A Meditation on the Importance- and Danger- of Tasting Notes (Pax Coffea blog)

A Meditation on the Importance- and Danger- of Tasting Notes

(read this article on Pax Coffea blog)

Over the course of my career, as people learn that I basically taste coffee for a living, I get a lot of comments. By far, the most popular is: “You must have a really great palate.”, a comment which is usually followed by an explanation of how that person isn’t really good at tasting anything, how they never get the tasting notes in a wine, how they LIKE coffee, they just can’t taste all those things in it…

It’s one of the most common things coffee people hear, a bewilderment about tasting notes, which sometimes leads to ridicule and sometimes leads to aggression. People who feel alienated by tasting notes react in a variety of ways, many of which lead people away from great coffee rather than toward it. For this reason, the subject demands some exploration, which I hinted at in my last blog post. 

This hint was taken up by a commenter from the Phillipines, who commented: 

“…we were tasting a harrar longberry via aeropress and we were getting the spiced flavours and aroma from it. then came in an american guy passed by us and ask what is all these stuff, scale grinders and the big syringe hahaha, he was smelling coffee and he can see beans around, we told him we are tasting this coffee from africa, and we offered him a cup. and he was like wow there is blueberry here, we were like what? and we told him to cool it a bit and taste again and whcih he did and he was like this has blueberry. we are filipinos and we are not familiar with blueberry…”

So here you have experienced coffee professionals, who know what a blueberry is (they explained later they have it on cheesecake), but that fruit was invisible to them since it was not sufficiently baked into their vocabulary. To be clear, these tasters were not saying there was a mysterious fruity flavor they could not identify, or that they had a different word for the fruity flavor, they were saying they could not taste the blueberry at all.  They were tasting only the spice notes until someone came up and said ‘blueberry’. 

This of course instantly evokes ‘the dress’, a internet photo phenomenon where people seemed equally divided over how to describe the colors of a photograph: is the dress gold and white, or black and blue?

But even more interesting than that is the history of the color blue itself, which is a newcomer to all languages. Ancient writing never mentions the color blue, and in fact some insist that people were actually unable to perceive it until it became a linguistic concept. The author of this excellent article on the subject asks the rhetorical question:

“do you really see something if you don’t have a word for it?”

Evidence points to “no”. Our perception seems extremely influenced by our experience. So, it seems clear that a big part of our ability to taste a food- say, coffee- is programmed by our exposure to the world, and that it’s not just our ability to describe flavors that is related to our vocabulary, but also our ability to perceive it in the first place.

Back to tasting. We are funny about taste. I notice that when people are making positive comments on my tasting ability- or disparaging their own- they load the comment with a kind of moral freight- as if the ability to discern flavors was a mark of special talent or sophistication. This is strange: while someone might complement a person on their sense of taste, it would be strange for them to compliment them on their ability to discern subtle differences in shades of color or sounds. Taste is special somehow; in fact we use the words “good taste”- a phrase rooted in the way we perceive chemicals in our nose and mouth- as a way to describe a person’s discernment in visual arts, music, fashion, or literature. Somehow, our culture thinks of discernment in matters of flavor as something that requires special class or education. It’s probably descended from a time when only the very wealthy could afford to compare kinds of wine, or cheese, or spirits- and the pastime of tasting things was limited to those who could afford the luxury of surplus food and time. 

This concept- that good tasting ability is somehow a moral virtue- is a problem. If someone lacks the ability to taste a thing, they may judge themselves- or indeed be judged- as unsophisticated or unworldly. However, as we’ve seen, the ability to taste things is related both to biological ability and cultural exposure- morally judging someone’s ability to taste is as absurd as judging someone’s ability to see colors well. 

What does this have to do with us? We sometimes use tasting notes- the way we describe coffee- as a kind of bludgeon. We describe coffee using specific fruit cultivars, obscure tea flavors, etc. This is beautiful, since it is coffee tasters doing the best work they can do; using the limit of their sensory vocabulary to describe coffee in its seemingly limitless beauty. However, the recipient, who may not share their vocabulary, might not be able to understand the description, and indeed may not even be able to perceive it. They may feel judged, which instantly ruins the experience of enjoyment. Nobody likes to be tested, especially when the stakes are their own worth as a person. On the other hand, flavor descriptors are an essential communication between a coffee seller and consumer, giving them clues as to what they might experience, as a sort of road map. This makes writing taste descriptors as an extremely important but kind of dangerous activity. I was understating it when in my last post I said “tasting notes are a very complicated thing to unpack”. Over the years, I have developed a few rules of my own when considering all this, and I suppose this would be a good time to share them.

Rule 1: If you describe it, I better taste it. This rule came from a time when I was coaching people on how to write flavor descriptors. People, especially practiced tasters, would often choose flavor descriptors like ‘Fuji apple’ for a Guatemalan washed coffee. I do not dispute this perception, however, I recognize that if that flavor existed at all (see the next rule) that it was so minor and fleeting that it would be secondary to the major characteristics of that coffee. Another taster would not taste that coffee and say ‘Fuji Apple’, so it lacked the fundamental attribute of mutual intelligibility. As a converse, people often leave out the ‘big flavors’ of coffee- say, chocolate, which is very common to taste in coffee- to explore the more nuanced ones. This is also a mistake.

Rule 2: Objective and subjective both exist, don’t get hung up on it. It is perhaps true that the specific chemicals that exist in a blueberry also exist in a natural Ethiopian. It is also true that ability to perceive flavor is subject to the personal history of the taster (and the environment, and lots of other things). This duality can cause tasters to get preoccupied with the relative objectivity of flavor descriptors, sometimes being inspired to wage a kind of holy war on behalf of their own perception, if they believe it is something objectively true. Sometimes, people try to do the opposite, and dismiss the existence of flavor descriptors altogether in the argument that it’s all subjective. Both are wrong. And right. Don’t get hung up on it. 

Rule 3: When communicating to the maximum number of people, simpler is better. As a person who loves language, this one’s a toughie for me. It’s so tough to balance very specific language- which can be arcane- with the ease of communicating using simpler language. When describing a sensory experience, however, there is no substitute for simpler language. Using a descriptor like “dragonfruit”, though it might be accurate, would probably alienate an audience who is not familiar with the delicious fruit. A taste-describer should always seek the most easily understood term that accurately describes the sensation- a linguistic balancing act, to be sure.

Rule 4: Strive for the universal. Coffee is cross-cultural, and that is both beautiful and challenging. Coffee tastes different to a Japanese taster, an Ethiopian taster, and a taster from Kansas. Universal tools provide a common language, and common languages are always both limiting and unifying. Idiosyncratic flavor notes- uniquely personal and self-expressive- are wonderful such as they are but probably useless if we’re striving for better experience for more people. 

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