Tasting Coffee – It is Situational

2010 February 23

In previous posts on tasting coffee, I have not mentioned what is to me the most important aspect of taste: it is situational. The taste of a beverage is inexorably linked to the situation (context) within which it is partaken. One’s mood, foreknowledge, sights, sounds, aromas, drinkware, and the people we are with all greatly influence how something tastes. That is why the cupping room of good coffee roasters is stark and everything is done in a uniform way. By excluding or standardizing situational factors, it is hoped that the intrinsic flavor of the coffee will  be discerned.

For the rest of us, the fact that taste is situational is not a problem. In fact, it can greatly increase our enjoyment of a beverage. Situational enjoyment can be broken down into two major groups: foreknowledge and surroundings. Foreknowledge is what one has be taught to expect, look for, or appreciate. For instance, if one goes to a coffee place that has a Yelp rating of 5 stars, one is preconditioned by foreknowledge that people “in the know” see it as heaven on earth. The coffee will taste better than in a generic white mug at the office. Similarly, if it is generally “known” that a certain restaurant has the best pizza, it will be more heavenly tasting than the same pizza served in a white box.

Surroundings are perhaps the most influential factor in taste. I find that taste experiences while traveling are heightened. Life, in general, is heightened in travel; being out of one’s element, hearing and seeing new things. The people you are with influence your thoughts on taste. If they all are swooning over a cappuccino… it must be good. The visualization of process also influences taste. When I was at Four Barrel Coffee in SF, seeing the roaster, all of the coffee equipment and various rituals of production definitely influenced my enjoyment of coffee. The wise coffeehouse owner will recognize the power of situation and intentionally design a situation favorable to enhanced taste.

An Illustration – The Best Wine Ever

At a recent dinner party, I asked a friend what was his fondest memory of wine or what was the best wine he had every enjoyed. The story began flowing immediately. He and his wife had reservations at the French Laundry. They determined that they were going to fully enjoy their meal, so they ordered a very expensive Bordeaux. He related in great detail, the remarkable lineup of small courses, the gracious service, and the stellar wine. For him, it was the very best wine experience ever.

The best wine I have ever had (and wine memory) was a $9 bottle of Villa Cornarea Arneis drunk on Father’s Day 2007. We were staying in the hilltop guesthouse of Villa Cornarea (just outside of Alba, Italy) with vineyards of Arneis grapes sloping down on all sides. Cindy and our two sons had rented vespas and were touring the Barolo region that day. On our way back we were on steep switchbacks in the forest. We looked back and Cindy was gone. In a state of panic, we turned back and I saw a glimpse of a car stopped and a scooter down on the side of the road — I thought the worst. Thankfully she was just scraped up and some italian men had stopped to help her! Such relief. We continued on with me riding her damaged vespa. About 10 miles from the village of Canale, we arrived at a roundabout and headed into it with big trucks speeding our way. In the lead, I decided to take an exit that would be longer travel time, but safer. We all made it — except for our youngest son, who continued down the main highway! So I took off after him. After much angst , we were finally reunited.

Late in the afternoon, with no one at the Villa Cornarea but us, we opened a bottle of their Arneis, ate breadsticks, and smoked cigars as the sun set over the vine covered hills. It is a great wine, but heightened by fear of death and loss, thankfulness for a great outcome, and being right where the grapes are grown and wine produced, it was a rapturous wine.

In comparing our two stories, I think that my friend was primarily affected by foreknowledge of the reputation of French Laundry and of expensive Bordeaux. For us, there was the foreknowledge of being at Villa Cornarea, but it was mainly situational. Even the situational part had a large fraction of emotion as the element that enhanced taste way beyond the normal.

As Warren Zevon said: “Enjoy every sandwich”. Enjoy the moment; enjoy the situation you are in as you partake.

8 Responses
  1. February 23, 2010

    This post makes me think of a saying I have often heard about exercise and I think can loosely be used when talking about wine and possibly coffee… “the best exercise is the one you do”. I can’t honestly say that it is always true of coffee, but you get the jist. Nice post.

    • February 23, 2010

      Thanks, Matt. I do think that exercising your palate does improve your enjoyment, in general … situational or not.

  2. Mark permalink
    February 23, 2010

    This is exactly why some sort of bind taste-testing methodology would be so revealing (and fun). What if, in blind testing, your roaster could not produce beans that you would prefer to the same beans roasted in a conventional drum roaster. Or worse, a fluid bed roaster. Scary!

    • February 23, 2010

      That is always the risk of blind tasting. Very often one is embarrassed by lack of “foreknowledge” in judging coffee or wine. One’s presuppositions can be crushed. I have certainly been embarrassed, so your premise could come true.

  3. February 23, 2010

    If you fall in love while enjoying a bottle of $2 chuck, that’s the best wine ever.

  4. February 24, 2010

    This is fantastic! I feel very few people lend credence or credibility to one’s subjective experience. One wonderful thing about dining is community, whether in large groups or with family- we are social beings at heart IMHO. The entire context and experience always leaves a lasting impression and lends itself to remembering details. When food evokes an emotion that impression becomes even more powerful. I am always mindful of my sense of smell because of it’s power to transport me and evoke a memory…

    I love the objective part of cupping coffees-the analysis, deconstruction and deciphering-it’s all very fascinating, personally, to see how astute I can be. But the reason I do that is to simply relax, share and enjoy good coffee (food or spirits included) with friends and family. I personally think that the “observer” affects, positively or negatively, the experience and doesn’t simply watch it. The objective, scientific portion of how we arrive at cultivating and processing coffee, roasting, extracting/preparing coffee is so we can ultimately enjoy it.

    Great post Joe!

    • February 24, 2010

      Nicely stated, Luis. I know that you are a people person as well as a coffee person.

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