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...