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You, Me, Autumn and Coffee

October 24, 2012

Crisp mornings, fresh mist and shorter days mark a seasonal change, they accompany the arrival of autumn, for me this brings what has become an annual marker, one where the taste of coffee is all the more pertinent.  I am guilty of spending far too much time pondering the perceptions of taste.  How varied are one’s experiences of the same tastes at different times?  How consistent are our experiences of taste? Is every taste of the same thing in essence different to those that proceed and follow?  What is intuitive and what is influenced by cognitive experience? Is there a difference?  I am made vividly aware of all of this when autumn arrives, when flavours, aromas and taste behave differently for me.

During these autumn mornings I find myself within the shop in the early hours before the doors open.  Testing and checking the espresso recipes is the start of my day.  As I step through the back door and taste the various coffees we have on for the first time that day, the cool crisp air and seasonal moment render this tasting experience one of my favourites.   This is especially specific to espresso and I am not exactly sure why.  Maybe it is not my favourite time of year at all, maybe we are just in autumn and it’s currently dominating my thoughts, these experiences, right now are the most weighty, the most real, even so, each year these autumnal early morning experiences stand out.  I think to myself that it may be temperature, it may be the bracing cool air that opposes the cosy warmth inside and enlivens the senses, or maybe it is the changing pollens or possibly a psychological change that renders the sensory experience on these fresh mornings so poignant.

The path of thought I find myself drawn towards after this spark of autumn is a contemplation of the uniqueness of individual experience.  But it is also a wondering thought that sprawls out beyond the individual, as I think about how varied the range of experiences can be across many of us.

There is a realisation that I can do my best to organise and understand my own reactions, my own taste.  I can indeed endeavour to consider and comprehend others’ taste, but I will never really experience things in the same way as you.  Using words and concepts that we both understand (in the same way) allows each of us to communicate our experiences to each other.  I will however, have to use the memories of other tastes that I dislike in order to mimic, in my understanding of taste, the dislike someone may show to the very espresso that I find so delightful and vice versa.

Experience can and is often shared on a tangible level.  Language acts as a shaky bridge upon which concepts can journey, making the linking of individual sensory experiences possible.

It is really quite special to experience something delightful and to exchange and communicate those experiences with friends, colleagues and strangers.  It’s the kind of common ground, the kind of relation between us that is part of our social make up, and it is the very sphere of interest that makes us seek out not only incredible coffee but also people who respond similarly to its joys.  It is too easy though, to only consider the tastes and views that match our own, that leave us feeling comforted by a clear sensory view of the world and a simplified view of each other.  The true variance and uniqueness of individual experience can be lost.

Indeed, an isolated insanity lurks near if no one shares our experience in any identifiable way.  I mean this in a broader sense rather than just with coffee, I would hope that not finding the same qualities in coffee desirable does not bring on madness.  Equally there are those that take a strange solace in disagreeing with everybody.

The grey, complex areas of taste can be discomforting, but what we do share more than anything is an emotional reaction to taste.  From this foundation we can share a more specific sensory experience, which is where the vocabulary of taste description can be so liberating.  An assessment of mouth-feel, flavours and sensations can allow for a heightened, if always limited, understanding of what we taste.  A comprehension and exchange of each others experiences can be mind bending and magical.

Over longer periods of time memory plays a key role.  Tastes change, or in the least, the impact of different tastes may alter.  One coffee’s character will continue to be of consistent appeal while others may appeal on the first taste and then less so from thereon in.  It would seem also that once ideas of quality are established more objectively, then immediate intuitive responses are less dominating.  There may be tastes that are not the most enjoyable to you at a particular moment in time but that are recognisable as something you have enjoyed greatly before and will at another time.

The chronological nature of experience is also rather fascinating.  Can an individual’s sensory experience be repeated?  Well no, not exactly.  It can be close, but never precisely the same.  This is because you have changed, it will never be the first time again or the second or the third but an individual experience, linked to others, whilst always being unique in unto itself.  Our previous experience of the same tastes (if the experience could be repeated) would change our reaction to a repeat experience.  Is it this constant flux of taste that keeps us curious, keeps us excited?

There are many aspects that make up our conscious experience of flavour and taste and there are daily moments with coffee that set the mind racing as to the swirling lively nature of experience.  Coffee helps me to remember what is questionable, it makes me realise that an ultimate truth is not at hand unless that truth itself reconciles and embraces the reality of differences.

The shaken confidence resulting from a shattering of a taste viewpoint of fixed norms is then replaced with a more satisfying and complex view of tastes, likes, and dislikes.  It’s a feeling that the uniqueness of our experiences can be shared and lost equally.  Speciality coffee is a unique, individual experience, it has its specifics, it is not universal but many will enjoy it and will have taste moments that they share delight in.  We will all naturally coalesce into groups with a collective agreement of sorts.  We will also disagree and challenge each other’s perceptions within those fields, but we must not forget that a complex sensory experience and our reactions to it are intuitive, universal and individual.  The range of experience is vast.  It’s this complexity that we share and not simplicity that is so magical.

Where does this leave us?  What are the answers for defining quality in a sea of variable experience?  I tried to understand and explore these ideas of quality and reconcile tastes in the post “Isn’t it all essentially subjective, just a matter of taste?”  Standard bearers are created whether intentional or not.  Today though, I am just interested in stepping back and relishing the questions, flavours and perceptions that harbour in the arrival of autumnal, crisp mornings.


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