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…

        1. The point of the post, real­ly, is that when it comes to cof­fee, we *do* have duff palates!

  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)

    1. Mean­while, across the water in the Irish Repub­lic gourmet cof­fee is well estab­lished but craft beer is not. When I was there ear­li­er this year I learnt that the megabrew­ers (hel­lo Dia­geo…) had delib­er­ate­ly deskilled bar­keep­ing, and that the local crafterati there­fore need­ed to bor­row from barista cul­ture in order to make any head­way.

      http://blog.beerviking.net/2014/07/de-skilling-pub-trade-to-shut-out.html

  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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