March 2, 2011

A Matte of Taste

Writing is, in and of itself, a difficult act. Language capturing experience, and then attempting to replicate it for the later consumption and enjoyment of others sounds futile, and perhaps is, yet is still attempted. There are some who succeed more than others; or perhaps I should say, some who succeed differently than others. There is no more one way to write than there is speak, and uniformity in either would be regrettable. 

Still, the degree of verbosity a given write utilizes is noteworthy, and frequently cited as a hallmark of their craft. Hemingway might, for instance, write a sentence that is plain and declarative, whereas Dickens would weave together several clauses, interspersed with every bit of punctuation you can imagine. Neither is correct; though for what it's worth, I'd read Hemingway ad infinitum before I'd read Dickens once.

This struck me this morning, as I purchased my coffee, and read the tag attached to the pot. The specific descriptions applied to the brew are not important, so much as the form used. Certain flavor notes are described, compared to other, familiar things. Sometimes, feelings and emotions are drawn upon as well, a feeling the coffee gives, more than a tangible taste sensation. 

The whole thing, to be plain, was rather wordy. This is not uncommon, certainly, in the specialty coffee industry. To distinguish their beans from the inferior, mass produced fair, artisan roasters opt to describe every nuance a trained palate might be able to detect. Whereas Folgers might be called "bold" or "smooth" (though not accurately, in either case), a Peru la Florida bean might be described as grainy, toasty, yet still with flavor; like good, yeasty bread.

There is first what I will call the matter of bullshit. Are these flavor descriptors accurate, and if so, are they accurate for one person, 10% of people, or perhaps 90%? What percentage needs to be able to find those flavors in order for them to be there? If I say I see a unicorn across the street, and only 1 out of the 157 people in the area agree with me, then most would say that there is no unicorn. Thus, if no one but the person crafting the brew - and thus writing the description - notes a nuttiness, or a hint of lemon, it is worth asking if that taste is there at all.

Second, there is the matter of suggestion. If I am an authority on unicorns, and possess notably astute eyes, then perhaps I might convince several others that what I see is in fact a unicorn, and not, say, a a horse with a plunger on its head. And so if a reputable roaster claims to produce a brew that tastes of chocolate, one might be inclined to think that they taste it. In fact they might, though only because they already perceive the taste as they sip. The mind is a powerful thing, and the perception of existence has a great deal to say about the experience thereof. 

Finally, there is the matter of the exclusive, expert palate. It might be that Peru la Florida coffee tastes grainy. But it might also be that it takes a connoisseur to detect it. Perhaps, say, the unicorn is there, but I am the only person trained to see it. Everyone else sees only a Toyota. Does majority rule, even if the majority is wrong? Does 2+2=5 if enough people say so? Perhaps - but perhaps it doesn't matter. Objective truths are oddly subjective, and certainly subject to public whim.

Given that, it would be infinitely hypocritical of me to offer a definitive opinion. Certainly, even if I have an opinion of the subject, it can only be just that, my subjective experience, as interpreted by my brain, via my palate. It may be relevant to others; it may not. And if it is, there's no saying how many, and what demographics. The rub, then, is this: It is as close to indisputably true as anything can get that coffee does not, as so often said, "taste like coffee". There are flavors unique to each bean, to each roast, and to each brewing method. There are variables on top of variables, extending from the tangible to the abstract. Find what you like, describe it how you like. A coffee may taste like lemonade, a blue sky, or a punch in the face. The consumption of it is experience, and thus must be described in terms of other experiences. This is of course limiting and imperfect - but it's also the best we can do.

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