Taste and Price: When Values Shift – DUPLICATE

I miss a lot of things that happen in the coffee press. There’s just too much out there. But I recently caught glimpse of this and found it very thought-provoking.

Posting the image above to Instagram and asking for comments lead to a huge range of reactions. So I thought I would post my own thoughts in a better-suited format here.

The image above is a screen shot of the top-rated coffees in the Coffeereview.com feature about single origin coffees on supermarket shelves. It’s important to read their introduction to understand the process they use. At the end of the article, there’s a stress on package and freshness factors that softens the bluntness of the top 4 winners in the image here.

But in any case the results of their cuppings is what is so provocative. Looking at the relationship between the scores and the prices, and what we know about the roasters/companies, this is quite an inversion of expectations. A small local roaster tops the list, but a quasi-fancy-food market comes in with coffee just 1 point shy, and less than half the price! Next a we find a large specialty roaster, and then McDonald’s McCafe?

The responses to my Instagram post and responses elsewhere span a broad gamut. While there are balanced responses, indifferent shrugs, or people who announce proudly “McCafe is my jam!”, the more unilateral ones help map out what is at stake here, not only in this article but the broader issues.

After reading of the range of comments, here’s my own interpretation. Some people definitely feel the review, the site and the scores are questionable. Some state that Coffee Review is somehow compromised (I don’t think any of these top 4 companies are paid Coffeereview advertisers), or their scoring system/procedure is at fault.

There’s a broader critique moving in the opposite direction, that perhaps the whole fancy-coffee, micro-lot, hip cafe thing is a charade, and those who pay twice as much, for coffee not much better than fairly standard fare, are rubes.  Or maybe the big roasters and distributors behind McCafe and Trader Joes (I believe that is Farmers Bros and Mountanos respectively) have closed the gap with fancy coffee for real.

Or maybe it is that the cupping system is really about creating distinctions that are not significant. If the differences are not substantial, is this about delineating social tiers, classes of people, cultural differences?  Are the “Haves” who presumed to have greater access to (what they believe to be) “good coffee” in fact just paying more for something available cheaply to a broader audience?

In any case, the Coffee Review article wants, and deserves attention.  I’ll share what I know, and my opinions about their article.

Coffee Review is the project of Kenneth Davids who has brought a lot of descriptive language to coffee tasting that, I believe, wasn’t there before. It’s a site that monetizes his years of work through advertising, and the scores for the coffees they rate highly are quite high. And these high range of scores is sometimes a source of humor among roasters. I don’t think the commercialness of the site, seen by subscription, or the scoring invalidates anything about the results. Every taster and every company has a range, and generally you can calibrate one person’s 94 score to your own 90, for example.

Perhaps a high score range has some implications when you recommend or sell coffee to consumers, but if we rate coffees lower in general, I don’t find that a greater measure of “truth.” After all, tasting is quantifying a subjective experience, that, when linked to selling something as I do, or as Coffeereview does in a different way, is mostly about trust. If you have a sense as a reader or buyer that there is real work put into the process behind sourcing and reviewing coffees, then the empirical aspects of each judgment, which is just moderately “sciencey” anyway, has validity. It’s most similar to taking a knowledgable friend’s recommendation on wine, or a waiter’s or chef’s tip on what to order from the menu. If you have a good experience, you might trust the advice. In that light, judging solely from any single instance is a bit myopic.

If one accepts the validity of these scores, then perhaps the coffee consumer might direct their invective at those who seem to offer the least price/taste value in the article, which is generally the companies with high prices, even if they scored high. These seems to invoke a cultural backlash against the hip, urban companies and customers, and the elitism they possibly engender. Or is the gap closing as giant roasters and distributors are able to attain the quality of the small-batch shop? (We were able to buy the Trader Joes Kenya AA at our local store and will add a postscript after we cup it, along with current and new crop Kenyas we have).

Such a backlash against high-end retail might be similar to the Mast Brothers revelations in the bean-to-bar cocoa world. But here, it’s not the notion that someone has defrauded anyone by not doing what they claim (buying bulk slab chocolate rather that roasting/processing it from bean 100% of the time). Here it might be a resentful “corrective” response to the narcissism of the coffee purveyor, that what they say in that ubiquitous 3 term description on the coffee bag is too self-flattering, and that the narrative of direct trade is too self-congratulatory. You probably aren’t going to get that in McCafe marketing. But you will get something else I am sure. While these resentments of high versus low culture, urban versus rural, etc seem more relevant than ever in the election year, it’s a whole different banana really. And whether blind tasting can really be an impartial measure of all the heterogenous ways coffee companies evaluate themselves and their coffees is iffy at best. But cupping does have potential power, and it goes back to it’s emergence in the coffee trade.

Coffee was exchanged solely by name of origin country or port, and grade/appearance in the 19th century, and this lasted well into current times. Tasting the coffee was not part of valuing it until certain companies (J. Aron I believe) advanced it as a better way to judge true value. After all, people do buy coffee to drink it, not to look at it. Cupping turned coffee valuation on its head. Java or Mocha that arrived a year or two after it shipped, and may or may not have truly been Java or Mocha, lost its luster. Fresher, wet-processed coffees from Central America, with clean and bright cup flavors became more valuable based on taste. Judging each cup on the merits of aroma and taste, without deference to pedigree, has always been an act with the possibility of changing habits, questioning preconceptions. In this light, I feel the Coffee Review post, independent of whether I would have the same results if I had sat right beside them at the cupping table, to be a welcome part of a conversation about coffee quality and value in our day-to-day work at SM.

Justifying taste and value is actually a conversation we have often, like… all the time, at Sweet Maria’s, and that manifests itself on nearly every cupping table on every day. We use calibration samples to create baselines for scoring, which not only helps us find our way when we might be sensorially lost (or just had a burrito for lunch) but also to ground our sense of value for each lot. While being truly “blind” while cupping is hard (no not literally, but we might often know we are cupping Guatemalas for example, even if we don’t know specific lot IDs) it is the goal. I think this value-discovery act is seminal to the identity of a coffee company, allowing us to scrutinize ourselves, be honestly self-critical, and further define what we are and what we do. I joke that as a coffee buyer I am basically personal shopper for those who chose to use us as a source. I’m sticking with that.

The fact is that coffee tasting, no matter how much we try to make it a simple act focused on the cup in front of us, is an act of taste-making with a social dimension. And our credibility as “arbiters of taste” is always an open question, especially if it is justified by terms only recognized by small social castes, by prices that make the experience less accessible, or by increasingly arcane self-referential language and techniques.

“Good coffee” is whatever coffee a person tastes and enjoys. That might be Nescafe Instant. Or McCafe. As we seek to define “goodness” in coffee for others (not the basic cleanly and healthful aspects of a coffee, but determining its qualitative values) we take on much, much more, in a cultural and economic sense. It’s arguable by some, but coffee is a luxury with little nutritional value. It’s an affordable extra. In that way it becomes loaded with signification, and when it’s heavily branded, it becomes as symbolic as fashion or other auspicious signs of class.

For me, I negotiate this by looking at who initiates, who is curious, who finds who: I would never intervene in someones enjoyment to assert what I think “good” is, in this respect. But when people extend themselves to Sweet Maria’s with an interest in how we define goodness in coffee, I feel it’s fine to have a well-defined and justified answer. That’s not an adequate reponse to the bigger issues, but it gives me some space I can work with.


PS-1: I know, this post is OTT, but its simply how I read things, or you might say, read into things. I am not saying this is “the” interpretation, just mine my reaction. Ridiculous, yes! If you have interest in a real study of taste and class, check out the very dated but very relevant book by Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. It’s tres French.

PS-2: Had a great exchange with a guy on a plane, a Banana QA expert who had worked for Dole. He ran the Banana Lab! Bananas are graded only on appearance. There is no liquified banana cupping. After recovering from this sad fact, I found the reason is that bananas are sold by appearance and they are the most sold item in the produce section os US Supermarkets. The logistics of banana shipping to have them arrive at peak appearance is unbelievable, and the volumes that are sold is staggering. I saw pictures of Whole Foods distribution center’s ripening rooms. Unbelievable.

PS-3: I’ll add notes right here from cupping Trader Joes Kenya AA against a range of fresh and older offerings that we scored 89-92. Just for fun.

PS-4: Okay, the Trader Joes Kenya AA Medium roast is in a paper foil-lined can. The date on the bottom is “Best by 3/15/17” so I am guessing with the (ridiculous) 1 year freshness period used by mega roasters, this might mean it was roasted about a month ago from today. Not too old, but looking at the coffee it is well oiled-up on the exterior. It’s not that dark but it is Full City and darker than our cupping roast. So when we line up this TJ coffee blind with 4 other Kenyas from the SM stock, it’t kinda obvious which is the TJ. So much for blind. We tried. Besides knowing which was the TJ coffee by appearance, it was difficult to consider alongside good fresh-roasted samples. The coffee is ashy to the extreme. I can taste the Kenya character in the form of acidity and prune-like fruit, but the stale ashy roast taste is overwhelming. The point of tasting this wasn’t to take on CoffeeReviews 92 point score, as they might have had a complete fluke and obtained a fresh can of this coffee. Actually I really wanted this coffee to be amazing! I like surprises!  But for us, even if it was fresh, I couldn’t get this coffee to 92 points on any cupping form, unless I was fall-over drunk, which I am not.

My score: 78 Dan’s score: 80. We imagine we are 6 to 8 points lower than Coffeereview, so we still can’t get to a 92 factoring that difference. So we must be tasting something other than what they obtained. It’s hard to know because I am not a paid scubscriber to the CR site so all I can see is this list. The coffee was $6.99 for 13 ounces! I can’t imagine what this green coffee must cost! Even on a large production scale, it must be incredibly low to allow this to retail at $6.99. We also noted the TJ Coffee Site is taking on an upscale tone with “field notes” and taste comments. Notes from the cupping: