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.



12 thoughts on “The Monopoly On Taste

  1. 100% agree – taste is subjective – if you can taste a particular flavour – then you can – nobody can say you can’t. I can see some flavour descriptors in coffee could be assumed to be negative, but sometimes they are positive, or just an aid memoire.


  2. Rob, Kudos to you for saying it tasted like tomato. I’m sure I would have agreed with you if I had been there. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a roaster or barista argue with me (when I’m just an anonymous customer) about a flavor descriptor I used. Then if I tell them what I believe their roast curve looked like or how their extraction was subpar, and how those caused their coffee to taste the way it did, their attitude usually does a 180 and they stop condescending.

    No one knows exactly what someone else is tasting… not only does everyone vary in their sensitivity to, and awareness of, tastes and aromas, but mouth chemistry, the bacteria living in one’s mouth, and even the bacteria living in one’s intestines (!) have been shown to influence how you perceive flavor and/or what foods or drinks you prefer.

    Ironically, “super tasters” are more sensitive than the rest of us, yet they are more intolerant of the bitterness inherent in black coffee (arguably a true super taster could not drink even the least-bitter black coffee). A super taster could rightly argue a coffee is too bitter (to him or her), but one of the roasters at your table would probably tell him or her that’s “objectively” false.

    If I could fix one problem in third-wave coffee, it would be to get more roasters and baristas to treat customers with kindness and respect, instead of seeing customers as ignoramuses who need to be “educated” about why they should like.

    I once had a barista tell me I was “wrong” about how bad his $12 siphon brew was, even though he didn’t taste it. It was baked, underextracted, and rancid!. After I explained to him the probable mistakes in the roasting, brewing, and cleaning that led to the terrible cup (I don’t usually do that, but he kinda asked for it), he said “if I had known you know more than I do, I wouldn’t have argued and I would have just made you a new coffee.” Say what?? Although that was a horrible thing for him to say to a customer, it was enlightening: he was being honest that he would only respect those who seemed to know more than he did.

    For what it’s worth, in the past two days I was served 5 expensive cups made from green >90 points, none were extracted well, three were baked, and one was a tomato bomb. All from very well-regarded roasters. We have a long way to go.


    1. And quite frankly even if you hadn’t tasted tomato that wouldn’t take away from the fact that I did! (I wasn’t calling it out as a flaw) unless I’m working with the coffee at my brew at or espresso station and there are some quantifiable reasons i feel I can’t make a good cup of coffee with the beans I am unlikely to do shout about “flaws” because I’m not a roaster and can only work with what I’m given!

      The sheer bloody defensiveness is what gets me; I’ve had a lot of foreign people who work in the cocktail industry drink my spro (I did a popup in a German cocktail bar recently) and use the descriptor “sour”, which obviously makes me wince and I have to ask them to tell me more to work out if it’s bad or not (it’s not, sour is a positive descriptor for them and it’s not an invalid word to be using) – if I responded with “IT’S NOT SOUR” I’d have lost customers very fast.


  3. (They’d usually go on to say “but it’s also really sweet”, at which point I wipe my brow with relief because it means I’ve not accidentally served under extracted guff)


    1. No doubt most coffee professionals are respond pleasantly positive flavor descriptors they didn’t taste themselves, but readily protest seemingly negative descriptors.

      I had a barista once tell me he needed to “educate” a consumer who called his coffee sour. I said “your coffee IS sour!”. He was shocked. But then, to his credit, he took it seriously and worked on decreasing sourness in his coffee. It’s just unfortunate that he dismissed the customer’s opinion, while he was open to hearing it from another coffee professional.


  4. I am reminded of a story recently from one of my friends in Glasgow who had a customer bring espresso back saying it was undrinkable.

    Rather than be defensive, he asked if he could taste it and check something hadn’t gone bad – it was awful. He asked how many sugars they had put in it – five they replied.

    He handed them a new espresso and advised them to try without – they loved it – sometimes you have to listen to the customer before making insta judgements about why they don’t like the coffee. Starting at the basis that it’s our fault for serving something bad can lead to discovering a flaw in the customer’s expectations or use of the coffee but starting with the assumption that they’re wrong will lead to no discovery at all – even if that discovery is that they have indeed done something as foolish as dumping sugar in specialty espresso!


    1. I had a similar experience… about 20 years ago a customer walked up to me and said his filter coffee was really bad. I said “Ok, sorry, I’ll refund you or replace it with whatever you’d like, (which is what I ask all of my staff to do, always, when a customer complains) but would you mind if I take a sip of it so I can understand what happened”… I was standing in the middle of my cafe, in front of the bar, took a sip, and involuntarily sprayed the coffee out of my mouth and all over the floor :0. I asked him what he’d put in the coffee– he had added 10 packs of Sweet & Low !! (it’s a sugar substitute, if you’re not familiar) Mind you, I’d never before tasted a coffee with ANY sugar added, so that was a shocker. (I’ve only tasted coffee with sugar 2-3 times since).

      I’d rate the majority of pre-second-crack roasts at reasonable extraction levels as “sour”… there are, after all, quite a few sour-tasting acids in coffee. Whether that’s pleasing or not is up to the taster. No doubt you can bring out more sourness intentionally, but to the Starbucks or Costa customer trying a third-wave coffee for the first time, the sourness of even a well-extracted light roast must usually seem off the charts.


      1. Oh yes indeed, and we can argue the toss about whether something is sour or fruity – but most customers who come in from Costa are only going to use the first word for any of it because comparatively it is – trying to deny this is weird – as you say, the beans have plenty of sour compounds in them…

        I’ve been on the lookout for “more developed” roasts lately for my own use – I had a few roasts that way in Japan that were actually very enjoyable and I’ve not managed to find any in the UK – most attempts at this direction end up being too dirty for me and I end up taking the lesser evil (for me) of the lighter stuff at the cost of having more acidity – thankfully I don’t serve people from Costa so I can get away with this.

        I can’t have this conversation with the roasters though because everybody wants to take offence at the wrong taste descriptors being used – oh dear!


      2. I have no idea what I’m doing, and yet it’s clear when talking to baristas in the industry that I’ve spent a lot more time delving into this than most – it’d be nice if people would have gentler conversations about desired outcomes and not get hung up on words when so many of us are walking around blind.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. My response to those of foreign tongue who use the word “sour” to describe their first hit of the fruity stuff once we have established that they’re actually enjoying some juicy sweetness and not just recoiling from under extracted guff is then to explore a common vocabulary (if they’re interested enough to talk about it in the first place).

    It’s always fun to then pour them a deliberately under extracted shot so they can get a hint of what I’d use the word sour for – there is a lot of fun to be had in back and forth education but it always starts the same way; by listening and having a conversation – not by knee jerk reacting and assuming because they don’t know much about coffee that they’ve got nothing to add becsuae they used a word that you wouldn’t ordinarily choose to use yourself!


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