Tasting Complexities in Coffee


I think that a common misconception with flavour is that people believe it exists physically within the glass of wine or cup of coffee they are holding. Indeed, two people consuming the same bottle of wine are in fact consuming the same chemical information, but not only will their enjoyment of the wine differ, when asked to describe what it tastes like, they will likely come up with entirely different descriptions.

Our experience of flavour is completely individual, however, to a certain extent, it is trainable, so that we can have some form of common articulation. A question that has arisen within my own studies in defining specialty food products is: if we don’t have a word to describe the flavour (let’s say because we have never experienced that flavour before) does that flavour actually exist? Also, when you do become conscious of a flavour, does this affect your particular perception of quality?

I remember the first time the flavour of a coffee completely blew my mind. It was an Ethiopian Harrar Blue Horse. I had never had a coffee that tasted so syrupy, vibrant, spicy and sweet before. It was a very concentrated brew indeed; for the Baristas out there, there was definitely a higher weight of ground coffee than resulting espresso. The brewing time would have been around 35 seconds, and the amount of coffee that was in the porta-filter basket was definitely damaging the shower screen. That was some 12 years ago now, and if I were to be served something like that today I would turn my nose up at the lack of education of the Barista. There was nothing complex about it. It would have tasted more delicious as a sauce accompanying my steak, packed full of acid and sugar. The lack of refinement and the non-complexity of the flavours, compared to an espresso coffee today, would be absolute worlds apart. The thing is, back then, that was my association with quality. That’s all I knew coffee flavour could be. When coffee roasting styles and brewing ratios started to change, I didn’t like this new wave of flavour; it was far too disconnected from what I was used to. It wasn’t until I started to participate in coffee cuppings, sensory judging and taste modulations that I could pick up the myriad of flavours in a (chemically) very ‘noisy’ beverage.

Coffee, taste and sound

Let’s make a correlation between the senses of taste and hearing. We have the ability to pick up on a single conversation in a noisy café by focusing on the tone of someone’s voice. The more unique the tone is, the easier we find it to focus on – unique, that is, in comparison to what an individual would deem to be normal. It is even easier to pick out our friend’s voices from the crowd, as we are used to talking to them.

If you walked into a noisy café and closed your eyes, do you think you could count the number of people that are talking? Again, you could easily recognise your friends and the people with strong accents or tones, however you would still miss quite a few. If you then became friends with all the people in that café, I bet you would be able to pick out a few more. This is the point: until you have a conscious relationship with the individual flavours in a cup of coffee, it can be very hard to know who and how many people are in the room. Just like when you meet more and more people, with new experiences you may come to realise that the friends you thought you liked are actually really shitty people, and that there are indeed quieter and more beautiful souls out there, so long as we know how to listen.

Sensing the world in patterns

The problem with getting a consumer to pay a higher price for a specialty coffee, I feel will always remain – the problem is that coffee is chemically very complex, and the untrained senses taste in patterns, not in individual chemical elements. It takes time and training to be able to pick up on different types of acidities, aromas and other characteristics of a cup of coffee. All the untrained can do is point out their friends and the loudest characters in the room. It’s sour, it’s sweet, it’s bitter, it’s strong, it’s smooth, it’s fruity, it’s earthy, or “it reminds me of…”.

The evolution of the sense of taste

If I made the Ethiopian Harrar of a decade ago, would it no longer be delicious? Have our senses evolved in such a short space of time? No. It is me that has evolved, as I have experienced more of what the world has to offer.

If you own a café and you change your coffee making standards (for example by introducing a new roasting style, different types of extractions or new brewing targets) you may face the challenge of your long-standing staff and customers not liking these changes. Hire a new staff member, and the problem goes away. Will a generation of Baristas and café owners need to retire before the modern quality coffee that is being promoted and touted in Barista schools globally becomes the norm? This still doesn’t mean that coffee today is of a higher quality of flavour than that Ethiopian Harrar of a decade ago. Put the new and the old next to each other, and different people, just like with anything, will have their preference.

Justifying quality to the consumer

My definition of specialty coffee, or any specialty food industry, is that it is a quality-driven, non-static thing. Ideas and ideals around quality of flavour change with new research, education, and technology. I guess you could say that quality is a cultural thing. You pursue it because you believe it to be true, for the love of the process, not for the money. I feel it is important for the producer of a special product to define why they think it is special, and set up a measure for that quality. This gives justification for the higher price, and allows the company to adapt when a new, better method is found.

For retailers of specialty coffee at a café level, the question is, what can you do to convince a consumer who just wants a cup of coffee that it really is special. How can you justify to them that it’s worth the extra cash? Especially since, with our individual senses of taste, they may have a very different perception of quality to you…

Matthew Brown
Matty’s love of coffee started at a young age and exploded the moment his mind was exposed to the science that makes great coffee possible. Motivated by the endless possibilities of what coffee could be, Matty is in his element researching, exploring and implementing new ideas that help shape the next chapter in the evolution of the speciality coffee industry. Matty’s deep and extensive coffee knowledge continues to shape our Barista Training & Education Programs, and he is a key knowledge source influencing continuous coffee improvement within the business. On the rare occasion Matty’s head is not in the books, he can be found savouring in other molecular gastronomic delights, writing, tickling the ivories or singing up a storm.