October 20, 2014

The Good of Taste Subjectivity

It’s important that we debunk the popular myth that professional coffee cuppers provide some kind of one-size-fits-all rigid 100-point coffee review that is universally accepted by enlightened consumers and coffee professionals alike.

Although cupping is a helpful tool for coffee producers, roasters and retailers to diagnose and understand more about their products, as an industry we must begin to rethink how to use the information it provides more effectively and also how to present it to consumers in a more approachable and meaningful way.
Ask any coffee marketer where cupping scores come from, and you’ll hear grand tales of wise and gifted gustatory wizards slurping away at endless tables of coffee, instantly decoding complex flavour mysteries and assigning precise scores on a neatly organised scale between 1 and 100: 1 being the worst coffee in all of history and 100 the best imaginable in the foreseeable future. In reality, this is all far from true and also far from useful for the coffee consumer.
We each have differing sensitivity to coffee’s component molecules and interpret the electrochemical signals sent to our brains based on our unique personal experiences and biochemistry.  It is not only possible, but rather, likely that no two people sense the aroma and taste of coffee exactly the same way, which significantly complicates the idea of any universal standard for determining the objective meaning of “good.”
Furthermore, the reviews and reviewers themselves warrant some scrutiny. Human beings are notoriously lousy instruments for the objective evaluation of flavour, of which 75% or more is from retronasal aroma. Our tongues are equipped only to sense the five basic taste modalities: sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami (positive savoury) – possibly fatty, which is presently being debated and may be added to that list soon. Most of coffee’s flavour sensation is detected by the 2,000 or so receptors in our nasal membranes that can distinguish somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 unique smells. That figure sounds impressive, until you consider that a dog possesses a sense of smell between 10,000 to 100,000 times as acute as a human, meaning that the family pet is a far better coffee taster than you. If only we could teach Fido how to fill out the scoresheet. In the absence of man’s best friend at the cupping table, including any friend or a panel of friends is advisable to capture a broader range of sensory data.
Cupping evaluation systems like those developed by the Specialty Coffee Association of America and used by the Coffee Quality Institute’s Q Grader program are designed to reward the qualities that exemplify what the industry generally agrees to be most valuable and represent ideal characteristics in washed Arabica coffee: the harmonious balance of bright and intense acidity, complex aromas, flavours and mouthfeel, low bitterness and high sweetness. A mathematical 100-point scoring system is universally comfortable and easily communicated among different cultures, so scoresheets are designed, sometimes contorted to fit within that measure.  Some delightful coffees processed by other methods, for example dry natural-processed or Indonesian wet-hulled coffees, are either shoehorned into the same narrow definition of quality, or overlooked entirely. The same was true for the entire species of Robusta coffees, until recently given their own quality differentiation system and specialty scoresheet created in a coordinated Fine Robusta effort led by the Uganda Coffee Development Authority.
Although useful for an internal evaluation of coffee and discussion among the supply chain, industry quality ratings and our arcane lexicon of cupping sensory terms are of little value to consumers: at best, pushing them in the direction of coffees that they may not like and worst, patronising or belittling their opinions. What the specialty coffee industry believes to be good isn’t necessarily what people like, and any heavy-handed attempt to tell them otherwise is perceived as coffee snobbery (if you can’t taste the difference or otherwise disagree with us, you’re clearly unsophisticated).
The situation, however, is not as bleak as it may seem. Knowing that we are faced with the shortcomings of a limited set of protocols and a widely diverse range of consumer tastes, we can all be flexible to apply subjectivity to reviews so that they relate better to consumers and recognise that every coffee has a buyer.
Choice is key among consumers in the age of specialty foods, so coffee cupping and other tools can provide information to help guide consumers to products they will personally value most, regardless of which may be preferred by the so-called learned masters. Recognition of flavour profiles other than those preferred by coffee insiders and validation of consumers’ taste preferences will help specialty coffee expand from an exclusionary club of elite enthusiasts to serve a much larger mass audience of customers than it does today. We must shift from today’s, “We know what’s good and will tell you why,” to, “Here is the information you need to select what you enjoy”.
The consumer statement, “This coffee is delicious,” should be the ultimate goal of every coffee grower, every roaster and retail café, regardless of what is tabulated on any scoresheet. After all, “specialty” is not strictly a quality designation; it’s a differentiation or statement of unique value. There is nothing more valuable to business and the long-term success of an industry than an informed and happy customer. Look for a new coffee evaluation service coming to Café Culture Magazine this year that is designed to provide professionals with the traditional laboratory information that they need and consumers with the information that they want to make an informed purchase decision.

Written by Andrew Hetzel
Cafe Culture International   T.  (02) 6583 7163

MPM Advertisment


Get the most out of Christmas trade

In Australia and NZ, good weather combines with the festive season to make Christmas a busy time of year for most hospitality businesses. The silly season may bring a bit of extra stress, but by observing a few golden rules you...
by Cafe Culture Mag


Cybertongue technology!

A cybertongue that can rapidly detect lactose and spoilt milk, developed by CSIRO, has today been licensed to startup PPB Technology. The next-generation diagnostic tool uses biological sensors to detect substances like lactose...
by Cafe Culture Mag


An Interesting Christmas read.

Alternative Food Politics: From the Margins to the Mainstream covers topics ranging from ag-tech start-ups and social justice projects, to new ways of mediating food wastage, celebrity, and ‘ethical’ foods, as well as the r...
by Cafe Culture Mag



Coffeesmiths Espresso Bar

The sign on the side of the road had intrigued me for weeks – ‘Coffee to wake the dead’. Always a sucker for a quirky A-frame I knew it was only a matter of time before I tested that claim. Sure enough one Wednesday m...
by Cafe Culture Mag


Australia’s Newest Tea Lounge

Australia’s newest tea lounge concept “TAVALON TEA LOUNGE” has been launched in the heart of Westfield Garden City for its soft opening in November 2018. This exclusive, luxurious and elegant tea lounge is changing the wa...
by Cafe Culture Mag


by Cafe Culture Mag


It’s a wrap! Golden Bean 2018

Here we are again, at the end of another year and Golden Bean competition! The fourteenth annual Golden Bean Australia/New Zealand competition was held in its customary location, the scenic town of Port Macquarie. Dozens of roa...
by Cafe Culture Mag



Helping Australian small businesses grow by going digital

Support from ASBAS Digital Solutions available.   The Australian Small Business Advisory Services (ASBAS) Digital Solutions program  provides access to business advisory service providers to deliver low cost, high quality, di...
by Cafe Culture Mag


The 2018 Grand Breezey Master

Sydney, Australia, 15 November 2018:   The wait is over. After a full year of tightly fought heats stretching across the globe, we brought the best baristas we could find together in one of the world’s best cafes, The Gr...
by Cafe Culture Mag


Fun food fact: The not so nice connection between beavers and artificial vanilla….

Artificial Vanilla Flavoring   Be cautious next time you bake or buy something vanilla-flavored because artificial vanilla has castoreum, which is a product that comes from a gland in a beaver’s butt. Source: https://www...
by Cafe Culture Mag