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Why Speciality Coffee Isn't Overly Acidic

May 09, 2013

Flavour Topics - part 2


Speciality coffee, single estate farms, lighter roasts, provenance and flavour notes are a relatively new thing, an emerging approach developing and gaining ground, sprouting out of the entrenched traditional approaches to this drink that make up coffee’s place and history. This isn’t just centuries of tradition but in the case of the North West coast of America and Australia, decades of coffee culture, yes they are sitting on the shoulders of older traditions, but in their own right the approaches are each established enough to set boundaries and define approaches. I have always found it useful to display speciality coffee as a new product, as a different option, an exploration of amazing potential that is possible, but only beginning to be utilised. It won’t be a surprise then to hear that in many a case, this in some way challenges the existing norms. Especially when you consider the fact that coffee is often seen by many an enthusiast and especially by many scenes as a singular thing. Then on top of this consider that with espresso this singularity is amplified. Think of the god shot, the golden fleece of espresso!

I came at speciality coffee pretty much fresh (as in no attachment to blends or a certain taste etc.) I immediately saw it as a different product, one full of complex flavour. I didn't think it tasted like one thing, but was instead awe-inspired by the complexity and variety of flavour, the character, the culinary aspect of coffee as opposed to the traditional coffee flavour that I had previously equated with the beverage. I was amazed that I had only ever heard coffee described as smooth, or less bitter, round and rich. These descriptors were wholly inadequate for this approach to coffee. Through taste experiences I realised that this wasn't a simple product but one full of amazing potential and flavour, that it’s a beverage that has so many processes and factors that impact on its possibility. I can remember the excitement of these realisations as if it were yesterday. I am still excited and enthused by coffee every day, but in different ways: the natural change that occurs when a relationship changes with experience. I do often think how wonderful coffee is, and that the more you spend time with it, the more it gives.

I had tasted single origin espresso that excited me, cups that were vastly different from each other, some chocolaty and delicately spicy (cinnamon, all spice flavours), and others with ripe juicy notes and floral aromatics. It was then a surprise to me to find these coffees being described in certain corners as unbalanced and acidic. The inference was that good espresso was only about a more traditional blend with nuance and complexity and balance. I struggled at first to understand what these terms meant. The various single origin espressos I had just tasted seemed more complex to me – isn’t supreme balance the quasher of character? Where does the line between boring and bland meet complex depth? Aren’t these words a bit vacuous and vague? What do they really mean? They don’t mean as much in other culinary pursuits like wine. Complexity and balance always sit within other context, they need framing.

I thought maybe it was two different groups of approach. I still in many ways think this is the case. And I think that the varying approaches are in themselves in danger of being overly biased when describing one another. It was also clear that there was a defence of the old guard. The common words employed in defence of blends and non-speciality coffee are clever because they are enigmatic; they are elusive and can easily justify whatever you pair them with. (Balance is interesting to consider, i.e. a certain coffee’s balance – sweet and peachy with low acidity but a floral bitterness – the character it displays is not a standard balance, but it does have a positive balance based on how its specific flavour parts work together).

Wondering about the origins of the debate didn't change the fact that the polemic seems silly and simplistic in itself. These few posts are intended to look at perspective and concepts in tasting and how exactly that presents itself in the new versus the old approaches to coffee. Personally I think that it is far more valuable to present them as traditional vs. speciality, or say provenance driven. Coffee is a complex vast thing with room for a fair few approaches.

Before I go any further, and in my own way ratify a polemic approach, I am keen to recognise the issues with terminology and what each of us may mean when we say “acidic” or “traditional” etc. The tricky thing here is that when I read a blog denouncing third wave coffee as an acidic mess or someone bemoaning the lighter roasts and discussing the complexity and the superiority of blends etc, I don’t know what the reference points for the pieces actually are. I can often find myself defending speciality coffee’s virtues, and at the same time I am forgetting that I am often irritated by much of “speciality” coffee. That I have had many poorly made shots, or short acidic shots, bad, green, overly lightly roasted, etc.
I guess that much “speciality” coffee would not fulfil my definition of it. Maybe the authors of these blogs are talking about shots that I too would describe as too acidic, under developed and under extracted? If this were the case it would be easy to reconcile and It would suggest that we actually all want the same thing and that where we think we disagree, we actually don’t, we are each just citing examples of the other approach done badly. This, however, is not entirely the case. I started with the last blog to show that it’s not as simple as finding common ground, and that amongst us we can have different tastes, not just psychologically but physically. I think it is terribly useful to step back from coffee and look at the varying tastes people have, heavier, lighter, aromatic, spicy and on and on and on. Coffee is an incredibly complex flavour product, and part of the issue here is an attempt to singularise it. It would make simple sense that the different tastes that exist in our everyday lives also exist within the world of coffee. As I mentioned in this post - subjective/objective, fields like speciality coffee are built off of a collective agreement of tastes/flavour within that area.

After several experiences in which reactions to a certain coffee have actually been opposed, I have felt inclined to reconcile these differences, not by trying to force everyone to do things the same way, but by appreciating difference, then establishing what it is I value, what speciality coffee may value and looking at it all as various fields and approaches within a larger domain. Also, I very much wish to challenge the accuracy of how certain approaches label and describe the other.

It is really interesting to weigh up the various responses to the coffee we serve; the coffee I/we see as of “great quality”, and of which we then brew to display its character as we best see fit. The labelling of third wave or speciality as acidic has many problems, I am going to explore why I see this as a minority mind set which is labelling based on a context and expectation that is effectively very rare. Because these opinions are part of a scene or peer group, they gain more traction and ground and therefore outweigh their reality.

On several occasions I have had interactions with customers that go as follows “Hello, I am really in to coffee, which is the least acidic espresso you have?” At this point I get a little concerned that we don’t have what they are looking for and go about explaining how all of the espresso are single estate or co-op, they are a lighter roast focusing on provenance, that each will have an acidity, but at the same time, these are the three we have on (we have three espresso on at any one time) and I would say this one is less acidic”. On many occasion the drinker or in this case drinkers returned saying how none of the espressos they tried were too acidic, that they all displayed interesting flavour and balance. In this case I naturally surmise that their previous experience of “speciality coffee” was a super acidic shot, maybe very short on shot weight or low on machine temperature. An experience that I would also describe as too acidic.

On the flip side of this I have had a similar number of experiences in which the same interaction has started identically, but this time the individual has commented how all they could taste was the acidity and that it may be a good green bean but you can’t taste its quality because it is blinded by acidity. There have been varying versions of this. Sometimes the suggestion is that only a very narrow range of coffees should be used for espresso, i.e. a low grown Brazil. This leaves me in a space where I need to process this information, they contradict each other, and they conflict.

A bit like the allocation of bitter in the last post, I am interested in looking at a larger perspective, trying to be a bit more objective. Now although as we established in the last post, different people have different sensitivities etc. It is also fascinating to note that the latter reaction has only ever come from a form of coffee hobbyist, or industry person. Some one very involved in coffee from the perspective of a more traditional format. People who have built up a framework of expectation about what espresso should be. If anything such events are weird surreal anomalies.

We have endeavoured to create a shop where discussion of flavour is paramount, Focusing on honest discussion. This means that people will happily declare that they don’t like a naturally processed coffee or prefer another coffee etc. We get all sorts of interpretations of coffee’s flavour also, with many a customer cross-referencing their experiences with each other, some surprised that the person sitting next to them does find it sweet whilst the other said nutty and so on. It is rather wonderful that the drinkers themselves often question the subjective/objective nature of their own observations. Amongst all of this though, the claim of any espresso being overly acidic does not come up, and this is regardless of the coffee too, even if it’s a floral citrus Yirgacheffe on espresso as opposed to a natural Brazil. Acidity is discussed, but less directly like, ooh, this is tart like gooseberries, and a member of staff will maybe chime in with, yeah its got a tart acidity, as opposed to the more soft kind of sugary acidity of one of the other espressos that is on.

We have a very broad range of people visiting us, one of the benefits of the reputation we’ve built, along with where we are and somehow ending up near the top of Tripadvisor’s best restaurants in Bath, means that a lot of foodies visit, or anyone interested in tasting some interesting coffee, as opposed just for a coffee or aiming for a traditional coffee experience. This can add glorious perspective and I think this has proved a wonderful audience for speciality coffee, rather than just an existing coffee clique.
Interestingly I have noticed that more often than not the fruit notes which display themselves at the front end of the shot are harder for many to pick up on, mostly the initial responses are that the espresso they tried is layered and complex, they can get the caramel and some kind of juiciness but will need to contemplate it, There is not a knee-jerk reaction of “it’s acidic, sharp and lemony.” Maybe this is because the average framing is that coffee has heavier flavour notes, therefore witnessing the fruit notes, or the acidity is less likely. Maybe. I still think people would pick it up as super-acidic and sour if it was.

In fact, it very quickly becomes apparent that this acidity question may in many cases be a symptom of expectation and framing of this particular argument. Basically, that this topic of discussion exists, that such an argument is a part of the coffeesphere (“espresso must be a blend, lighter roasts are always too acidic”) means that having a speciality coffee from a certain roaster encourages the labelling of over acidic. That in the mind of the drinker who is aware of the argument, the allocation of “overly acidic” is just waiting to jump out of the judgement starting blocks. In the same way the likeliness of bitter association is waiting to occur with another group of people, this time with a different framing to begin with, that of the pop culture coffeesphere.

This isn’t to suggest they are wrong in preferring what they prefer or that they are not keen on the difference, it may however be that the difference is what is solely being focussed upon. However It is also fair for us to recognise the difference, especially when it’s surprising. So yes, the filters are comparatively weak if what your looking for is something gritty, roasty and bitter. But that doesn’t mean its weak per se on a more objective level. With many a drinker commenting on how much flavour there is in them and that they were surprised by this.

Espresso though is arguably strong on an objective level. In fact, ever since we started doing what we have been doing, I have been very eager to embrace presenting speciality coffee as having different goals, explaining what we are looking for when we buy, brew and taste coffee, as opposed to just saying that this is a good or tasty coffee, or that yes if you like coffee, then you will like ours ‘cos it’s good.
When looking at the natural differences in the product’s possibility and people’s experiences of it, it’s important to recognise the context and expectations set elsewhere. Most of the time there isn't an issue at all, there isn't a mind-set that espresso should taste a certain way, and focus on individual flavours like bitter or acidic become quite rare. More often than not there is a quick recognition of what it is we are doing, of why it’s different, often the reaction to one of our espressos, is ”wow, it really is like a different product.” This seems to have become much easier with environment and expectation setters - setting the stage

I don’t like the simplification of taste in a product like coffee. Would you ask someone what makes a good wine? You would definitely consider some specifics first, region variety etc. Yes there are some overarching qualities that define speciality coffee, but still, variety of character and flavour within that space is par for the course. The most fascinating thing here is how much this simplification is amplified when considering espresso. Often an individual will recognise the natural diversity of flavour that filter displays, but quickly assert that a good espresso is something singular, a narrower thing, a stricter definition. I remember once somebody saying how amazing and enjoyable a certain espresso was in terms of flavour and character, but that it wasn't a good espresso. This kind of sums it up really. Issues with framing actually hindering espresso possibility. Obviously, I disagree with this.

Acidity seems to me to be an easy way to attack speciality coffee, well your approach may focus on provenance and variety of flavour but it is just acidic! So there, ours is the best. Big brands and cultural traditions are being challenged or at least not being allowed to have the stage all to themselves and this often seems to play into the reaction by this field that speciality coffee is overly acidic. In many ways it is the challenging of a belief system about what coffee is. It is quite interesting to hear the old guard in many areas say that coffee is about artistry and the journey rather than flavour…… If this is why you like coffee that’s cool, I am just not sure about the opinion that then follows regarding taste, regarding things like acidity, after all that’s not why you’re into it.

Let’s look at acidity. First of all there’s not one type of it. You've got lots, Malic acid, citric acid, and so forth. There are lots of reasons why each turn up In coffee and they’re not always good. But this is not what we are describing really, we really mean brightness: the sensation of acidity that raises the cup and that adds structure and vitality. A tonne of other things we consume and enjoy include acidity at higher levels than most speciality coffee, think of wine and all variety of juices. The quick retort to this may be that coffee is not a wine or a juice and therefore doesn't need acidity. When I mention acidity I don’t mean that it just tastes of acid, but that it’s a positive part of the character and that it brings life and vibrancy to the cup. I don't mean that it is the same as raspberry juice, just like an ale with tropical fruit notes doesn't taste like Rubicon.

Maybe you have had a shot that is overly acidic or has an acid-based defect, but the sensible and logical movement from this point is not to assume that all acidity is bad. That is a misuse (or misunderstanding) of the term acidity.

It would seem that the spotlight is only displaying a partial view of a taste experience. It’s a bit like telling someone not to think of dolphins, all they then can think of is dolphins. This is probably highly evident in a lot of sensory evaluation.

This also raises questions about the expectation of a certain result based on other criteria that are known as one goes to taste something. The existing parameters set by a certain school of “coffee thought” can single acidity out as wrong. Here we come back to goals and values in coffee. What’s coffee about for you? What I’m trying to sieve through is the difference between framing by traditionalists that lighter roast coffee with acidity is inherently unbalanced on a wider culinary scale, or whether the judgement is actually only relative to a certain approach to coffee, and that on a broader culinary scale, speciality coffee is actually a more balanced product with traditional coffee being more of an extreme product. This would then challenge the assertion that speciality coffee is unbalanced towards the acidic. Actually it is just more acidic than other approaches which in themselves are arguably less balanced on a wider culinary scale. Now I don’t think that the success of a product is based on whether it is neutral or has the broadest appeal. I have mentioned before in subjective blog that there are parameters set by the field, and that there are interesting subjective boundaries about whether a certain flavour group or characteristic is a part of a positive cup or is not and sullies it. I am definitely not arguing for neutrality nor for brightness to be the sole objective. I am arguing that such a reaction to any acidity as well as mis-use of the word balance is in itself in danger of homogenising.

How accurate is this kind of information and opinion without correct context? Especially for those looking in. Other products can make the most of existing knowledge, ie. You know an IPA will be floral and hoppy and a stout will be heavy and round. Flavour notes can then sit on top of this expectation, i.e. it’s an IPA with tropical fruit aromas. It doesn't just taste of tropical fruit though, its likely also floral, bitter, malty and yeasty. For a non-coffee person (or for people who haven’t tasted the product you are talking about) I feel a lot of description can be very misleading. A bit like the issues I have had with staff when they taste so much coffee that they focus on what’s interesting or different to them, such as wow isn't the El Salvador Finca Argentina tasting full of caramel! They are used to the coffee and are forgetting to look at its fruity and aromatic notes. Their common ground with coffee is going unspoken, which is also what the heavier roast or less acidic coffee individual is doing, often taking for granted everything that is familiar to them, such that it doesn't warrant a mention. When describing a fruitier shot all they are focusing on is the less familiar part of the view, Now imagine the view from the kitchen window, A truck drives into view. Now when explaining this view to someone else who lives in the house, there is no need to describe the whole view. Instead you would likely focus on and mention the truck when describing what you see out of the window. But, if describing the view from the window over the phone to someone who didn’t know it at all, you would also note the oak trees, the lawn and the garage.

This is how I feel about a lot of description in coffee, not just with traditional heavier roast but also with speciality coffee only focusing on the sweet notes, i.e. it tastes of peach syrup and candy floss. Come on it doesn't just taste of those things. Of course some information and understanding has to go unmentioned, but it is useful to consider what is being left out, to consider the platform for understanding now going unsaid.

Describing taste and understanding in each other’s experiences is harder than describing and understanding views into the garden.

This is where we come back to describing coffee in more general culinary terms. If not deeply immersed in coffee, would you really describe a lighter roast espresso as lemony? (Again we would need an example of what I would deem speciality espresso). The dogma of previous coffee approaches can mean that a very typical acidity that we find in other food and drink is being labelled as extreme acidity, like chewing on grapefruit, when really it’s more like a slice of lemon or grapefruit dropped into some sparkling water. I am able to say all of this purely due to watching many people’s reactions to this kind of coffee. It’s really quite fascinating that a coffee enthusiast who sits in the more Italian or West Coast American field will say it’s light roast acidic coffee where as a curious individual who has drunk a bit of espresso but is into food wine etc. will just mention the fruit as a note in the coffee, whilst also focusing on other characteristics of the drink.

I had a customer on the bar today who said the espresso is so complex that personally they found the fruit less discernible but were getting the caramel and soft spice notes. Now this individual is a regular and is completely aware of and able to recognise what sour lemon concentrate tastes like and when I bring this up with her – that this coffee is being written off by traditionalists as an acidic nightmare – she is at first dumbfounded, and then intrigued. “Really?” She says, “but come on. Yes it has some fruity notes but nothing compared to a sour concentrate, that’s not a useful description.”

Maybe you’re reading this and if we were in a room together we would agree on what was overly acidic and therefore, actually we are just unknowingly using different examples for our argument, then again maybe not. But just forget for a moment that this is coffee. See it as a liquid full of flavour. Would you describe it in the same way?

Our shop’s goals are to display and present speciality coffee as a culinary product. We do all sorts of funny things at our shop. We are off the beaten track, you have to venture to us for a reason, that reason isn't food because we don’t sell it. On top of that we don’t recommend americano's and we don’t recommend sugar. It’s not looking very good is it? It’s looking like we've stacked the odds against us and that we are restricting peoples experiences. But wait a minute, there’s a product that justifies this approach and that proves itself in terms of sensory experience and flavour. It needs to, because otherwise it would not work. The model is saying that speciality coffee is worth pursuing in its own right and that it doesn't just have to be a side product. Would this all really be possible with a little cup of concentrate sour, sharp lemon juice?

The kind of speciality coffee that wins barista competitions and which we endeavour to serve can safely be described as not being overly acidic. The origins of such allegations should be queried; You may want to wonder whether such a labelling actually reflects a desire for coffee to be singular, for coffee to be coffee and for it not to be a culinary product. In the next post I would like to look in more depth at how concepts impact on flavour judgement. It’s time to look at blends.


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