Quick Thoughts

I just returned from a trip to France, England and the Netherlands - and there is a long post coming about my experiences. First, however, there are a couple small thoughts that I wanted to share (springing from discussions had on the trip).

Taste and De-Sensitization

I had a couple of great conversations with Tim and James at the last day of Penny University. One topic that came up was the role that de-sensitization plays in taste and cupping. Put simply, I'm talking about the way that - after repeatedly tasting something - you start to "filter out" certain dominant flavours.

The example James used was very dark roasted coffee. A company like Starbucks that roasts quite dark has numerous employees who cup this coffee. For someone like me, cupping a coffee that darkly roasted would be frustrating at least as all I would be able to taste is the roast. Someone who cups daily at Starbucks, however, is unlikely to even notice the carbon and smoke notes and as a result will be able to "see past them" to other flavours.

Another example would be very light roasted coffee with strong "green" and vegetal / straw notes. Someone who works at a company that roasts to this profile will, over time, start not tasting these notes and instead will be focusing on all the other flavours in the cup.

This can be extended to people who cup a ton of natural processed coffee, or who cup mostly lower grown pulped natural from Brazil... in fact to any type of coffee or roast which has a specific strong flavour element that is outside of the center of the bell curve. In all these cases, the process of being acclimated to this flavour through repetition allows you to taste other things -- while those who have not gone through this process are at least distracted by the dominant flavours.

This makes conversations about these coffees often difficult and in the end turns those conversations into ones of a philosophical and abstract nature quite often.

Espresso and Palette

A coffee being used for espresso (be it a blend or a single origin bean) presents a barista with a palette of potential flavours to work with. The better the barista the more they can manipulate this palette to create a pleasing end product. To me, this is in fact the motivation for becoming better at being a barista - gaining more and more control over what I can do with the palette given me by the coffee.

There are no baristas, however, who can make the coffee taste like something outside of this palette.

I feel like many learning baristas fail to grasp this. Instead of trying to first understand what the palette they have been given offers to them - and then trying to work with this palette to create something they enjoy -- they decide what they enjoy and try to force the coffee to that flavour. When they have a coffee that doesn't give them the flavours they want from this palette, they call it "bad" coffee.

If you have a limited range of espresso flavours (the output in the cup as espresso) that you enjoy you should simply limit the coffees you try to use for espresso. If you're more open-minded about the espresso, then you can try other coffees -- but I suggest first understanding each coffee's unique palette.

Coffee and taste experiences

This trip solidified my belief that people who are truly gifted when it comes to coffee are always (100% of them) crazy about taste experiences. Doesn't matter if it's food or beer or wine... whatever it might be. If you meet someone who is into coffee but isn't into taste in a broader sense... I'd be suspect.

Conversations with coffee people about taste are some of my favorite experiences. Even chefs cannot wax so poetic about the taste of a single bite of some meal they had years before...


onocoffee said...

One consideration to consider regarding the learning baristas: is it really their fault? Meaning, most baristas are either trained or come up in an environment devoid of understanding regarding tastes and flavors, ergo they're simply ignorant.

A reporter yesterday posed to me a question regarding the inability to discern flavors and tastes for the customer/novice cupper. She wanted to know if it were possible for someone such as herself to advance in understanding. Of course it's possible! The key is that we must taste with a critical mind towards understand what we are tasting.

If there's some way that we can encourage the learning barista to explore the greater world of flavors and tastes then that might go far in the development of their craft.

chris said...

Well said Jay.
Well said.

How can we expect the customers to advance in their understanding of flavours of coffee if we're not investing in the general development of flavour undersanding in the people serving them?

swag said...

RE: taste and de-sensitization, you should talk to Edwin Martinez about doing a massive cupping of Indonesian coffees...and how quickly that turns into feeling like you have a mouth full of dirt.

iconoclast said...


I think there are some very simple but effective ways that you can open up the idea of "taste" to a barista.

As a roaster I would meet weekly or so with baristi for a cupping. After discussion of the things that were on the table, I would present a general tasting, what I called a "calibration". The first one was citrus fruits, which I ordered by acidity. I managed to scrounge up well over a dozen. We went through all of them, one by one, and gave some verbal input into what we were experiencing. The idea was to get past "citrus", or to get an idea of just how many different things one person could mean when they say "citrus". I did this with chocolate, pears, cheeses, beer, grains...

Whether or not I am suspicious of a coffee pro who is not into "taste sensation"? I can not really say, though I know my love for all things edible gives me a broader vocabulary to work with when sharing my experiences, as they relate to coffee.

-Ian McCarthy