Tasting Coffee – Analysis vs. Enjoyment

2010 February 11
by Joe Johnston
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Certainly one of life’s small pleasures is enjoying a great cup of coffee. The whole act of brewing the coffee starts to stimulate thought and memories. The noise of the grinder and the release of the aroma of freshly ground coffee, followed by brewing  combine in a daily ritual that brings much comfort (children remember it vividly as they become adults). Then there is the steamy aroma rising from the cup as you take your first sip. Wow! What an incredible pleasure to be enjoyed as you continue with your cup. It is very much a right brain sort of experience: holistic and highly subjective.

Another way of looking at coffee is through a more left brain approach: logical, linear, analytical. In this case, one looks at the ritual of coffee making as a series of steps to be standardized and optimized for the perfect extraction. The tasting of the coffee is not as much for the pure enjoyment of the experience as it is to appreciate the subtle nuances. One thinks of flavor components in the coffee that remind them of other reference flavors and aromas, such a berries or citrus. Then the analysis of mouthfeel and finish come into play. Taking notes for future reference helps one remember a special coffee and what made it so. This is much more of an intellectual pursuit with satisfaction and respect for a coffee as a positive outcome.

So which is the better way? Both! Drinking coffee for the pure enjoyment of the beverage and the ritual is what has made coffee a popular beverage in the first place. Millions of farmers around the world would be growing something else if coffee were not an enjoyable beverage. Enjoying the creation and being thankful for it is an integral part of humanity. However, if no one were tasting in an analytical way, there would not be progress to improve quality, rather quality would slip as firms tried to offer maximum “enjoyment” at the lowest cost. This happened in the U.S. during the period of 1940-1990 when there was a “race to the bottom” on cost and , therefore, quality. The result was a steady decline in coffee consumption in the U.S. Thankfully, a dedicated group of individuals, many of whom are represented by the SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America), did take an analytical approach to coffee and reversed the trend. They cupped coffee very analytically to buy only the best green coffees and to encourage farmers and co-ops to improve growing and processing methods. They are to be commended for the much better state of coffee in our country today.

I would, however, suggest that one can over-analyze coffee: breaking it down into flavors and descriptors rather than enjoying the whole. If you are bound up in words and descriptors, try relaxing and simply enjoying coffee for the graciously given pleasure that it is. It is an amazingly enjoyable beverage! Be thankful for those who have put in so much time and effort on your behalf via analytical approaches to make sure you have access to great coffee.

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5 Responses
  1. February 12, 2010

    I love this post! I agree that at its heart, coffee drinking is all about the enjoyment.

    • February 12, 2010

      Thanks for joining the conversation on the roaster project. Feel free to comment on anything!

  2. February 13, 2010

    I agree. Sometimes I think people get caught up with one or the other-but I think we tend to do that with so much in life! Why can’t it be both/and instead of either/or?

    • February 17, 2010

      I think it is kind of a Western approach to things. Very binary: this OR that, 1 or 0, on OR off. A more thoughtful approach is better, as you indicate.

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