Tasting Coffee – Part Four: Expertise

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I love asking people in the industry the very loaded two-part question, “what coffee is your current favourite on brew … and what is the most popular?” They rarely align, which is very telling and worth exploring.

Let’s start with Gowri Chandra’s recent article in Food & Wine magazine titled, “This is what the world’s most expensive coffee tastes like”. In it, she describes tasting the Esmeralda Geisha 601 roasted by Klatch. With the expectations set for aromas of “strawberry and sweet cherry” and flavours notes of “peach”, “bergamont and grapefruit”, she writes, the coffee was “unmistakably fruity … almost as if you watered down a cup of your average third-wave coffee and added a few drops of fruit essence”. While not “an everyday coffee”, she concludes it is “the most complex cup of coffee we’ve ever had”.

I don’t want to throw shade at Klatch or Chandra’s excellent food journalism, but do want to leverage this account to highlight the kinds of coffee we commonly celebrate (culturally and financially) in modern coffee. In our series on Sourcing Green, I quoted James Hoffman’s excellent critique of ‘expensive coffee’ that points out the gulf between the extraordinary and the unusual. As he states, we “disproportionately value weird” and “strange” coffee that “require context”. That last part is especially important as it creates room for the expert – a position that can both grasp and explain the context or value of coffee.

Allow me to detour here with one of my favourite philosophers, Bruno Latour. In his amazing book Science in Action, he explores expertise in scientific practice. For Latour, broad notions like ‘authority’ and ‘prestige’ are too vague on their own; he argues one builds their expertise through networks of alliances.

He fictionalizes a laboratory in which a ‘dissenter’ barges in to question every action and claim of a scientist. With each objection, the scientist supplies various forms of proof: texts and the history of scholarship they cite, visualizations through graphs and illustrations, an array of instruments, and even conducts actual laboratory experiments. With this deep network of allegiances, it is not simply a scientist versus the skeptic but Sir Issac Newton, the technician’s tools, an archive of citations, et al. against one person’s isolated doubt.

The alliances for coffee expertise operate through technical knowledge and practical experience. The separation of second and third wave coffee is often articulated between enjoyment and appreciation. That later requires understanding elements of origin from geographic location to varietal to processing to roasting style. These dovetail with time and experience on bar. Mastering the variables of extraction and correlating them to taste is no easy task. Accordingly, these various blocks build a network that, like the scientist, gives power against any potential dissenter.

Is this a problem? Not necessarily, but I do take issue with dismissive attitudes towards those seeking a refined, balanced, and consistent ‘everyday’ cup. Freezers full of expensive Geishas, using processing as a gimmick, or only seeking coffees that defy expectations by ‘not tasting like coffee’ work to champion the ‘complex’ but not necessarily the delicious. When we defer to the coffee expert whose Latourian network means they can can explain and contextualize the unusual, we often move further away from the simple and the great – a sweet coffee that celebrates the hard work of farmers and producers. Perhaps we should celebrate the best version of – not the largest deviation from – the ‘everyday cup’.