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.
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.