Specialty Coffee VS Coffee Snobbery

Several days ago on my Facebook page I linked to an article by Andrew Hetzel titled The Good of Taste Subjectivity and confessed my own guilt in sometimes drifting towards snobbery:

When I started seriously considering the Q Grader course I first needed to come to terms with the fact that grading coffee does indeed have a level of subjectivity to it.  Different experiences with coffee (and other foods for that matter) and different mouth/nose/brain physiology make it impossible for true objectivity in grading coffee by humans.  What I taste and interpret as blueberries will be something completely different to someone who has never tasted blueberries before, like someone from Ethiopia where blueberries don’t grow naturally.

And speaking of blueberries and Ethiopian coffees, there’s also a trend in the grading culture (as well as the greater specialty coffee culture) to favor coffees high in floral and fruity aspects, like natural-processed Ethiopian coffees, that drift closer to resembling tea rather than coffee.  I saw it first hand at the course (and fell victim myself) — coffees were scored higher if they could be described with terms such as lively, bright, floral, fruity, candied, etc.   The system is designed for such grading, as Andrew points out:

Cupping evaluation systems like those developed by the Specialty Coffee Association of America and used by the Coffee Quality Institute’s Q Grader program are designed to reward the qualities that exemplify what the industry generally agrees to be most valuable and represent ideal characteristics in washed Arabica coffee: the harmonious balance of bright and intense acidity, complex aromas, flavours and mouthfeel, low bitterness and high sweetness.

But what the industry and we specialty coffee nerds find superior in coffee may not be what our customers want.  I saw this time and again when providing samples at a farmer’s market.  When presented with a bright, lively, floral Ethiopian coffee versus a smooth, mellow, chocolatey Salvadorian coffee, the Salvadorian coffee won over more hearts and palates.  In fact, the Salvadorian was my best-selling and highest customer-rated coffee ever, despite the fact that the Ethiopian was scored higher by the industry.

How do we move past this disconnect?  Andrew stated it very well:

Recognition of flavour profiles other than those preferred by coffee insiders and validation of consumers’ taste preferences will help specialty coffee expand from an exclusionary club of elite enthusiasts to serve a much larger mass audience of customers than it does today. We must shift from today’s, “we know what’s good and will tell you why,” to “here is the information you need to select what you enjoy.”

Consumer education is obviously key.  I use the mantra ‘an informed consumer is an empowered consumer.’  When the consumer begins to understand that coffee’s innate flavor is determined by its origin and that the flavor profile of a given region is more pleasing to him, than his experience with coffee will become richer and more pleasing.

The Q Grader system is a good and useful system and it’s likely the best system we have at the moment for evaluating coffee for purchase and for discussing coffees within the industry.  However, it isn’t directly useful to the consumer.  Instead, the specialty coffee industry needs to focus on consumer education of what specialty coffee is — and that is: 1) a culinary product 2) with significant social significance.  Once we inform the customer, we should present them with options and then get the hell out of the way.  If we’ve done our job right and educated the customer, their choice will always be the right choice, regardless of how it fits in with what we view as a superior flavor profile.

Michael C. Wright

Michael is a licensed Q Grader, licensed Q Processor Pro, an Authorized SCA Trainer (AST), and most recently, a graduate with a degree in horticulture and a concentration in horticultural business management. He has over ten years experience in the coffee industry operating on both the supply and demand sides of the value chain.