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.