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“Isn’t it all essentially subjective, just a matter of taste?”

July 12, 2012

The above statement is made quite often when discussing coffee.  Although not strictly untrue, it is also not reflective of the reality of the field.

Each individual is entitled to like or dislike anything they taste (subjective - matter of taste).  But fields of specialism create and maintain a more specific criteria for quality based on wider input.  There is an accumulation of ideas and standards that are relative to that product, a framework for judgement (objective- tangible).

It is however more complicated than this statement allows for.  I will attempt to navigate the grey areas and offer what I see as a structure that cradles the journey of tasting speciality coffee.

I am effectively revisiting my “quality” post, which explored the wider idea of what makes a coffee “good”.   This article is a more specific exploration of what defines quality within the framework of speciality coffee.

Firstly, I need to explain what I mean by the term speciality.   This term can be used to describe a coffee that wins a national Cup of Excellence competition right through to Jamaican Blue Mountain; and even to describe beans with added hazelnut flavouring.

I am referencing “speciality coffee” in alignment with the goals of programs such as the Cup of Excellence or the SCAA and SCAE, competitions such as the world barista championships, and the world brewing championships. There is also a ground roots movement that is less easy to define, shops and roasteries whose goals are aligned with these organisations but may have a different approach to achieving these goals.  There seems to be a relationship between the two, they affect each other.

So what is it that makes a coffee exceptional?

I would posit that some of the basic requirements involve eliminating negative aspects, so a good coffee can, in certain ways, be defined by what it does not have - lack of flavour taints, lack of over-roasted flavour (although under roasted coffee doesn't allow for a full development of flavour- so roast is obviously a part of the equation - a complex one).  Exceptional quality is not yet guaranteed though.  For this process only really suggests that a cup be bland and palatable.  It requires much more than this to become a great cup of coffee.

This is where character comes in, arguably the most important assessment of a coffee’s quality, but it is also the least easy to define singularly.  Basically the judgement of a coffee becomes about what it intends to achieve.

You would not judge a washed Bourbon variety from a Rwandan co-op on the same merits as a washed Typica variety from a particular Bolivian farm, this is very important because broader terms like balance of flavour, balance of acidity, sweetness, bitterness, etc, must become more targeted.  They must assess character.  A light, citrousy coffee may be more acidic and bitter with less body and sweetness. But it works with in the context of the character, and actually aids the success of that coffee.  Therefore its type of balance is different but equally as successful as a round, nutty coffee with hints of red fruit that is sweeter and less acidic.   A good or great coffee is not ONE thing.

Interestingly, there can be some exceptions to the rules.  Certain flavours that are commonly noted as taints could also possibly present themselves as a positive part of naturally processed coffees.  This is because benchmarks for quality have been based off of the back of washed or pulped coffees.  There is a call in the industry to assess natural processed coffees separately from washed or pulped coffees such as what happened in this years Late harvest Brazil Cup of Excellence.

An objective idea of quality and what positive character types are is still needed in order to curb a descent into relativist chaos - otherwise I easily could argue that a coffee’s character actively intends to be furry, astringent, gravely and burnt.  Does this mean it is then good because I have managed to justify the cup according to a certain character?  Well, no.  This is where the system cuts in and says it’s plain bad.

Previous history of what we have accredited as good in speciality coffee is also required as a strong foundation upon which to test a coffee.  This foundation does develop, evolve and change.  As we experience more flavour within one area our appreciation of certain other flavours changes.

For example, if I have tasted many different coffees from farms in El Salvador that are washed Bourbon varieties, I have built up a catalogue of what I think is good about this type of coffee.  I then taste a new farm or a new crop from a well known farm, it displays much of what I value in a coffee of this type, but it has a unique acidity or interplay of complex flavours that are rare and thus make it very special.  Rarity and uniqueness as elsewhere are highly valued.  Established boundaries need to leave room for new and exciting discoveries.  The pursuit of quality in coffee is not merely an attempt to mimic the past but is actually a search for perfection. (even if that perfection is subjective)

An intuitive reaction to a coffee being “good” is still part of the equation and possibly one of the main driving forces of where coffee is going.  One could use the character argument to imply that we could train ourselves to appreciate the nuances of the dark roast flavours or musty flavours, for example.  Our area of the industry realised that coffee had other amazing flavours to offer and decided that those balanced clean and more complex results were very desirable.  Maybe when I tasted my first real speciality coffee I simply realised that my taste pared up with what this field has defined as good, (subjective - my taste) rather than an absolute universal correctness of flavour.

There is still much heated debate and differing of opinion on which specific characteristics and complexities make a certain cup “better”.  There is not a simple agreement on quality, and there shouldn't be.  Subjectivity will always share part of the stage.  It will help drive the industry forward, but it cannot dominate leaving us with no structure for quality.

For people new to speciality coffee, the worthwhile information for them isn't whether the person serving it finds it tasty (taste-subjective).  It is more important to communicate what the field’s idea of quality will mean for them, to inform them that the coffee will not taste how they may expect “coffee” to taste.  There will be acidity and all sorts of unique, complex flavour.  Also, that the exact qualities that are valued will be relative to provenance and other variables (objective-tangible).

They may like it or they may not.  They may want to try another coffee or two, making sure they were just not that keen on the character of one particular coffee.

Ultimately, the journey of discovery when questioning the quality of a cup, not to mention questioning the enjoyment of that cup, never fails to leave me fascinated and excited.  It is a journey that is wonderful in the beginning and ever more engrossing with every cup I taste.


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