A mass of data
I am going to follow up to Oliver’s last post answering the question posed by portlandcoffee:
At the consumer level, assuming that I have already decided on my brewing method and price point, should variety be the most important element in guiding my choice of beans from a roaster (rather than country/region of origin, or tasting notes)?
I’m also going to answer “no”, aware that this may take our conversation off down a different path.
The reason that some commenters on here, and I am going to use Peter for this example, express such strong opinions about the value of variety, and its contribution to cup quality is experience.
I could use opportunity as much as experience here, because their experience tasting coffee has been much more focused and intense than a typical coffee consumer. A coffee professional will taste hundreds upon hundreds of coffees a year. This means that you can pick up the commonalities across the 50+ lots of bourbon you may cup from different countries. With a mass of data the trends become clearer.
Peter will also have a unique opportunity to taste the same coffee many times - perhaps initially at origin, then upon arrival, and then through various iterations of production. This again gives more data, for both variety as well as geography.
Very few consumers will taste as many different coffees in a decade as someone like Peter will taste in a quiet year. They don’t have the opportunity to quickly form strong associations of variety and flavour.
This is why I am uncomfortable with the idea of variety predicting flavour, especially when it comes to how we market and sell coffee. So from here we inevitably move to how we do choose to label our coffee…
I believe key information like variety should be kept transparent, and made available. If someone pays attention, and is sufficiently interested, they may learn that they enjoy lots of Caturra way more than lots of Castillo. This is no bad thing, as it will be an effective tool when it comes to judging the suitability of future purchases.
The same goes for key aspects of post harvest production - such as whether the coffee is washed or perhaps a natural process. I’m aware that having rigid opinions (such as “all naturals are bad”) is a problem as it may halt exploration, or experimentation - but from a consumer perspective the pain of a bad purchase is magnified, compared to that of a coffee professional.
Ultimately there is no single piece of information that is going to communicate how a coffee is going to taste. I’m somewhere between a typical consumer, and someone like Peter. I taste a lot of coffee, but even with a lot of advance information I’m unlikely to accurately predict the exact cup qualities. Also, back to the world of buying coffee from a shelf, all manner of unique characteristics are all too easily smothered by bad roasting.
We should work to convey its provenance, as well as give some indication of who was responsible for key aspects of a coffee production and ultimate quality.
I’m aware that in writing this post, on this blog, I’m likely preaching to the choir. To finally answer the question posed - I believe that one should allow oneself to be guided by those who’ve worked to gain your trust. Share with them your previous experiences, good and bad, and your expectations and they should be able to guide you to something you’ll enjoy.
- James Hoffmann