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Mhansen
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Joined: 14 Nov 2005
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Location: new york
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Posted Wed Dec 28, 2005, 8:51am
Subject: Artistic license in coffee descriptions
 

I know this is a tough subject to discuss since it's so subjective, but how much "artistic license" is used in coffee descriptions from the major single-origin artisan roasters (Terroir, Intelligentsia, Counter Culture, etc....)? I've been ordering from all of the companies mentioned, and can easily discern a good, fresh roasted cup from a stale pre-ground supermarket-type coffee, but find it difficult to break down exactly what makes a good cup taste good.

Getting back to descriptions, most include descriptions of "flowery" and "fruity" notes. If you read Ken David's reviews he'll talk about pear, plum, jasmine notes etc... - now I have to imagine I'm not the only one who has a hard time noticing a "pear" taste in coffee. In fact pears and plums are probably the last things I would associate with coffee. Now I can understand how you can associate perhaps a lemon with a more acidic coffee, but besides the acid, it's a stretch for me. I have no idea how one associates coffee taste with flowers either. On the other hand, I can easily distinguish a dark roast from a light one - the bittersweet/chocolate/earthy tones are pretty easy to pick out - but my confusion is how a cupper distinguishes various light roasts.

Is there a lot of artistic license used with these descriptions for marketing reasons? Furthermore, if you put 10 experienced cuppers in a room to do a blind cupping would the descriptions be even remotely similar for a specific lighter roast? And if you took it a step further and put 10 inexperienced Dunkin Donuts/Starbucks afficianados in there and asked them to describe the coffees, what are the odds any of them would mention flowers or fruits when describing coffee unless specifically given a cupping form to fill out?

Just curious what others think, and please don't take the tone of my post as deriding cuppers - in fact I'd love to attend a cupping done by a top-notch roaster/buyer to learn more.
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CoffeeRoastersClub
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Posted Wed Dec 28, 2005, 9:08am
Subject: Re: Artistic license in coffee descriptions
 

Mhansen Said:

I know this is a tough subject to discuss since it's so subjective, but how much "artistic license" is used in coffee descriptions from the major single-origin artisan roasters (Terroir, Intelligentsia, Counter Culture, etc....)? I've been ordering from all of the companies mentioned, and can easily discern a good, fresh roasted cup from a stale pre-ground supermarket-type coffee, but find it difficult to break down exactly what makes a good cup taste good.
... snip ...
Just curious what others think, and please don't take the tone of my post as deriding cuppers - in fact I'd love to attend a cupping done by a top-notch roaster/buyer to learn more.

Posted December 28, 2005 link

If you ask me, WAY to much, to the point of being ridiculous and jokey.

Len
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helenoftroy
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helenoftroy
Joined: 27 Oct 2005
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Location: chicago
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Posted Wed Dec 28, 2005, 9:56am
Subject: Re: Artistic license in coffee descriptions
 

When dealing with the arena of cupping, we need to understand the ritual of it.  Cupping is done in a manner unique to coffee preparation. I don't know of many home afficianados that regularily taste their coffee this way.  Cupping is geared to expose every nuance in the bean, including ethereal tastes. When correctly assessing the natural characteristics of a coffee, the bean is roasted at a significantly lighter level.  The sample roast level and the actual production roast level are rarely the same.  This implies more access to the personality of the coffee when cupping it.  I must say, when I've cupped a coffee at a sample roast level and then tasted it brewed as drip with a production roast level, I am astounded by the difference. By no means am I saying this difference is negative though.  It's just different.  
As for your thoughts in regards to consisent flavor notes between cuppers - most cuppings are done in silence.  The cuppers taste and take notes on paper and only until they are completely done tasting and scoring do they discuss their findings.  You'd be surprised how consistent the notes are.  We must keep in mind that these are experienced coffee tasters. If we gathered a motley crew from Dunkin' D's and BP gas stations, they wouldn't necessarily be able to pull out what an experienced cupper could.  This is not because the veteran cupper is making things up, it's because their palate has been trained to compartmentalize that fleeting sensory data.  If the motley crew began cupping every week, you'd notice a progression in their tastings too.  
I know from experience that cuppers do not 'create' any flavor note that isn't there.  I know firsthand certain specialty roasters that are honest and candid when describing their coffee, but I have nothing to say for the others.  Maybe some do use filigreed language to sell their coffee, but a lot of them don't.  
I would encourage you to seek out a way to witness a cupping.  I think you're optimism would be renewed by your observations.  
I understand your skepticism, if I hadn't the experiences I had, I'd most likely be in the same boat.
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CoffeeRoastersClub
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Posted Wed Dec 28, 2005, 10:31am
Subject: Re: Artistic license in coffee descriptions
 

helenoftroy Said:

When dealing with the arena of cupping, we need to understand the ritual of it.  Cupping is done in a manner unique to coffee preparation. I don't know of many home afficianados that regularily taste their coffee this way.  Cupping is geared to expose every nuance in the
... snip ...
optimism would be renewed by your observations.  
I understand your skepticism, if I hadn't the experiences I had, I'd most likely be in the same boat.

Posted December 28, 2005 link

Helen,

I tend to disagree with your overall assessment of the cupping industry.  

I think what first started out as an honest method of describing the tastes of different coffees has devolved into oneupsmanship about who can be the most avant garde in describing their cuppings.  It does no one any good when it turns into such a charade that no one even cares about their reviews except their cupping peers.

Len
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rawbean
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Joined: 8 Sep 2004
Posts: 27
Location: Portland
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Posted Wed Dec 28, 2005, 11:00am
Subject: Re: Artistic license in coffee descriptions
 

Helen,

I think your assessment is right on.  

Len,

Nobody on the roasting side of the industry, particularly the roasters mentioned in this email, are trying to "make-up" coffee descriptions.  These flavors can be found in truly excellent coffees.  It does, however, take almost daily practice at the table and an open mind to make these discoveries.

If this was untrue how would you explain the "sweet tomato" flavor found in your Brazil Yellow?

Rawbean
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Zgirl
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Posted Wed Dec 28, 2005, 11:06am
Subject: Re: Artistic license in coffee descriptions
 

Boy am I glad someone brought this up.

(uh oh, hehe.  Yes, this is going to be a frustrated rant...)

Why do I read about cuppings where people learn to basically describe a coffee like everyone else in the cupping does?  Rather than attune your tongue, doesn't it seem like a fancy way to say 'if you don't describe it like I do, you're not cool/uber'?  I'm sure it's not actually like that, but it's how it comes off as someone just reading about it.

And, why do I care about cuppings when I'm going to be, for example, enjoying a blend for espresso instead, or using the bean as part of an espresso blend? It's not prepared like espresso is, all the 'notes' found in it aren't likely to be found if grind and blend that same blend or single origin as if it were espresso - are they?

I've tasted a particular coffee from day 3 after roasting on to today, day, uh, 11 I think, to try to figure out the 'chocolate' taste that everyone raves about with the blend.  Let it be said that I enjoy not only bitterly tongue-question-markingly dark chocolate, but milk chocolate too - and nothing has come close to evoking that taste sensation.

If I have to buy several kits from the coffee association at over $100 a pop to learn about coffee notes, then I guess all the ornate notes will continue to be completely lost on me.  If someone describes a beer to me technically - I get it and I can taste the notes in it - and I can pick them out pretty decently without prior knowledge or being prompted.  But a lot of this stuff with coffee just seems excessive and distancing.  I just don't 'get it'.
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SL28ave
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SL28ave
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Posted Wed Dec 28, 2005, 11:22am
Subject: Re: Artistic license in coffee descriptions
 

The taste of coffee should be explored. It's fun exploring different descriptors, but it should be done with GREAT care, and professionals may want to weave it in with industry needs (for example, US industry would understand "pear" well, but not "papaya"). I also wish "tasting notes" would be posted by coffee geeks so much more!

And FYI, it took George years of intensive thinking about it before completing his "La Minita" description.  And "pear" is a VERY prominent flavor in good coffees lightly roasted.

I'm busy at work now, so I may have more to say later.
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CoffeeRoastersClub
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Posted Wed Dec 28, 2005, 11:52am
Subject: Re: Artistic license in coffee descriptions
 

rawbean Said:

If this was untrue how would you explain the "sweet tomato" flavor found in your Brazil Yellow?

Rawbean

Posted December 28, 2005 link

Rawbean,

Believe  me, I didn't conjure that one up.  Simple copy and paste from my suppliers footnotes.  I don't do cuppings, too ambiguous for me.

Len
CoffeeRoastersClub.com

 
"Coffee leads men to trifle away their time, scald their chops, and spend their money, all for a little base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking nauseous puddle water." ~The Women's Petition Against Coffee, 1674

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coffeeDirtDog
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coffeeDirtDog
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Posted Wed Dec 28, 2005, 12:34pm
Subject: Re: Artistic license in coffee descriptions
 

helenoftroy Said:

As for your thoughts in regards to consisent flavor notes between cuppers - most cuppings are done in silence.  The cuppers taste and take notes on paper and only until they are completely done tasting and scoring do they discuss their findings.  You'd be surprised how consistent the notes are.  We must keep in mind that these are experienced coffee tasters. If we gathered a motley crew from Dunkin' D's and BP gas stations, they wouldn't necessarily be able to pull out what an experienced cupper could.  This is not because the veteran cupper is making things up, it's because their palate has been trained to compartmentalize that fleeting sensory data.  If the motley crew began cupping every week, you'd notice a progression in their tastings too.  
I know from experience that cuppers do not 'create' any flavor note that isn't there.  I know firsthand certain specialty roasters that are honest and candid when describing their coffee, but I have nothing to say for the others.  Maybe some do use filigreed language to sell their coffee, but a lot of them don't.  
I would encourage you to seek out a way to witness a cupping.  I think you're optimism would be renewed by your observations.  
I understand your skepticism, if I hadn't the experiences I had, I'd most likely be in the same boat.

Posted December 28, 2005 link

I agree somewhat.
The skepticism mentioned here is understandable but somewhat rude.  I get the feeling that Len and others just need more experience cupping.  I also had great struggles initially trying to understand the tastes in coffee. I am still learning everyday.  There was a point where I scoffed at the description of Marzipan and Baby' Breath in an espresso.  I eventually found that I could accept the marzipan as it was a variation of a pecan almond/sweet sensation I was also describing a little less eloquent.  As for the Gypsophelia, I think the smell of baby's breath is elusive.  I now feel that with that same espresso I can control the tastes the deliver that marzipan or a candied citron/mild chocolate.  These are things I would not have said a year ago.  Practice, serious thought, and a commmitment to understanding are key.  
One of the things that helped me a lot was thinking of the tastes in coffee in terms of smells of other foods as well as feel in the mouth.  IE: Pecan as in the dry roasty smell of pecans, not the meat of the nut's taste.  It's all very confusing and I don't claim to be an expert, but I don't think anyone should out of hand dismiss the whole process.

I can't speak for Intelly or Counter Culture, but I have tasted most of the offerings from terroir and feel that they do an excellent job with descriptions.  Yes I struggle with some but am amazed when I find something because of the description I never would have thought of.

 
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Zgirl
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Joined: 3 Dec 2005
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Posted Wed Dec 28, 2005, 2:07pm
Subject: Re: Artistic license in coffee descriptions
 

coffeeDirtDog Said:

There was a point where I scoffed at the description of Marzipan and Baby' Breath in an espresso.  I eventually found that I could accept the marzipan as it was a variation of a pecan almond/sweet sensation I was also describing a little less eloquent.

Posted December 28, 2005 link

But then the thing is, why didn't they just call it a pecan or almond note with sweetness - is it because they felt that Marzipan would make better copy?

I think it just bothers me when it gets to the point where the description stops sounding like a coffee.. =)
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