Perceiving is Believing: Getting to Know Your Coffee

Photo by Nico Alary on FlickrBy Tim Castle, Castle & Co.

I’ve always thought of coffee as an information medium, much like a flash drive. It is a liquid and volatile (gaseous) collection of pixels, or data points: we smell it, inhale it, feel the temperature of it in our hands, the steam of it in our nostrils—in addition to the aromatic and strictly chemical sensations that we perceive even before we taste it. We process all that information, assess the experience, and decide whether we “like” it: whether it satisfies, what it informs.

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 1.38.34 PMAs Dr. Charles Spence of Oxford University discussed in his 2014 Symposium talk, all of this information is blended together in a part of our brain called the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). He points out that all the other information that comes in while we are drinking impacts our perceived experience of that coffee: what we hear, what we see—music and color, sounds of a bass fiddle or violin, the color of the cup. All of those qualities affect our perception of the coffee overall.

But what Dr. Spence did not specifically discuss is whether “narrative” (my quotes, not his) information and previously received knowledge also gets blended into that mix. If the orbitofrontal cortex is doing its job (helping us survive by processing all the relevant information that will help make a good decision)—one might think it would. Certainly, there is abundant anecdotal data to suggest this. In subsequent exchanges with Dr. Spence, he confirmed that, yes, indeed, all of the information we process seems to “light up” the OFC as we consume something.

Essentially, it should be understood that not only our primal (sensory) observations are “integrated” (to use Dr. Spence’s terminology) into our overall experience, but also the intellectual ones—what we read or are told about a cup of coffee.

This means that marketers and salesmen have more influence and power than even they may have thought possible. But it also means they have greater responsibility, because what they say about a coffee, to our experiential selves, actually becomes part of the coffee. “Marketing” information, especially within the specialty coffee trade, is usually viewed as a load of hooey…but, like it or not, it is, in fact, an intrinsic and essential part of the experience. How can we argue, on the one hand, that all that matters is “what’s in the cup,” but on the other demand, “complete transparency?” The information that complete transparency provides is, we now know, very much a part of the perceived experience, every bit as much, it turns out, as the acidity and roast level.

spence at symposiumSo marketing information, if it is honest and in good faith, can add to the experience of a great cup of coffee. Even in bad faith, if a label or merchandising tag says something that is untrue in an effort to make the coffee read/sound/look better than it is and it is believable, or in a trustworthy context, the coffee drinker will believe it and the coffee will taste better to them. The problem is that information tends to leak, the unfounded data points as well as the truthful ones tend to get out there, eventually things are perceived as they truly are…and the coffee that has been falsely praised will probably end up tasting even worse than it would have originally, if the truth had been told about it because it would not have another negative point on its rap sheet: “Sold by Liars!”

Kona coffee for example, still has a good name with coffee drinkers, especially those that don’t pay that much attention to coffee. But neither do coffee drinkers, in general, have any idea what it tastes like, and if they are told one of three cups of coffee is Kona and one Colombian and one is something else, they will pick the Kona, even though all three cups may be poured from exactly the same pot. Just as the bright, higher treble ranges of the musical scale can make coffee taste sweeter and lower tones can make it taste more bitter, (as may be seen in the video referred to earlier)—every data point coming in to the OFC combines to create the subjective experience.

SensesWhat was so amazing to me about this was, first, how all-encompassing the entire context is in which we drink coffee; and next, how we are often incapable of filtering out things we believe we can adjust for. For instance, if we cup a bunch of Brazils on a cupping table with one Colombian sample, that Colombian is going to taste more like a Brazil (a strange one, sure) than it would if it were on the table with a set of Colombians.

Central to my understanding of the taste of coffee is this idea that a cup of coffee is an information storage and retrieval device. In coffee, we find recorded everything that ever happened to it, from the time it was planted to the time the beans were ground and brewed. What we have learned from Dr. Spence’s work confirms this. Information theory posits that no information can be lost, not even if it is sucked into a black hole. Drinking a cup of coffee is like playing an MP3 and letting its history play back over your palate.

Most memorable to me was my first trip to where coffee is grown. I went to Guatemala and Mexico, where I tasted, cupped, and drank a lot of different coffees, and brought several back with me. I will never forget drinking a Chiapas coffee in my kitchen one morning, and being taken back to the land, the air, the soil, all the smells and sensations of that countryside and production area that were encapsulated in that coffee…

Working the pour overKnowing, for example, that there is currently a government-sponsored program in Antioquia that is helping coffee farmers and their children to produce better coffee and lead more prosperous lives makes me feel better about drinking coffee from that region, and I can’t filter that out of my coffee drinking experience any more than Dr. Spence can make the man in the video referenced above say “da” when his lips appear to be pronouncing “ba,” (and, as he admits, he’s been trying for twenty years).

Or, can someone who’s trained to objectively assess the quality of an espresso beverage not be swayed if the first thing they see when walking into a new shop is their favorite espresso machine or their preferred pour-over method actively in progress right in front of them?

So, what does this all mean? It means that everything we do to our coffee matters, and everything involved in the context of tasting/drinking that cup of coffee is also critical. The history is important to the coffee and it is important, in turn, to the experience of the coffee drinker.

Frustratingly, much of this is beyond our control, and there is still a lot to learn, beyond music and the color of the cups. There is obviously still a considerable amount that we don’t understand with regard to what adds to, and what subtracts from, the enjoyment of a cup of coffee. But that does not mean that we should not be aware of the information and the context we are contributing (like the ambience of the shop, the feel of the packaging, etc.), that we’re sharing when we serve a cup of coffee (or selling a pound, a bag, or a container of it).

The best we can do then is “To Thine Own Coffee Be True” or the experience will be less than it could have been had the whole story been told clearly. This is what making a good cup of coffee is all about.

castle-picFor 30+ years, Tim Castle has sold green coffee and has been writing about coffee and tea. Castle co-authored The Great Coffee Book (Ten Speed Press, 1999) and wrote The Perfect Cup, (Perseus Books, 1991). In 2003 Castle received the SCAA’s Distinguished Author Award and was the Association’s president in 1991.