The experience of Specialty Coffee: Engaging the heart, the mind and the senses

By Peter Giuliano

I’m not alone in this. There is a whole generation of people who live to eat, and who are immersing themselves in food culture every day. For these people, good food provides a thread that runs through their entire lives. A meal in a restaurant or a trip to the farmers’ market provides much more than nourishment—it can offer entertainment, social interaction, community networking, it can even become a political statement. Passionate eaters read about food, they watch television programs about it. For millions of Americans, good eating has become a lifestyle.

Which is why it’s always good to remember: coffee, too, is food. It’s grown on a permanent farm that resembles a fruit orchard. It’s fermented like wine or beer. It’s milled and roasted like grain. And it’s prepared and served like food is, in grocery stores or in restaurants, in coffee shops and coffee bars.

I think a lot about coffee when I am having other food experiences, and there is a tremendous amount we can learn from the way the food marketplace is evolving. Just as slow food and artisan foodways are distinguishing themselves from commercial, industrial food, so can specialty coffee distinguish itself from its commodified counterpart. In Specialty coffee, we do this instinctively, almost without thinking. We know and feel the special-ness of the coffee we bring to consumers, and we naturally construct our businesses to differentiate ourselves. We seem to run off an instinctive archetype of what a specialty coffee business is: an antique roaster, some exotic-sounding coffees, comfortable furniture in the coffeeshop. These are the things that distinguish us, but why do we do them?

What are we doing, anyway?

It’s valuable to step away from coffee just a bit, to look at how other specialty foods distinguish themselves, and how they set themselves up to compete with cheaper, more ubiquitous, less special foods in the marketplace.

A common thread with special food experiences is that they are multidimensional; they have a meaning that surpasses nourishment or consumption. They have a quality that stimulates our senses while filling our stomach or slaking our thirst, but somehow satisfies our soul as well. I’ve come to think of a great food experience as one that engages the senses, the heart, and the mind all at the same time.

The Senses

It goes without saying that flavor is the sensory experience at the center of it all. Food is about flavor, and coffee is especially so. In the distractions of our everyday world, we can lose track of flavor; it’s pretty tough to experience taste while driving a car or watching television. We’re in the middle of a kind of flavor renaissance at the moment—beer artisans are celebrating the intense flavor of hops rather than focusing on characteristics like “smooth” or “easy drinking”; consumers are delving into intense, complex chocolates; even donut artisans are daring palates with dynamic, creative flavor combinations. There is a gleeful spirit of flavor as palate entertainment. For example, in Durham, NC, a small popsicle company called Locopops has set the city on fire with popsicles with flavors like watermelon habanero and guava mint.

In coffee, we have the opportunity to impact people in the same way, never forgetting that drinking coffee is more than just drinking coffee, that it is a complete sensory experience. Drinking coffee, or cupping it, or even preparing it, can be an enjoyable act in itself—smelling the coffee as it grinds, detecting the changes in aroma as the coffee brews, noticing the aftertaste that remains after the coffee is gone—these are part of what makes coffee enjoyment such a spectacular culinary activity. Smart coffee companies are engaging their customers’ palates by utilizing the power of amazing coffee flavor, by bringing the coffee drinker’s attention to the scintillating blackcurrant acidity of a great Nyeri coffee from Kenya; or the almost transparent cleanliness of a crisp Huehuetenango; or the fruit-forward jammy aromatics of a dry-process Sidamo. And by using tools like public cupping, tasting flights, or even a simple act like letting the customer smell the coffee in the filter before brewing.

The senses don’t stop there however: we see and feel coffee as we drink it. The style and weight of a porcelain cup, the material of a seat at a coffee bar, the paper and art used to make a coffee package all contribute to the complete sensory experience of coffee.

The Heart

The ultimate reductionist argument in coffee says “It’s what in the cup that matters.” The point is that flavor is important, which is true, but it’s not the only thing that matters, not by a long shot. I have a theory: that artisan products made by a craftsperson who enjoys his work have a certain soulfulness that other products don’t have. Why is this? Well, we humans are social creatures by nature. Most of us love our fellow man, and crave the positive interactions we have every day with our family, friends and members of our community. Buying a piece of furniture from an artisan who is obviously passionate about their work has a certain human quality that transcends the object itself; and which somehow stays with the product for its entire lifetime.
It’s the same thing with food and drink. I buy pizza from an artisan pizzaiolo (that’s the equivalent of “barista” but for pizza). This guy stands in front of his handmade stone oven all day long, positively beaming with pride as he turns out handmade pizzas for the patrons of his restaurant. When asked about his ingredients, his eyes sparkle as he describes the farm where the arugula is grown, or talks about the method by which he stretches his housemade mozzarella. You can perceive his enthusiasm and pride long before you ever taste his pizza, and as your food appears on the table before you, you’ve already fallen in love. The best way to eat is heart first.

I feel the same way when I meet a barista whose heart is obviously in their coffee. I remember seeing a barista once who seemed to caress the portafilter as she was making my coffee—her connection with her coffee and her craft was so obvious, and her naked desire to make the coffee taste great tugged at my heartstrings. This way of engaging the heart through passion for craft is a huge part of coffee, and the honest expression of passion in roasting, farming and coffee preparation is one of the greatest virtues of specialty coffee.

The Mind

We humans are curious by nature. We love to explore the world, and learn about it. We do this constantly, all day, in a million different ways. I remember as a child reading the sides and backs of cereal boxes, devouring not only advertisements and cartoons, but also ingredient lists and nutritional data. Passionate eaters still love information with their food; there exist books, magazines and even television channels dedicated to food education and learning.

It’s not limited to media, however. My favorite restaurant in the world is a little Japanese restaurant in San Diego, where elegant home-style Japanese small plates—many unfamiliar to me—are served to Japanese expatriates. A trip to this restaurant is an education for me: the delightful servers explain the tradition of Lotus Root salad (which, as it turns out, is a popular children’s snack that is packed with fiber, buckwheat noodles (served chilled in the summer, ideally slurped from bamboo canals filled with icy water) and mackerel (grilled in a salt crust to season and keep moist). These stories engage my mind while I eat, and my mind wanders to thoughts of Japanese home life, history, and culture.

As it turns out, in coffee we have similar traditions. In fact, the Ethiopian coffee ceremony has always included discussion and information exchange as a crucial part of the ritual, and coffeehouses have, since antiquity, been places of learning and discussion. We carry on this tradition when we give our customers glimpses of the details of coffee production and trade—the way the Bourbon coffee variety got to El Salvador, or the impact of altitude on flavor; the reason nine bars of pressure is important in an espresso machine or the meaning of “microfoam”; a glimpse into the life of a coffee farmer or the success of a cooperative. All of these stories, whether relayed over the counter by a barista or read on a specialty coffee bag label, engage the mind of the consumer, completing the experience of coffee consumption.

Great coffee artisans and companies instinctively understand this idea, that engaging the heart and mind along with the palate is of crucial importance as we present special coffees to the world. Sometimes, however, we lose track—getting lost in the details of coffee preparation, debating coffee process, collecting science or statistics about great coffee. A great coffee company develops an intention about flavor, spirit and knowledge, and infuses that intention throughout their business and their craft.

Peter Giuliano is director of coffee and co-owner of Counter Culture Coffee, a specialty coffee roasting company based in Durham, NC. He has worked with fine coffees since 1988. He is the immediate past president of the Specialty Coffee Association of America.