Amaro, a word literally meaning bitter in Italian, is also the name of a digestif that prominently features that flavour. Recently at a friend’s house after some dinner, two bottles of Amaro were produced. One, a kind of supermarket-grade generic brand, the second a more obscure, local, artisan effort. The difference was stark. The first produced a kind of mishmash of flavour accompanied by a dull, pervasive bitterness. The second had much more clarity of flavour, was quite floral, vibrant, and at the very end, as the liquid left my mouth a single note, like a line across my tongue of bitterness emerged. It didn’t swamp my tongue, instead it felt deliberate and well-defined.
At this highest end of speciality coffee we are running scared from bitterness. Coffee in general is bitter. Give some black coffee to someone not accustomed to drinking it and I’m certain “bitter” will be a description that comes readily to mind, regardless of the quality of bean or preparation. In drinking lots of very very good coffee I notice this inherent bitterness less and less, it is something you get used to, and it forms a baseline of expectation. On a bean to bean basis, it is a different matter. Bitterness can be derived from bean defects, low quality coffee, it can come from roasting issues, tipping, scorching, over-roasting, burning. Overextracted coffee also tends to have more pronounced bitterness. These are bad kinds of bitterness.
Controlled bitterness, balanced in context, and endogenous to the bean, not derived from mishandling is something we should not be afraid of. I remember a discussion pre-WBC Atlanta with Colin & Steve about whether we should use bitter chocolate as a description for the Machachamara. Ultimately we were wary of drawing a negative connotation by using the word bitter, so it was omitted. This year, the Progresso from Huila that Square Mile and Supreme carried had a big smack of bitter choc in there, in a good, characterful way though, like the second bottle of Amaro it seemed really deliberate.
Look through the cupping descriptors from a Cup of Excellence jury and you will see an awful lot of chocolate, sweet fruits, honey, caramel etc. The tone of the descriptions and the coffees being selected at the highest level is very dessert-like. Walk down the baby-food aisle in your local supermarket and you will see a similar selection of descriptions, instead on tiny little jars, with pretty pictures on the outside. Are we infantilizing coffee?
In coffees from India and Sumatra there is certainly a more challenging spectrum of flavours: wood, earth, tobacco etc. These coffees though are viewed as the poor cousins of the well manicured El Salvadorian, or the genetically superior Ethiopian. This, despite the anecdotal observation that consumers readily identify with these coffees, while struggling to muster excitement for some of the darlings of coffee geekdom. I must admit, though, I struggle with a lot of Sumatran / Indian coffees. I find them challenging. I rarely order them or reach for them, without some premeditated thought on how it would be good, important, or palate expanding. That said, one of the coffees that surprised me most in 2009 was the Sidikalang Natural from Indonesia. They seemed to achieve a very Indonesian interpretation of the Ethiopian Natural, very fruit forward, over ripe, somewhat funky, with traditional Indonesian flavours, but relatively clean, and eminently quaffable.
Even the subject of Ethiopian Natural processed coffees (Arichas/Beloyas/Wellegas) has surprised me at how divisive it appears to be. I won’t rehash my near apoplectic lust for these coffees, suffice to say I think they are outstanding, accessible expressions of what flavours can be inherently possible in coffee. I had assumed near ubiquitous affection for them until some of the Intelli guys started describing them as “gross” on twitter. While I fundamentally disagreed with their assessment, I could see where they were coming from.
I remember years ago the first time I tasted a fermenty natural processed coffee (it was Yemeni). My initial thought was salami, it jumped out at me. There were other flavours going on in there too, but the contribution of the processing to create a flavour reminiscent of aged meat, held my attention. More recently at a coffee tasting, a well-versed food journalist (Ernie Whalley of Forkncork) identified that same flavour in an Ethiopian Natural (Supreme Roastworks Guji Sidamo). While I was focused on the abundant peaches and apricots, and even though the processing was light years ahead of the (borderline dirty) Yemeni, he immediately focused on the ferment flavour. That isn’t to say he found it unpleasant, but it was certainly prominent for him.
Ferment, on the cupping table is commonly viewed as a defect. Certainly you can reach a threshold where it dominates the cup, and it can be indicative of poor processing, but the Bagersh Naturals never came close to that level. The ferment was controlled, and the payoff was a redefining of the term fruitbomb. But I think their rejection in some quarters (Nick Cho also gave them a lash of his tongue) perhaps highlights an ultra focused, zealous pursuit of the clean, the sweet, the dessert-like. I like a tasty washed bourbon from El Salvador as much as the next guy, but dare I say, after a point they become boring in their pristine uniformity.
Coffee quality, with the exception of annual blips due to climactic variations, is only heading in one direction. Sometimes the lines do blur between character and defect. Diversity of flavour profile remains one of coffee’s greatest assets, and I would hope that we are not sending out a message to producers that ultimate cleanliness and sweetness should always be sought at the expense of more challenging qualities.
I think the updosed underextracted brewing phenomenon was a symptom of a similar disease. Those brews were as far away as possible from the underdosed, overextracted mess that commercial coffee became in the last 50 years. These brews pushed high notes to the fore, they were clean, punchy, and relatively low on bitterness. Most, when presented with the alternative, will now accept that these brews lack complexity, and while interesting, and capable of highlighting certain aspects of a coffee, are less satisfying.
Similarly, the apparent championing of the children’s birthday party flavours could be viewed as overly reactionary to poorer quality coffees of the past, where character and defect were uneasy bedfellows. These coffees are extraordinarly clean, abundantly sweet, but in a way sometimes almost sterile, as if an almost complete lack of character is emerging as a positive quality in its own right.
Even by my own rambling standards this has been a festival of waffling. So to sum up with brevity: the road to defect may well be paved with gold.