Bewildered by Coffee

Illustration: red coffee cup.

Our experience in a smart independent coffee shop in Falmouth this weekend gave us a glimpse into how many people must feel when they enter a craft beer bar.

We like coffee, but (as with whisky, wine, cheese) we don’t know very much, having not chosen to expend any mental energy reading on the subject, or forcing ourselves to concentrate as we consume. We’ve picked up a few nuggets of folk knowledge here and there, and think we can spot a bad cup of coffee in the wild, but that’s about it.

Walking through the door of Espressini Dulce on Arwenack Street, we were confronted by… well, not much. There was a blackboard with descriptions of four varieties of coffee and, once it had been pointed out to us, a minimalist list of methods of preparation –espresso, cortado, and so on.

We didn’t know what to do — what was the difference between the varieties of coffee? Would we be laughed out of the place for drinking anything other than espresso? So we just stood there, as if our operating systems had crashed.

Noticing our confusion, the chap behind the counter offered assistance, and we confessed our ignorance. He explained how the top two blends were available for espresso; and described their respective flavours with references to chocolate and red berries.

After all that, we went for one of each, cortado-style: here, we realised, was a chance for our first ever comparative coffee tasting experience!

And they both tasted… really nice. We could tell they were different, but didn’t detect chocolate, berries or smoke. Just coffee. Coffee with hints of coffee, and underlying coffee notes.

Yes, for a brief moment, we were those people beer geeks roll their eyes at: “It all tastes like beer to me — what do people normally have?”

23 thoughts on “Bewildered by Coffee”

  1. I think it’s the same as starting to really taste anything – it’s hard to move beyond “it tastes like coffee / beer / whisky” into trying to identify and explain the individual flavour components, and it only really comes with time.

    With coffee, I find that the different flavour components come through in the aroma stronger than the taste – and ideally before you start adding things like milk, which dulls a lot of it.

  2. Way ahead of you!

    Some of what I’ve been reading in the beer blogosphere reminds me of conversations I’ve had with coffee-lovers.

    I wrote in an incautiously titled (and much-Reddited) post in 2010.

    (Actually I’m surprised how well that post holds up. “Real ale” suggests to me something unadulterated, universally available and frequently quite basic; “craft beer” suggests beer brewed by beer geeks for beer geeks, with recipes as elaborate as you like and prices to match. Tell it like it is, Phil from 2010!)

    Coffee with hints of coffee, and underlying coffee notes.

    Ha. Still, at least it tasted of something – I had an Ethiopian coffee once which basically tasted like hot water, even when I made it twice the usual strength.

    What drives me bats is when coffee geeks insist that you’ll ruin the taste of espresso by adding sugar. I know what they’re saying, but I’m very partial indeed to the particular flavour you get from adding just enough sugar to a strong-enough espresso. If doing that means I lose some of the subtleties of the coffee flavour profile, too bad.

    “It all tastes like beer to me”

    Of course, this is where craft beer really scores – if you’re expecting the classic English combo of a heavy malty body with a bitter finish, then it doesn’t taste like beer. (It tastes like grapefruit.)

  3. It’s sad that there are commodity coffee drinkers that just drink it for the caffeinated hit, but what can you do?

    1. BINGO! Not to mention that no fine coffe drinkers support caff-free yet they deny the central role played by coffee’s kick.

      1. Partly that’s because decaf has a history of using pretty cheap and nasty beans; that’s changing, and there are some damn tasty decafs around now.

        ( of course, I’m not sure if I count as a “fine coffee drinker” in this context – then again, I’m never entirely sure if I count as a “beer blogger” either 🙂 )

      2. Nope – our local Third Wave / Antipodean type place does decaf as well:
        http://hotnumberscoffee.co.uk/ourcoffee

        Although the complaint I mostly hear from the coffee equivalent of old-school brown-bitter diehards (including me on occasion) about their style of coffee is that it tastes of anything but coffee – ie it’s zingy / fruity / floral / citrussey rather than deep / dark / roasty / chocolatey, so (without wanting to go all “duff palates”), I guess I’m a bit surprised that what you got tasted generically like coffee…

  4. “We could tell they were different, but didn’t detect chocolate, berries or smoke. Just coffee. Coffee with hints of coffee, and underlying coffee notes.”

    Replace coffee for beer and you likely have the vast majority of beer drinkers on the planet. Yes stout is different from IPA, which is different from Pilsner, but they do at some base level all taste like, well, beer.

  5. I don’t even like coffee. At work when I was sent to Waitrose to top up on coffee I bought a jar of Nescafe to much derision!

    Now I know the fear my family feel when I’m visiting and they are getting beer in.

    Only I’m not that fussy and polite enough to eat and drink what I’m served.

  6. It is a useful analogy and I’m sure there are coffee experts just as beer experts. I too can tell the difference but generally will drink any kind of coffee if fresh, so similar to people who can enjoy a good beer but will drink any kind without qualms.

    Gary

  7. If it’s any consolation, whoever came up with the name “Espressini Dulce” either doesn’t know much Italian or doesn’t care. (“Espressini” means “more than one serving of a drink made from espresso, cream and cocoa powder”. “Dulce” means “sweet” in the singular, but only in Spanish and Portuguese – the Italian word is “dolce”.)

  8. My cardiologist has banned me from drinking coffee and now one cup of de-caff a day is my only friend.
    When I did drink it by the bucket-load it was always freshly-ground Mocha Parfait beans which I ordered online from this place after I moved out of the smoke.
    The lovely rich chocolatey hit of caffeine kick-started my day through more hangovers than I care to mention.
    http://www.algcoffee.co.uk
    The smell of coffee inside the shop was sublime – one of the greatest smells I’ve ever encountered in my life and on a par with the walk-in humidor of a Havana cigar factory.

  9. I like coffee, but can’t be doing with all this barista nonsense and paying £3 a cup. Occasionally I will have a social coffee with friends but I’d generally rather be spending that money round the corner on an interesting beer.

    One big difference is that I can go into a supermarket, pick up something from generally a fair range and make myself a coffee better than most places will serve for about 15p. Not just as easy to do that with beer.

    (The coffee shop I go to has just got a drinks license: Williams Bros at £5 a bottle 😮 . I’d also rather take my fiver to Aldi and buy three bottles and have 53p change.)

  10. I think there’s quite an interesting parallel between coffee and beer in the UK actually – in both cases you’ve got a fairly well established high quality traditional product (well kept traditional ale / good trad Italian coffee) and a hyperactive modernist new wave (new wave craft / third wave coffee). And in both cases, you get quite a lot of the connoisseurs of the former who are more-or-less unaware of the existence of the latter (more so with beer a couple of years ago than now, perhaps) and will talk with misty-eyed reverence about stuff that the serious new-wave fanatics would damn with slightly deferential faint praise (“it’s a pretty good example of the traditional style, sure…”)

    Interesting articles about coffee:
    http://thebeanvagrant.com/espresso/ (third wave explained)
    http://drinks.seriouseats.com/2013/04/which-espresso-is-better-italian-third-wave-cafes.html (much better than the title suggests, discussion of technical and cultural differences between Italian style and third wave – you could almost rewrite it as an explanation of session bitter for craft beer nerds)

  11. It is amazing that the same people who refuse to go to the pub because paying £4 for something you can buy in the supermarket for £2 is just too much of a rip off, then go to a coffee shop and happily pay £2.80 for something you could make at home for 20p.

    Are they just stupid? Or is it something else?

  12. My attitude to coffee is the same as my attitude to whisky and wine: I’ve found a variety I like (Java/Laphroaig/Shiraz) and I stick to it whenever possible.

  13. I’m a bit late to the party here but the first moment I tasted anything other than ‘coffee’ in coffee was when I drank an Ethiopian single estate coffee (serve: machiatto) in Laynes Espresso in Leeds.

    It genuinely had a red-wine-like fruityness. Amazing.

    Never looked back since!

  14. I talked to a friend of mine, who is as into her coffee as I am into my beer, and she said that the coffee fandom is obsessed with the perfect cup, and I drew parallels with the beer world.

    We both agreed that getting *good* beer/coffee is the desirable thing. Anything above that is gravy. Though I think it is easier to get *great* beer (in London at least) than it is to get *great* coffee.

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