I’m sure that most reading this blog would readily admit that there is a big difference between what is classified as “specialty-grade” coffee and what is classified as “commodity” coffee. The very name “Specialty” calls to mind a greater quality, or at the very least, a greater amount of effort in its farming/production. And this is true, of course, specialty coffee does receive more care and is, generally speaking, a much better product. This is why specialty coffee growers and importers can charge more for their beans than commodity growers—the market rewards the higher quality by its willingness to pay a higher price for it. It’s elementary economics, my dear.
However, for all of the care, concern, and labor that goes into it, many coffee drinkers really don’t seem to notice much of a difference. In this video, self-avowed coffee enthusiasts are given a blind taste-test of McCafe coffee and a high-end specialty coffee. And most can’t conclusively identify the expensive cup. Does this mean that all the work and expense that goes into specialty coffee is a waste of time? Does it mean that all coffee—in the end—tastes remarkably like, well, all other coffee? No, it doesn’t mean this at all, but it does illustrate an important lesson.
You have probably heard it said that we first “taste with our nose.” While this is certainly true and I don’t dispute it, I would say that we actually taste with our mind even before we taste with our nose. What does this mean? It means that we have certain expectations about what the food or drink sitting before us is going to taste like long before we ever catch a whiff of it. It means that if our expectations are set either too high or too low, the taste of the item will be similarly affected. It means that if they ran that same taste test with the same people on the same day but instead with the bags sitting next to the brewed coffee, there would have been radically different results. Expectation changes everything.
Think about that restaurant or bakery or coffee shop that your friends kept telling you was the “best thing ever.” When you finally get around to trying it, your expectations are almost to the point of being unrealistic; no food or drink could ever match the level of expectation that has been set in your mind. You are expecting a category of greatness that is seldom found based solely on your friends’ enthusiasm and memory of the place. Their “overselling” led to your “overexpecting.”
It should be obvious that coffee—all coffee—does have certain flavors in common. There are distinct tastes that are found only in coffee and that are present in nearly every cup, regardless of where it came from or how it was made. Proper roasting has much to do with it. Proper preparation has a part to play. Freshness is a huge factor that is often overlooked—in fact, most of the coffee we drink in restaurants, gas stations, and even coffee shops is stale. And stale coffee tastes remarkably similar to all other stale coffee because the distinctiveness has been lost into the air. If your coffee was roasted more than a month ago, it is essentially stale. It may still taste pretty good, but its “uniqueness” is gone.
It would have been rather easy to say that not all coffee tastes the same in much the same way that not all apples, oranges, or grapes taste the same. Obviously coffee from Africa is different from coffee in Brazil and from coffee in Indonesia. Different soils, different plants, different temperatures and climates, different water sources, different sun patterns, different processing methods, etc., all lead to different results in the cup. Some may strike your fancy, some may not. This should go without saying. But what seldom gets mentioned is that WE are different every time we put of cup of coffee to our lips. The coffee that made us so happy yesterday may not produce the same euphoria today. And this has less to do with the coffee itself than it does with our expectations, moods, and emotions.
Don’t make coffee—any coffee—perform tricks that it was never designed to do. The coffee will always do its part, as long as we are honest with ourselves and don’t expect too much of it.