Interesting Flavor vs. Flavor Balance
I recently spent a week in Italy, where the difference between the third-wave palate, if you will, and the palates of the rest of the population, couldn’t be more pronounced. The average Italian coffee drinker prefers robusta to arabica (not a misprint), dark to light, espresso to everything else, and pretty much anything coffee-related that readers of this blog hate to anything they like. But they invented pizza as well as pistachio gelato, so I won't be too hard on them.
Why does the third-wave palate differ so much from that of the rest of the population? There are some obvious reasons (cultural bias), some some fairly obvious reasons (availability bias), and some speculative reasons (bacterial bias).
Say what? Yup, your gut bacteria determine to a large degree what you think tastes good, and it’s possible the polyphenols in coffee shape your gut population and the signals they send you, affecting your preferences. More on that soon.
The typical third waver seeks coffee that’s “interesting” while the average coffee drinker wants drinkability and flavor balance — nothing new there. Both may seek caffeine and pleasure in a cup of coffee, but the third waver probably focuses more on the intellectual pleasure of discovering and discussing flavors, while others seek the more visceral or physical pleasures coffee offers.
I was served an undrinkable, painfully sour Ethiopian espresso in Prague recently. The snooty, unfriendly barista seemed to think underextracted, channeled coffee with the pH of lemon juice was just right. I suppose the coffee was “interesting” but I didn't find any pleasure in it. It was exactly the kind of experience that would forever scare away a newcomer to third-wave coffee, unless that newcomer enjoys straight lemon juice.
There are third-wave companies that do a good job of bridging the gap between interesting flavors and flavor balance— Go Get Em Tiger comes to mind right away, as does St. Ali/Sensory Lab in Melbourne and Doubleshot in Prague, just to name a few. Too many baristas ignore flavor balance while searching for interesting, and i’d like to see more companies emulate those three. I know various people will define balance differently, but I'm referring to a cup that has identifiable sweetness, bitterness, ripeness, and caramels, with perhaps a winey acidity or sourness. A tiny proportion of third-wave coffee meets that criteria.
But this post isn’t about my preferences vs. yours— that’s not important to me. What is important is that after 15 or so years of third-wave coffee, 99% of the world’s coffee is still dreck, and much of the other 1% is "interesting: but usually sour, baked, or vegetal. From that perspective, we haven't gotten very far, and I think one of the main reasons is our collective failure to serve balanced coffee, in part due to our myopic fixation on interesting flavors at the expense of balance.
I hear baristas talk about “educating” customers all the time. It’s my least-favorite phrase in coffee— not because I don’t believe in education, but because too many baristas uttering those words seem to mean it condescendingly. Memorably, a barista once said to me “I have to keep educating my customers that our coffee isn’t sour.” To which I replied “but your coffee is sour.” That shocked him, but upon reflection, and to his credit, he ultimately agreed and worked on it.
To be good educators, we have to be a good listeners. If a customer says a coffee is too sour, too bitter, or expresses an interest in more caramelly flavors or less acidity, it’s a good idea to meet them at least halfway in the discussion. If we just want to intimidate or scare off anyone who doesn’t already share our taste, we should keep doing exactly what we’re doing.
Winning over hipsters, well-to-do foodies, and trendy Brooklynites was relatively easy -- they were the low-hanging fruit of converts. If we want to be relevant beyond those demographics, I suggest that as a group we learn to respect and accommodate the non-third wavers’ preference for flavor balance, “educate” with humility and respect, and serve coffee that highlights the uniqueness of a bean while offering a balanced flavor experience.* Oh, and we should be nice when we do it.
*NB: Lest you think I’m advocating for dark roasts, I think one can easily create balanced, well-developed roasts dropped before first crack is complete.