Now, more than ever, there seems to be a consistent taste preference for coffee brewing.
I suppose we all have the portable spectrum refractometer and extraction software from VST to thank a great deal for helping establish a system of trackable metrics, as well as a better resurgence and understanding of coffee brewing on the whole with the manual brewing renaissance.
It’s hard to find many people brewing coffee much lighter than a 1.25% TDS, or much stronger than a 1.5% TDS. Extraction preferences run generally 17.5-22% ext. yield on average (this one’s fairly debatable, but so is our method of measuring and calibrating these numbers on a small level, and also evenness, particle distribution, etc.).
Overwhelmingly, then, we’re able to apply some basic logic to taste preferences. Now i have a degree in writing, and haven’t had any formal (or really informal) training in sensory science, so let’s take this all with a healthy couple shakes of salt.
If the majority of people prefer a certain type of coffee (with citing the great survey work David Walsh helped organize), then we can start to make nearly objective statements about a very, very subjective field. The very presence of the word “preference” in “taste preferences” dictates that we’re way out of field with being able to use words like “right” or “wrong” when it comes to coffee. And yet, I sort of want to.
Group consensus can help inform a higher quality standard for everyone, but preference is a tricky word. As a 13 year old, I had a strong preference to see the continuation of the Star Wars saga. Because of this, I ended up going to see Episode 1 SEVEN TIMES IN THE THEATER. I enjoyed the depth that started to build out of the Old Republic political structure. I liked the lightsaber battles. I was decided that the movie was awesome.
Group consensus, however, began to point out the numerous, numerous flaws of the film fairly quickly though. And through hearing about these fundamental flaws in things like acting quality, plot structure, and editing, I was able to see Episode 1 for the poor film it actually was.
There are still outliers out there who are brewing extremely light or extremely heavy cups. And outliers who prefer very under developed extractions, or highly developed extractions. I’m not sure there’s a way to discredit those people’s taste preferences, but I’m fairly sure that on the whole, the coffee that they are brewing is not coffee that most people would enjoy.
A loyal customer base will often be very loyal to the style of coffee being served from their favorite coffee bar. A coffee bar that puts out a lot of naturals, say, will start to build a following of customers who enjoy naturals. As the standard for that customers palate, washed coffees might seem to be missing something.
What, then, becomes the issue from this?
I suppose the immediate reaction would be a guffaw or scoffing from the general populace of coffee professionals who prefer a different style of coffee, but if that particular coffee bar is serving coffees they like to customers who enjoy the coffee as well, then that is a successful coffee bar.
If a coffee bar consistently brews coffee high concentration, less-developed extractions and creates a market for it, then their customer base becomes out of calibration with the general consensus. This isn’t a major issue, unless things take a turn for the nasty.
I’ve heard instances where coffee customers openly insult other coffee bars or roasters, claiming that they didn’t know how to brew coffee well or roast coffee well, when the standard they were using was something that fell out of the general consensus.
I’ve also heard instances where coffee customers flip the books on that — the outlier is decried for being an outlier and having a different set of preferences.
Both of these start to create a weird world of infighting. The Specialty Coffee world isn’t quite big enough to support rival factions at this time. When it comes down to it, “us” vs. “them” is really still about Specialty versus Commodity. The enemy, to say, is the mass roaster or importer who’s sole role is to offer the cheapest prices they can by exploiting coffee quality and farmer’s ability to negotiate fair prices.
On an even larger, and somewhat scarier path, this strange brand of preferential loyalty might actually be damaging to the overall coffee industry. It’s no secret that dry or natural process coffees can be very risky for a farmer to undertake. The amount of defect increases, and a calculated loss needs to be accounted for outside of very well tended, small batches. If a rising cultural trend pushes for dry, natural process coffees due to a massive preferential swing towards them, will the higher price per pound created by the demand for naturals counterbalance the loss of overall yield for the year?
That’s an example of an argument that had a lot of traction in the world of coffee hypotheticals a few years ago, but as a trend the push for naturals seems to have dipped around the same time that geisha (or gesha, or abyssinial) coffees started popping up more frequently from other farms outside of Esmeralda. Or you could say the demand for naturals petered out around the same time that brew knowledge and skill started to uptick for manual coffee brewing.
Not to pick on naturals, but it’s an easy target for potentially having a massive, massive economic impact outside of just building a local, devoted customer base for a coffee bar.
It’s harder to track the impact that low extraction, high concentration coffees might have if they started to trend higher. Or low concentration, high extraction coffees.
Extrapolating minor data sets, if every shop in America alone started using two more grams of coffee for every twelve ounce cup they serve, assuming there are thousands of coffee bars, each serving around 100 cups of coffee a day, the shift in the amount of pounds of coffee brewed in a day could shift upwards in the thousands. Or if every shop used two less grams per cup, that shift of thousands of pounds would trend downward.
The short term impact of a high shift in coffee used per day would be that farmers would be selling more coffee. But if that increase was sustained, then the availability of high quality specialty coffee might not be enough to meet the demand. Lower quality lots would have to be sourced, and with the dramatic decrease in specialty coffee production due to climate change, a shift away from agrarian structures in coffee growing region, and other factors, the world’s supply of specialty coffee might become exhausted. Vietnamese robusta for all.
Obviously that’s dramatic. That’s overly dramatic. That’s Canadian Junior High sitcom levels of drama.
On the flipside, if coffee usage drops significantly to cater to a low concentration, highly extracted cup, then there would be a portion of specialty coffee being produced that might not ever make it into the specialty market. Significant demand drop might dump specialty grade coffee into the C-market, meaning that farmers in an extreme, extreme case might not be able to pay off their pre-harvest loans, eventually creating a non-financially sustainable track where all specialty coffee farmers have to close their farms for good. Vietnamese robusta for all.
Again. This is some north Texas oil-baron, family-shooting, wake-up-it’s-all-a-dream level of dramatic license.
But who are we to really say the massive impact that can happen?
And why the shit did this post go so far off the rails?
1. It’s impossible to take stock in how a trend might massive shift and explode towards one direction.
2. Writing a piece over a couple of days, while consistently humming along on around 1 liter worth of coffee may be a bad idea.
Ultimately, I think the worst side-effect of this type of mass preferential brewing is that it starts to build ego. There’s no checks and balances type system for ego in the coffee world. Almost every other entertainment industry has a well-established, well-respected catalog of critique and criticism.
And yes, I said entertainment industry. We view food on the same level as music, film, and writing the moment we dedicate a page of reviews for it.
Coffee is the same way. Small shops, big personalities, signature twists. All the makings of a sub-rockstar set. The only thing lacking? Legitimate published criticism. There haven’t been enough years of high quality coffee output to establish an industry of reviewing. Hell, the coffee industry can barely support itself financially, let alone an auxiliary industry that sustains itself off of coffee’s reputation. At the same time, most people who build a substantial palate for coffee tasting tend to be pulled into working in the industry.
The last tangent was probably just a switching post turned the wrong direction. This tangent legitimately put the train in the ditch.
OFF. THE. RAILS.
An editor would never let me get away with this.
Let’s forget the thinly veiled rant of the last few paragraphs and revisit the original focus.
Is there a right or wrong when it comes to coffee brewing?
Can we define those boundaries and attempt to enforce them?
Did we learn anything by sussing out these thoughts?
Is there a reason why you decided to publish it anyway?
I think so, but I can’t quite describe why. My guess is, I think, to help steer people towards looking at our substantial brewing history and the trends towards taste preferences.
If you’re not currently brewing in those parameters, I encourage you to try and establish why.