The Monopoly On Taste

Something happens to people who start roasting, they become analytical machines capable of objectively describing coffee in terms that are exact and precise – that’s why they spend so much time calling each others’ coffee roasty, underdeveloped or baked because they’ve all agreed what those things mean and they’re all correct about it all of the time.

A Story from the UK Coffee Roasting Championships

I was at a “fun” cupping table at this event with a whole bunch of coffee from a bunch of roasters in London (tasted blind so if you wanted to refer to a cup you’d do it by number or by its dominant flavour).

One of the cups was clearly a Kenyan – which to me tend to taste of tomatoes (sometimes ripe ones, sometimes not). When I was trying to communicate with another friend about the coffee I had just tried I referred to it as the “tomatoey one”.

A voice bellowed from next to me quite aggressively, “It’s not tomatoey”

Ah yes, I realised, I’m stood around the table with a bunch of roasting competitors and my taste experience is therefore invalid and wrong because I am incapable of being objective and using the correct words because that’s what they all do all of the time. (roll eyes).

I tried explaining that tomato was what I tasted and that it’s not (always) a negative taste descriptor for me and this was met with a wall of refusal followed by dismissal because he found out I wasn’t in the secret cabal of roasters and therefore not worth listening to. The end message being simply: “Around this table we are being objective so you are wrong to taste that”.

(side note: with the exception of one exceptionally roasty coffee, most of the cups on the table tasted a little underdeveloped because they were roasted in London and then thrown in Glasgow water with little calibration or dial-in, so tomato may have been “correct” even in that context –  this is by the by however…)

Tasting notes and the common person

One of the tasting notes that my stepmother recently identified in a natural Ethiopian I had stashed away in a suitcase was “marmite”.

I had to think quite hard about that to work out which bit of the coffee she was referring to and I ended up pulling out a jar of Marmite to compare. It turns out that the yeast present in the marmite spread has a similar sort of aroma to a fermented coffee (Yes, natural coffees are mostly shite because of this but that’s outside the scope of this little rant).

Is Marmite a valid taste descriptor? Was she wrong to taste Marmite? No; taste is entirely subjective and while the process of getting a coffee cherry into a cup is for a large part a scientifically objective process the resulting experience is nearly always a subjective one for the vast majority of people.

Professionalism and Objectivity

We try to calibrate on known terms as part of sensory training in the coffee industry, this is done via the official SCAA/E tasting lexicons, Q grading and sensory exams as part of the diploma program (and as part of judge calibration too).

This is useful because in the rare cases where two people have both tasted the reference flavour for a particular note (Oregan Blueberries for example) they can both say Blueberries and know exactly what they’re referring to (even if the subject matter itself doesn’t really correspond to the experience either of them have really had with blueberries over the course of their lives).

Most of us do not have this luxury – and some of us have decided that we’re not interested in even trying to even go down this rabbit-hole because it’s far easier to get coffee into the hopper, see if we like it and then serve it if we do and stop there).

Communicating with most roasters is an exercise in frustration because by and large they tend to operate in their caves, don’t talk to each other or other people and are happy with the product they’re producing and are generally miserable about the product other people are producing.

“You are wrong to taste that”

Is a prime example of why these days I don’t bother talking to roasters, when they invalidate somebody’s subjective taste experience because they “know better” they are in fact being boring “coffee wanks” and become people not worth talking to.

This is a common interaction though either through explicit statements like the above or the casual and implicit dismissal of opinion because we’re not a roaster (or we’re a roaster that they don’t like) and therefore aren’t worth listening to.

The dismissal of an experience, the dismissal of subjective (and fairly casual statements) because this is a Serious Business for Serious People who have to be objective in every interaction is hugely harmful in gaining useful feedback from the people who do matter – those that actually drink the coffee from something other than cups at the cupping table in the roastery.

This is essentially a human thing; a social interaction – which for those of us who want more than just a shot of caffeine is what coffee is all about; reducing it to “incorrect” and “correct” taste descriptors simply ruins the experience for everybody involved and alienates people who might actually give you useful feedback about your product over time.

Something to think about anyway.



Some Thoughts From Running My Glasgow Cafe On Tinder

Cafe Ashton.

I’ve always tongue-in-cheek referred to my apartment as being a bit of an exclusive cafe experience – slinging the best EKspresso in town but it wasn’t until a few months ago when I got back from Japan and set up my Tinder profile to explicitly invite new customers that I started to get some real guests in off the street.


I’ve had a lot of fun with the project because nearly every single interaction with my guests has started with “I don’t really like coffee but...” and ended with “Wow, wow wow, this espresso is amazing can I have another one please?” so let’s talk about that.

The Expectation/Reality Gap

We have a situation in the coffee industry where we spend most of our time catering for people who already like coffee in whatever form it takes. They’re not averse to bitterness, not averse to dirty flavours in their cup and not averse to dark roasted wet hulled Sumatran mud-in-a-bucket. That their coffee sometimes tastes nice is probably a pleasant surprise but they probably don’t come to the shop because the coffee tastes nice – they come to the shop because they’re on the way to work or the barista is very handsome/pretty and they’ve got a crush on them or their fancy latte art.

That’s great – they pay the bills I guess but they pay the bills only to a certain price point because we’re competing with the Costa or Starbucks around the corner on their terms and racing to the bottom on price and there is only so much we can get away with before these people go there instead because really they’re happy with any old cuppa so long as it wakes them up enough that they can walk into that 9am meeting that somebody thought was a good idea and resist the urge to flip the table and set the place on fire the first time somebody offers to “take the discussion offline”.

These customers are pretty rubbish really and yet we constantly cater for them with the most middle-of-the-road coffees we can find at the prices we can afford to sell them at whilst telling ourselves that because we serve a higher quality product people will somehow notice this and come and buy the good stuff off us instead.

These customers are also rubbish because they ask for things like macchiatos out of habit and dump three sugars in their espresso even though it’s going to make it taste like soap and you’ve warned them it’s going to taste like soap but they’re the customer and they know best and they’re going to put three sugars in their espresso without tasting it because you’ve told them that it’s “coffee” and they know how they like to drink their coffee so shut up already because you’re the barista and you’ve got a warped view of the world.

Yes I have worked in Germany thanks for asking – I know all about the real world and have had to watch customers do things to their drinks that I know is going to give them a bad experience (and give me nightmares) and there is nothing I can do about it because those customers who have always liked coffee are the worst customers and catering for them is the worst thing for our collective sanity.

Gaining New Custom

The problem is that the middle of the road garbage we’re pumping out for the people who already have a preconceived notion of what coffee is at the price point we’re having to do that at isn’t ever going to change anybody’s minds if they don’t like coffee already. It’s not different enough to stand out as anything other than coffee and they’re unlikely to really enjoy it unless it has 8oz of whole milk dumped over it and at that point why bother anyway?

I don’t do middle of the road garbage at Cafe Ashton, I typically buy coffee that I want to drink and that people already familiar with coffee would drink and respond with “That doesn’t taste like coffee” – in a shop this is dangerous territory because if you’re offering coffee and then serving something that doesn’t taste like coffee you’re going to get some upset old men on your case (especially in Glasgow).

I get that, but what it does mean is that my guests who don’t like coffee (which is most of them) tend to be given neat EKspresso and instantly get floored by the sweet and sticky fruity goodness. “Why don’t coffee shops serve this?” they ask again and again and then I have to go into that tired old spiel about dishing out fruity Kenyan espresso is going to be upsetting a lot of people because it doesn’t taste like coffee and the good stuff is too expensive to be doing that with anyway at the price point that people expect and blah blah and so on.

Forget “Coffee”

Obviously at the conferences that we run with Tame Baristas we’re able to reset expectations because the coffee is free and we’re able to give an intro to every person as they swing by with their order (remember – we end up with 75% orders as neat espresso because of this).

We can’t do this in a shop because it’s arseholish (it is), those people who want their morning “coffee” aren’t looking for an “experience” and nor should we be trying to force it on them – but where are the coffee shops serving the mad gourmet shit and re-branding it to gain new custom from those who wouldn’t have ordinarily come in for coffee?

These people have no prior expectations about price and don’t want their coffee to in any way resemble the Nescafe or Nespresso that most people spoon into themselves at home by the gallon. These people  are the wrong people to be marketing “coffee” at, perhaps in the same vein as the “Gary” Vegan Cheese Incident we should be calling it something different to get their attention – I suggest starting with “Heaps Mad Fruity Gourmet Shit” and working your way up from there.

There is a whole market out there that is entirely untouched and somebody needs to be the first to successfully pull these people in and start charging sensible prices for the experience and de-couple it from the negative connotations that the word “coffee” brings to the table. Cafe Ashton is only so big and can only do so much volume before the neighbours complain at the constant noise coming from the EK43.

Worth thinking about anyway, I haven’t seen a coffee shop trying to sell to this market yet and tricks are being missed.