Coffee contemplation

latte art, hot chocolate art, soya art

How can we learn to love our coffee more?

While writing last week’s cafe-review (about our sense of smell), I started to think about how to taste and appreciate coffee better. I don’t know about you but while I always try to take time to enjoy the coffee, ordinarily I don’t actively concentrate on the aroma and the sensation as I drink. This has the consequence that although I prefer some coffees over others, I am at a bit of a loss as to explain why. Moreover, it has knock on effects for how I buy my coffee.  Although I tend to look for coffees with tasting notes that say “chocolate” or “caramel”, from that point on it is a somewhat random mix of information about the coffee farmers, information about the farms, price, processing method etc. Sometimes this results in a great coffee arriving in the post a short while later. Sometimes one that, although good, is not quite my cup of tea. So how can I improve my tasting skills and so have more confidence in buying coffee. And a second question, should I?

There are some coffee roasters and suppliers who take this dilemma out of your hands. If you sign up with them, they ask you to merely click to say whether or not you like the coffee after you have tried it. After a few coffees, specially designed algorithms will start to identify which coffees you are likely to like and which you are likely to find more difficult.

Similar algorithms are being used by very different companies to suggest which videos we watch, books we read or adverts we see. It has been argued that the algorithms can know us better than we do ourselves, and that choosing our reading material, or coffee, through these algorithms will result in us enjoying what we read, and what we drink, far more than if we had allowed ourselves to choose more freely.

vending machine sign, scientism, reductionism

The sign on a vending machine. How valid is the reductionism that equates human beings with computers? Our ideas as algorithms?

But is this what we want? For a start, though I may like a coffee a great deal, to call it a ‘good’ coffee may be more tricky. But secondly, an algorithm will recommend products based on what we have enjoyed in the past. Often, in order to grow (as coffee drinkers or even as people), we need to be challenged, to read or to drink things that we may not necessarily enjoy but which we can learn from. There is one author in particular who I found not because I read work that was similar to hers but because one day I decided to browse the bookshelf starting at “A”. Perhaps what you could call a semi-random discovery. Similarly, I cannot in all honesty use the word ‘enjoy’ to describe one of the most memorable coffees I’ve experienced*. Nonetheless it had such a strange and remarkable taste profile that it challenged the way that I think about coffee and I am very glad that I purchased 250g of it!

So I suspect that I will not be signing up for an algorithm based coffee for now, but rather trying to understand more about how to taste and experience coffee through the tasting wheel for example. What about you? Do you want to be challenged by the occasional cup or do you think that the algorithms can help you to better understand your own coffee preferences? And, of course, if you have any advice on how to improve my coffee tasting skills, feel free to share.


*The coffee was a 2009 Indonesian “Sidikalang” from Has bean. More details in the cafe-revew for Lundenwic which can be found here.


3 Responses to Coffee contemplation
  1. lavacha says:

    Hi there, I really enjoy reading your site!
    My husband uses an algorithm-based coffee vendor, and although I usually like the coffee they send us it’s rarely something special or different. As you wrote, there’s no challenge, but it’s fine for the usual morning brew.
    Luckily we have a local roaster who does weekly specials, where I can taste a cup before I buy it. Through this I realised how much what I like or really enjoy changes with mood, medication, weather and time of month… I just bought a roast I found meh leaning to slightly disgusting the last time I tried it in May – I really liked it yesterday and today. My tolerance to acid and fruity notes seems to be higher right now – and my tasting wheel notebook has sprouted strange new tags 🙂

    • beanthinking says:

      Trying a cup before you buy sounds a great idea, but then also trying with different brewing methods can bring out different flavours and be an interesting taste experience.
      Enjoy your coffee!

      • lavacha says:

        Oh, I agree – some roasts are strictly cold brew here, my husband knows to ask when in doubt 😉 Settling down with my coffee now to enjoy your latest post.

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