Challenging Flavours

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.


21 thoughts on “Challenging Flavours

  1. Well put. I am intrigued and excited by funky, fermented, over ripe, meaty, sour, farmyard and a whole range of other “undesirable” traits as long as they are;

    i) Intended

    ii) consistent

    iii) repeatable

    I’m sure there was a time when cheeses that smelled like feet were a bad thing….

  2. Nice.
    An interesting discussion was had recently when designing a cupping form for the Gold Cup Research Group. We all agreed there must be a ‘bitterometer’ ; but it has been posited the bitter scale must only be negative; as if no virtue can lay within even the slightest hint of bitterness.
    I have long advocated bringing coffee doses up to 55g-65g per litre and extract properly (19-20%) and feel the high dose, high note brigade (16-17%) live either in fear of over extraction or maybe are in the honeymoon phase of wow:is-this-what-coffee-can-taste like.
    Controlled bitterness adds character, but has my Mother told me once bitterness on its own is a useless emotion.
    Great work on the post. May 2010 be as prolific.

  3. Tim Styles says:

    Consistency and repeatability are most definitely the key to a ‘good natural’, but I have to contend that I think we’re a very, very long way from seeing that desire come to fruition.

    I look forward to someone bringing to me a natural that is controlled, deliberate and repeatable, but I’m not holding my breath until it happens.

  4. hmm complexity and swimming pools will always haunt you mr Walsh with this kind of post 🙂

    Defect has no place in coffee and the road to some one who has tasted too much defect is not paved with gold, more grass is greener on the other side, complexity is not defect, just the boundaries of certain defect are movable. (Disclaimer some defects are 100% not desirable at all!)

    But its a very tight line that is walked. There are some people I couldn’t want to judge these coffees, and would throw them out in a flash that for me I’d want to show and explore (sidikalang natural a case in point). I know some top top cuppers who think this is over fermented to the end.

    But also the same people I wouldn’t want to be tasting the “fruitbombs” or sweet more “normal coffees”, more because they can not understand these either.

    Taste is indeed subjective, but understanding what the market wants is not, its a skill that you have to wkr at for what your punters want. Coffee markets are developing and its roasters jobs to fulfill the gaps and develop the things, not for geeks or people in dark corners but the bigger market.

    On another point I think bitters are often masked in descriptors, dark chocolate, cocoa, woody blah blah. They get dressed up, but they are there. A pig in a dress maybe, or maybe a wolf in sheep’s clothing?

    One mans beloya is another mans Monsoon Malabar.

  5. I’m with you on the whole bitterness thing. I firmly believe that it is to our detriment that we no longer see the natural, inescapable and not-unpleasant bitterness intrinsic to coffee.

    What is at the stem, I think, is what we are trying to communicate. Writing labels is hard to do well (I certainly have a long way to go). With a label we are often trying to say: “this is good”, “this is different”, “this is better”. Descriptors are a heady mixture of sales pitch and communication. Genuine success for the label depends on both succeeding equally.

    Consumers reach for the term bitter to describe any negative taste in a coffee – be it sourness, astringency or the genuine bitterness. For this reason I think Speciality coffe fears it.

    Looking back at the Progreso label you mentioned I used both chocolate and molasses. Each, I think, has its own enjoyable, adult bitterness. Implied but not stated, not promoted.

    Sweetness, on the other hand, is likely what turned us and many others onto better coffee. “That’s amazing – I usually take sugar, and I don’t need it in this!” being the prime example of a response to great coffee (and a satisfying one at that). We chase the sweet coffees because they are accessible and saleable.

    I don’t mind confessing that my core preference is for very sweet coffees, cut with a little juicy acidity. I love coffees that engage me intellectually, that push me, excite me and ultimately drive me. However when I simply want a coffee for no reason other than wanting a coffee then it isn’t necessarily the crazier end of the spectrum that I am naturally reaching for.

    This year, for me, has been the year of the Kenya. So many astoundingly good coffees – a rich plethora of flavours, a range of acidity and fruit, a range of mouthfeels and textures. At the heart of each of the coffees I’ve loved (from many roasters) has been sweetness. I’d be a fool to deny it.

    Naturals are very interesting, and exciting. What was the throwaway process, the near shameful process has shown a glimmer of possibility that we’ve yet to really explore. Most naturals I had pre 2007 were barnyardy, ugly, vague-blueberry Harrars and I just didn’t get the hype. In espresso blends especially I had issues with their lack of tact (for want of a better word). 2007 wasn’t long ago and I think the explorations since – the Aricha and Beloyas, the increasing number of microlot naturals from Central America or Indonesia – are the very tip of the iceberg. I’ve said before that it would be a great shame if our awkwardness around them now lead us to walk away from what could be great discoveries.

    I’ve rambled long enough! There’s too much to talk about here!

  6. Nick says:

    “Sometimes the lines do blur between character and defect.”

    They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and nobody can tell you what to like or not like.

    So maybe someone prefers looking at 200 kg swimwear models more than the more traditional slender type. That’s fine. But one could make the claim that being 200 kg is not a healthy state of being, and for a market to emerge that might encourage people to be 200+ kg could face some reasonable criticism.

    “Fruit-bomb” naturals are surely interesting, and they do indeed exemplify the diverse flavors found in coffee, perhaps like none other. However the debate, in my estimation, is between market and quality. There’s a market (for now) for these funky and fruity coffees. Do they exemplify coffee quality?

    There’s really no right or wrong answer here to be sure. However, the debate rages on!

  7. Nick says:

    Oh, one more thought… (or more than one)

    I want to point out something since Intelligentsia was mentioned.

    For most, if not all coffee roasting companies (big or small, third wave or otherwise) that I have encountered, if anyone is to do any sort of objective and empirical quality assessment, it’s the person or people who do the green buying. The baristas and rest of the organization are taught to cup coffee and taste coffee, but mostly as an exploratory endeavor. Scoring is often discouraged outright. The extent of their qualitative assessment is to announce which coffee they liked best, or which they didn’t.

    Intelligentsia Coffee, as an organization, teaches everyone who touches the coffee how to evaluate coffees by industry standards. Cupping is exploratory, but it is also a quality evaluation. The values at Intelligentsia encourage their coffee professionals to approach coffee in a professional way. This is one of my favorite things about Intelligentsia to be sure, and a great deal of what I admire about them.

    This perhaps explains why so many at Intelly seem to abhor the fruit-bomb naturals. Like I said, you can choose to enjoy them or not… but whether you can call them “top quality” by industry standards is another story.

    More often, I am encountering a schism between two groups of professionals who cup coffee on more than a moderately frequent basis: those who can and will score coffees, and those who can’t or won’t. If a coffee professional do not or cannot score coffees, I encourage you to explore that skill. I have, however, met people who loathe the thought of scoring coffees, and are staunch “exploratory” cuppers. I think that’s unfortunate and greatly limiting.

    • I would interpret describing them as “gross” having more to do with the fundamental enjoyment of them rather than a reflection on their cupping score.

      • Nick says:

        I don’t mean that it’s a reflection of a cupping score. I mean that those guys come from a certain tradition and culture at Intelly that results in them “describing them as ‘gross’.”

  8. We had an apple juice-tasting from a local farmer at Kaffemisjonen last year together with some sommeliers, and were discussing how to describe and score this product. We soon agreed to try to stay away from the obvious flavour descriptors – i.e. not using the word “apple”, (as most apple juices have a hint of that).

    All coffees are bitter. Which means that in order to get balance, you need sweetness. You can get sweetness by adding sugar or drink a coffee that has that naturally. I see it as a quality sign that a coffee is balanced on it’s own.

    All coffees were once cherries. It used to be a fruit, and because the treatment it receives after being picked are fairly similar within certain parameters, it makes sense to describe it’s flavour from that world.

    You say a typical coffee flavour description sounds like a dessert. That might be so, but I fail to see how that make it incorrect or has anything to do with the coffee’s quality? I have yet to see a scoring sheet which gives certain aromas higher scores than others(The WBC sheet, I know, and don’t get me started). It’s merely meant as a description, to help you differentiate it from other coffees.

    I agree with James on the pre-2006 naturals, and experiments like Aida’s three different processings of the same coffee has proven once and for all that you certainly can get different things out of the same coffee and all of them contribute in their own, distinct and valuable way.

    It’s pretty harsh to indicate that the industry standard wouldn’t accept a naturally processed coffee. I understand Intelli has a policy on processing, but I don’t think you should discard other roasters’ work – you’re missing out. I encourage you to open up more and try a little of someone else’s coffee. (I’ll gladly send you some of my favourites in April)

    • My point wasn’t that these descriptions aren’t correct. Moreso that “we” are really fixated on coffees that fit into this mold, perhaps at the expense of more interesting, thought provoking spectra of flavour.

      • Well there certainly are a variety of different coffees out there for you to try, if all you want is to taste new things. However for it to be interesting as a coffee rather than any given (potentially poisionous) food product, I think it should be

        a clean representation of terroir and varietal.

        Processing and roasting should only be present to highlight those two.

        Expecting it to be reproducable is nonsense, as any farming product will be different from year to year.

      • When I mentioned repeatability I wasnt really referring to producing the same result year after year, rather repeating a similar flavour profile throughout a crop and a similar profile long term.

        Processing coffee that yields “hugely” different flavour profiles in the same crop would set off alarm bells for me.

        Over the course of a few years I think its very plausible for a farm to expect similar effects on their coffee from a processing method, notwithstanding the changes in the coffee that occur inherently from year to year before any processing.

  9. Another interesting observation regarding bitterness is how the Gold Cup/ECBC/SCAA extraction chart is set up at the moment – ranging from “Under-developed” to “bitter” and “weak” to “strong”. All very vague descriptions and something I personally think the research group should look into rephrasing at some point.

  10. People who think coffee is bitter by definition have spent too much of their lives consuming bad coffee. I simply do not buy the inevitable “bitter” argument.

    Though I say this as a fan of Italian amari, which, by definition, is not the same thing as “bitter”.

    • I disagree. All coffees to a greater or lesser degree contain a bitter element. Some coffees can be relatively less bitter than other coffees, but even if you give the most naturally sweet coffee to someone not accustomed to drinking coffee, they will recognize it as bitter (as Jim said sometimes they also misidentify other attributes as bitter). I have given coffees, brewed to Gold Cup standard, roasted by roasters of the highest caliber, to people who don’t do coffee, and much to my chagrin their initial comment is “bitter”.

      Also amaro/amari does literally mean bitter, so I don’t get your comment, unless I am missing your meaning.

    • From a chemical point of view there is currently no way to create roasted coffee without some bitter compounds such as, well – caffeine.

      We’ve simply become accustomed to it, while also more fixated on the other aspects of the brew.

  11. Rob says:

    Very interesting and thought provoking post David. Challenging convention is sometimes unpopular, but questioning the accepted norm has often served as the catalyst to drive change and bring industries forward.

    Being someone who is at the early stages of their journey into the world of speciality coffee, I think there is a tendency to show bias towards the more popular sweeter coffees from El Salvador, Brazil, etc. Certainly this year for me there has been some very enjoyable coffees in this area. The Kilimanjaro from Square Mile and the Finca Los Amates from Hasbean are 2 that come to mind.

    But in contrast to this, for me the Sidikalang has been a clear standout this year, something I chatted with Colin about on Saturday. Now whether I was taken by this coffee because it was so different, or because I just really enjoyed it in the cup is difficult to call. But the key thing is I got to try it and enjoy it. I’d have been disappointed if it had not made it to my table this year because its characteristics had been viewed as defects on the cupping tables. In the same respect, although yourself and several others commenting here are Irish, I doubt very much we’d enjoy tasting potato in our coffee as found on occasion in the Rwandans. So as Steve has pointed out, there may be a fine line to be tread when assessing what is a defect and what is a more unusual but acceptable characteristic in a coffee.

    Though as much as I enjoy the Sidikalang, it would not be a coffee I would be drinking on a daily basis. As James mentioned, if I just wanted a coffee for my daily staple, then it would be the El Salvador, Brazil, Kenya, Ethiopia et al I would likely be reaching for. This would concur with other comments made, that whilst encouraging farmers to produce more coffees such as the Sidikalang may be good for those of us who enjoy our coffees a little different, this may be a false economy if the market is not yet be there to support them. In the same breath, it’s my opinion that they should also not be discouraged. It would appear then for now we may be in the hands of the green coffee buyers whose personal tastes will likely determine what coffees make it to the broader speciality market.

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