On “a Mass of Data”
It’s tough to predict flavor in coffee. There are so many variables. However, rarely do consumers have the opportunity to taste coffee immediately before buying: so they rely on labeling to help guide their choices. We can’t really avoid that- and we all make choices about how we label coffees, and how we talk about them.
Let’s focus on what we agree on here for a second:
We all probably agree that the ultimate way for a consumer to predict flavor, and make a good purchase would be to have a coffee person they trust make recommendations to them. This is what you suggest, James, at the end of your article. You’re right, for sure.
Second to that, it’s probably most trustworthy to predict flavor by farm identity and roaster. A farm name often suggest many important elements: variety, process, microclimate, harvest technique. The roaster name represents their commitment to roasting style and freshness. If you know you like Finca Kilimanjaro, it is very very likely that you will like the next Finca Kilimanjaro you see; next year.
That’s why you and I, James, both use farm name first when labeling coffee. As Oliver pointed out, that’s probably the best way for the attentive customer to find coffees they like: a roaster they like and a farm they like.
The vast majority of specialty coffee, however, isn’t sold by farm name, nor is it recommended by consulting coffee professionals. It’s labeled by country. Finca Kilimanjaro would be known as “The El Salvador” in most specialty coffee contexts. I spend a lot of time around baristas, and the shorthand is often “The El Salvador from Intelligentsia” or whatever.
Here’s my point: that someone who is nuts about Kilimanjaro- of the mysterious “Kenia” variety (perhaps related to SL-28) is more likely to love an SL-28 coffee from Nyeri, because of the varietal connection between the two. A Bourbon planted on a farm next door will taste totally different from the Kenia-variety Kilimanjaro.
Let’s use another obvious example. A person who loves a Pacamara from El Salvador will be more likely to love a Pacamara from Guatemala than a Bourbon from El Salvador.
My point is simply that there is a lot more logic in grouping coffees together by variety than grouping them together by country- particularly Latin American coffees- as the norm is today. Obviously any grouping is less useful than a personal consultation for a coffee professional, or a specific coffee from a different farm.