3 ways of explaining coffee
By Jonas Gehl
CEO Prolog Coffee
“What is coffee?” This was the first question I asked the judges when I competed in the barista championships in 2019. It was meant rhetorical but during my presentation I wanted to investigate this topic together with the judges – and the audience. The investigation had obviously also been carried out months before in preparation to the actual competition. During this period, it struck me that how we describe coffee is often missing a key component in our understanding of it. In Prolog we often talk about “Being present with the taste”. However, what we don’t always think about is how intrinsically this tasting is connected to understanding coffee itself. Let’s first float a little over the topic, What is Coffee?, and then let’s take a dive into this latter claim.
Explanation no. 1: Coffee is described by its parts.
This claim is linked to how we look at coffee from at retail customers perspective. “What does the bag say?” An example could be: This is an Ethiopian coffee from Yirgacheffe, produced by Chelchele cooperative, grown at 2000 masl, heirloom varieties, natural processed and has flavor notes of blueberry, bergamot and peach. Is this a good description of coffee? If you want to buy a bag of coffee this will work as a pretty good guideline. Is it a very good description of coffee itself? Probably not.
Explanation no. 2: Coffee is DNA, soil and sun.
A more precise way of explaining coffee would be to look at what coffee consists of, literally soil and sun (amongst perhaps others). Basically, we zoom in from very broad descriptions like altitude and variety down to the finest molecule structures. The coffee bean (or seed) that we roast and extract is a product of the environment wherein it grows, and of the DNA of the plant which the environment helps shaping. After having zoomed in, we see that coffee is a fascinating and very complex form of life that, just like any other life, is unique and special. We see that it matters a lot how the coffee plant is treated with respect with regards to soil and sun conditions. On a more scientific level we can now explain coffee more precisely by taking a very close look at the lifeform. On the other hand, being able to understand coffee on this level might not always be useful in a day to day living where our biggest concern is that we enjoy the flavor of it. However, the fact that we can explain, and more importantly, understand coffee also at this level gives us knowledge and tools to support the environment of coffee plants as well as for developing beautiful flavor experiences.
Explanation no. 3: Coffee is described by its taste.
Here we come back to first part of the article: “Being present with the taste”. How is this linked to the explanation of what coffee is?
Have you ever heard about wine tasters that by the mere taste of a wine can identify both grape, variety, vineyard, producer and vintage - and can do this consistently over a tasting of many wines? Does this come from having read labels on the wines? Yes, partly, but more from the fact that these wine tasters have a remarkably well trained palate, that can pick up on the tiniest flavors. Does it come from an understanding of varieties and soil and sun dispositions? Again, yes, but also again, more from the fact that the wine tasters sensorial alertness and understanding is highly developed. Basically, what happens when we taste something, an apple or a piece of sausage, is that this triggers our neuro system to fire a cascade of complex events which ultimately also links to a center in or brain of memory and understanding. This means that we associate the sensorial experience of an apple with the object “an apple” but also to an understanding of whether we enjoy this taste experience or not – and also to which degree of joy. Personally, I tend to like biodynamically grown apples better than conventional grown apples to take an example – though there can be exceptions. Now, all this information and understanding have been created without even having looked at the label of the apple (if this was a thing), nor having scrutinized it in a laboratory. This gift of being able to extract complex and direct sensorial information is something we have been born with. This is fascinating but as much as I think it’s fascinating as much do I think this is something which is easily overlooked in how we describe edible/drinkable matters, in this case coffee. Is it really that surprising that we can understand something very well that we haven’t only read about or measured in a laboratory but also actually contained within us? In a weird, but very basic, way, when we taste something, it is literally embedded in us - for some time a least. When we taste a coffee from Mexico, we don’t only taste a coffee from Mexico, we also get a little piece of Mexico within our bodies, quite literally. In that way, we can sensorially get literally closer to understanding this particular coffee than we do when reading about it or scrutinizing it in a lab. The third, and I would to some degree say best, way of explaining what coffee is would then be by this very simple exercise: by merely tasting coffee.
How can we use these different explanations in an everyday life with coffee, either as just a piece of enjoyment, or as a coffee professional?
The first would be to see that coffee can definitely be described in a multiple of ways, and that having an eye on all of them might be helpful to understand the product at different levels and in different circumstances. This leads to the next one, that without being able to understand the coffee as in explanation 2 or 3, we wouldn’t have the need to describe it as in explanation 1 (meaning, without our our sensorial and/or analytic interest in coffee, we wouldn't have any coffee bags with descriptors on the shelves in retail stores). And without explanation 3 we probably wouldn’t today be as interested in understanding coffee as we are in explanation 2. However, the funny thing is that that even though explanation 3 in some ways are the most straight forward it is the one that is also easiest overlooked. So when we in Prolog say it is about “Being present with the taste”, it’s in some ways about appreciating that we actually get these amazing sensorial experiences with coffee. On a more practical level it’s also about being honest about the level of enjoyment that the flavor experience in front of us renders. And finally, this is also the backbone of why we say that our coffee in Prolog needs to "at the same time be delicious and sense evoking". That it’s delicious makes us want to drink it but that it wakes up our senses is a celebration of exactly that, our senses, but also a celebration of our fascinating sensorial world.
So, next time you have a cup of coffee, you can do what we try to remind ourselves of doing in Prolog: To take a moment of just “being present with the taste.”