We've got an evening of cupping coming up on Monday (24. Feb) -which isn't as intrusive as the name suggests. Coffee Cupping is a industry-standardised method for tasting coffee beans, mostly devised for quality control and judgement for things like the Cup of Excellence Award. It's a methodical process which allows easier communication of flavour notes that otherwise might remain on the tip of the tongue as it were. But if you're not in the business of buying beans? It becomes about appreciation. Of sensory pleasures.
I've been to Lush a couple of times. Not out of choice. Strolling past the place is enough to make the back of my eyeballs ache. But it is a powerful testament to how easily senses are fooled. They look like cake, they feel like butter and they smell better than your first love and all your favourite foods combined.
Fighting the salivatory reaction though is a mental note which says they probably taste worse than the vending-machine salami purchased with drunken optimism from the foyer of an oddly quiet hotel you accidentally booked somewhere in the red light district of Brussels. Sight and touch might deal with the immediate, the instant appearances and the deceptive. Our eyes are gullible, but the tongue and olfactory provide the last port of understanding. The final defence that decides if something is poison or just Belgian.
And then there might be the song that reminds you of French toll roads sliding past the back seat window, the family holiday recalled before the second verse. Or there is a particular Bourbon which leaves a scent in the bottom of the glass that might be described as 'Pipe Tobacco.' But really it's the smell of the upholstery of the 20 year old sofa in the front room of my grandparent's house. Of finger stains, coal fire and those sickly cakes that finished every Saturday evening. I also scrawled some profanity and the note: 'water opens up the spicier notes masked by alcohol', and 'definitely not a waste of half a day's pay'.
Because you can't trust memory.
It's nauseatingly sentimental but it's inevitable- more than anything the senses have twisted their roots around the part responsible for nostalgia and memory. I've since lost a mediocre understanding of A-level Biology, probably due to the Bourbon, but maybe there is an evolutionary process to blame? You survive if you can easily remember the bitterness of the toxic plants and the smell of rancid meat? And why does the eye prefer the glossier looking Chelsea Buns? Is this some natural foraging instinct for moisture from a time when it was hard to find a sink?
Whatever the bio-mechanics, It seems memory is the blunt crayon that colours each experience that follows the last. So we all might use the same chemicals and pathways to taste and touch and see, but what we interpret, and pass through our own lens is intensely personal. The wheated Bourbon that's painfully nostalgic to one tongue is hideously painful for another.
Which I suppose underpins the reason you might roast your own coffee beans. It allows some creative control at the start of what becomes an experience for others. Unnecessarily grandiose perhaps, but it's why we get excited about it.
I can't really say anything about the differences in the coffee that our Roaster Steve hasn't already extensively written about here: "Having Character..."
But To give you an example from our current selection, the Ethiopian Yirgachefe is one that continues to divide opinion; I thoroughly enjoy it for what I perceive as syrupy fruit aromas, but I was in danger of recalling another schmalzy memory. So I asked both Steve and Dom to describe the bean in four words.
Dom said Bright. Complex. Floral + Berry-aftertaste. (Which is five words.)
And Steve said four words goes nowhere near my problem with yirgachefe but: 'Fashionable. Overrated flavour profile.'
At least he can count.
So there might not even be agreement between the people who drink the same thing regularly. What we need is some common ground, a schema to help place what we're sensing in relation to the other person. So you have tasting sessions. With Flavour maps. And Here's a colourful taste map that Steve has devised:
I like it, it has less of the repulsively abstract adjectives that Jilly Goolden annoyed everybody with in the 90s. And it links up the nuances with things I can mostly relate to. Hopefully providing a clearer definition of the bean and some concrete ideas to contrast with another bean or what the person next to me is smelling and tasting. They say Black Currant, I say Red Currant but maybe we're tasting Blueberry. It doesn't really matter. what's exciting is that two beans can have such wildly different tastes and two people might perceive them differently. This is the reason I bang on about putting sugar in the coffee. It's a reflex action like salt on food.
It may seem self congratulatory and overblown, but like a perfumer, or a chef or a shoe maker, roasting coffee, brewing it, providing the right setting for it- all equates to creating some kind of experience. And if two people share the experience it becomes common ground. The same way we talk about taste in books and film and music, it's how we judge others as prospective accomplices in this dangerous world of poisonous plants and Belgian vending machines, another way to make initial contact and interact and maybe even colour some of our lives with the same blunt crayon.
And then of course there is the element of exploration. To find new information and to share it, the intrepid never crossed the oceans with the intention of keeping what they found to themselves. You could assume they were craving success and admiration- to go off and find things others haven't and then boast about it and reap the material rewards. But isn't that just a shallow view that only adds to blinkered, puritanical misunderstanding; easy dismissal of the seemingly frivolous and luxurious, because not everybody can afford to indulge their senses because some of us have to work hard. The sort of grumpy misunderstanding that leads to coffee syphons being the No.1 'most pretentious thing ever' (from a clearly well researched list of 24.)
After all, exploration is not unique to humans, which suggests it might be a survival trait. Whatever the reasons, for better or worse, if Columbus had returned from his voyages only to say 'Yea it's an alright place, but it's full of pretentious hipsters who think Bears are their spirit guides and wear hand-made shoes.' Then we might never have had McDonalds. The epitome of sensory deception. (Looks like food, smells like food, tastes vaguely like food, but…)
Conversely if he returned raving about the great wonders only for his audience to reply 'yea sounds good but it's probably better with a drop of milk in it,' he'd probably be somewhat disappointed.
We're definitely not making historically or even culturally significant discoveries by roasting coffee. Nor do we aim to, but we are at least trying to share some small excitement. Even if tasting evenings only serve to add decadence to the everyday, or distract from the routine, that's ok isn't it? We're only here for a bit and it might just be the shared discovery we crave. The antidote for the increasingly remote existence that too often sacrifices face-to-face for Facebook and curiosity for cold fact.
If you'd like to learn more than myself about actual coffee stuff, spend half an hour reading Sprudge.com, If you'd like to form your own opinion and taste some coffee then you can join us on Monday:
(Tickets for a tenner, limited spaces. You can call us to reserve and pay on the night if you're not in the area.) More Details here.
Shaun (@SJLillustration for complaints.)