshit that its difficult to recognize its source. I suggest that this problem stems from our image problem and adopting wine terminology, and hence wine quality identifiers, when describing coffee. What's worse, its as if there is only one style of wine, white, that counts as truly worthy. Interestingly, it has been observed that there are nearly three time the number of compounds that make up the flavor of coffee compared to wine and yet we have narrowed ourselves to just a sliver of our potential.

What makes this bullshit rather than merely misguided is the adoption of the pretentious attitude that shifts the attention from what is being described to who is describing it. Many have become so enamored with this terminology that it has affected the way we roast, coming full circle back to thin, acidy coffee. We have inadvertently created an echo-chamber on coffee quality that leaves out the most important player: the customer. As one friend remarked: the SCAA is not a market segment.

Many years ago when the Specialty Coffee movement was in its infancy I began offering coffee cuppings for the public. It became immediately apparent that the methodology was too cumbersome and participants were unable to come to any sort of agreement as to what they were tasting. It was largely a free-for-all in "I taste this" and "I taste that" sort of anything goes mentality. Thankfully, the Nuz de Cafe kit became available and with this and other props I was able to get a handle on producing repeatable results by adapting a methodology that incorporated simple ways to test cognition. In this way it became about the coffee and not about me, the taster. There is much literature on the subject of taste and odor perception and the follies inherent in memory and one needs to be cognizant of these foibles in order to connect with consumers. Ultimately what we had to do was establish a consistent terminology that was experiential to the customer. If the customer does not experience what is described there is no basis for loyalty.

In contrast, third wave coffee bars have become the bastions of puffery, the retail beverage equivalent to golf: Never have so many paid so much to look so good while performing so poorly.

I recently visited a third wave coffee bar that featured a local third wave roaster. This roaster, I was informed, "cures" their coffee for two weeks before delivering to their clients. For $2.50, I was carefully prepared a cup that would have been indistinguishable had I stopped by 7/11 on the way over and placed it side by side. Instead of the flowery rhetoric that the barista articulated to me during preparation I could sum the flavor up in three words:

Thin, acidy, and stale.


Poha said...

I love learning and laughing too, Mark! Tell us, next time, how you really feel! (Joke.)

I cannot describe the taste of my fresh roasted Hamakua, pressed, with half-and-half: I awake dreaming and scheming for that cup.

Thank you for guiding us to the lighter full-city roast, for high quality beans.


Unknown said...

Maybe it all stems from those under employed English major's from high priced liberal arts Colleges that became Barista's and ended as copy writers for there shop's ;-)

ZYM said...

I can't agree you anymore! Back in my home country, many roasters just take the cupping notes as the label from green beans company. Some others write down almost all kind of flavors on the label and offer only bitter and smokey dark things. Then they "educate" customers to recognize flavors by this! That was crazy!

Emo said...

I dont know where you found that quote from above regarding the "94 point" coffee but that is HILARIOUS. I didnt get the anise-toned fruit but I got a strong aroma of bullshit! Haha

Larry Taft said...

I decided to google the words coffee flavor + bullshit after reading a number of roaster company generated descriptions. My dream is to have a throw down with those with these uber-sensitive and acute taste buds. The way to do this would be to literally take, for instance, "brown sugar, dried dates, white grapefruit, rose and cashew," throw them all in a blender and ask the writer exactly what coffee the concoction tastes like.

j said...

I don't find that coffee description THAT crazy... There is a ton of flavor in coffee. I've had amazingly complex and aromatic coffees. That's why its worth blogging about. Though, I'm always annoyed when people only describe the sweet notes. Wine is an excellent comparison to coffee NOT because it's inherently pretentious, but because people readily accept that wine is nuanced and is a speciality product. Coffee suffers from being seen as a simple commodity product like sugar. I think a flavor dialogue with the public is the only way to reverse this. Instead of creating a totally new system, we should borrow heavily from established speciality fields like wine, whiskey, and craft beer. Why not?

Emo said...

I agree that we can adopt some taste terminology used for other areas, like wine; and I certainly do not believe that "coffee tasting" is useless.... however this is a good example of being over the top. Even if he were talking about wine, the phrase "three parts milk" and "quiety distinctive" is over the top. Its more about poetry than actually being helpful in describing the taste of the coffee. He might as well write a song about it....

Anonymous said...

94 point ? whats that?

bubblegum casting

Coffeevines said...

I'll go to coffee tasting because, hello, free coffee.
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