On tasting notes

December 27, 2010

Dried strawberries, notes of crushed rosemary, 61.5% cacao in the finish.

I'm ambivalent about tasting notes. They're helpful for obvious commercial reasons. Whereas certain large-scale roasters may not be able to get away with anything more specific than "bold," a quality roaster can write something hyper-specific and have the beans bear out the gist of it. My a-ha coffee moment was a Terroir coffee that tasted like blackberry preserves and lemon curd...just like the label promised. Tasting notes also associate coffee with the wine industry (a flawed but generally helpful analogy) while also setting it apart in a financially favorable way--you can get a good wine for $20 bucks. For the same price you can get an amazing coffee that'll last you a week.

Then again, tasting notes can constitute a setting-apart that has mixed effects. There are certain people who take pleasure in the sensitivity of their palettes, enjoying what they perceive (sometimes correctly) to be the distinction that their sensitive palletes confer upon them. Viz., tasting notes can condition a set of people into believing that they are "in the know," enjoy something that is exclusive &c. Hyper-specific coffee descriptions can attract this breed. The corollary of course is that there is an even larger set of people who don't believe that they are in the know and feel excluded by roasters that are perhaps too...specific. Hence (in part) the astronomical prices paid for Esmeralda: here's a coffee that can consistently bear out specific tasting notes to people that may not consider themselves "in the know" but may, to everybody's profit, consider themselves such afterwards.

The problem, though, is that even the best tasting notes capture one moment or a small collection of moments in a coffee's life. This is how it tasted to persons a/b/c on day such and such when brewed  in ways x and y and roasted according to this profile that we'll never perfectly duplicate etc. And this observation justifies the practices of roasters that ironically do the minimalist super-large-scale roaster (those who say "bold" and little more) thing and are pretty reticent about their coffees. Roasters that might just say something like "citrus and chocolate." BUT WHAT PERCENTAGE HMM!? These caffeinated wares be MIGHTY suspicious.... Well, not really.

So, tasting notes. What a roaster does with them, even if nothing at all, iis nearly always interesting in some way.



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