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Analyzing coffee vs. enjoying coffee

If you haven’t noticed, I really love coffee, and I love every aspect of it.  From the fruit of the coffee tree with its beans dried to green perfection, to the sweet smell of coffee roast smoke as the coffee beans are browned to the roast profile of preference, to the aroma from the grinder and the taste from the brew, coffee offers a deep and wide experience of the senses.  Coffee can bring pleasure and a whole host of subjective emotions.  But at the same time, coffee is agriculture and chemistry and economics and several other sciences all rolled into one. Coffee can be objectively analyzed, from the bean origin and characteristics to its roast level and  taste qualities, and the thinking man has plenty of room to work through the elements of coffee intellectually.  Coffee is both logical and emotional, sensual and analytical, objective and subjective, and there is room in the world of coffee for it to be both to a wide expanse of people.

I was recently reading a blog post about how coffee can be approached from either a right brain or a left brain approach.  The right brain approach is described as holistic, broad brush, subjective and creative, being based in intuition and emotion, while the left brain approach is more detailed and analytical, highlighting logic and language and often focusing itself in science and mathematics.  These, of course, are generalities of the two sides of the brain and how they operate, but nonetheless, coffee can be experienced by one or the other or, ideally, by both.

Think back to your favorite memory of drinking coffee.   I have one — it was sitting at my kitchen table, drinking a cup of Brazil coffee from Starbucks, and my friend Paul, who lives out in California now and I rarely get to see, was at my house.  The coffee tasted really good, and I had bought it special because I knew Paul enjoyed coffee, too, and I wanted him to get to experience this coffee with me.  On that day, Paul suggested that I try out homeroasting my own coffee, and I told him I had no time for such thing.  He persisted, and the next week, I started researching homeroasting on and eventually bought some equipment and green coffee beans to roast.  That moment at my kitchen table, drinking and talking with Paul, is seared in my emotional memory, and it has made Brazil a sentimental coffee for me.  I love to drink a Brazil because it conjures up good feelings based on that memory.

The funny thing is, though, that most coffee drinkers wouldn’t characterize Brazilian coffee as being great coffee.  From an analytical viewpoint, Brazilian coffee can be too earthy and can be scattered in its flavor profile.  Often, when I mention that I enjoy a cup of Brazil, coffee professionals will look at me with a funny look and tell me that Brazil isn’t one of their favorites.  I agree — from a left brain point of view, there are many other coffees that have a better flavor profile, more complexity, unique characteristics, a better mouth feel or finish than a Brazil.  When you step back and analyze coffee, you can often work through the objective parameters of a coffee or a group of coffees and come to an intellectual decision as to which coffee is the best.  Cupping rooms are often stark rooms with little decoration flair simply so those tasting the coffees in cupping room will remove the subjective from the moment and instead review a coffee based on its actual characteristics.  I’m sure that if I were to cup several coffees and a Brazil was in the mix, the Brazil wouldn’t win top billing.

Interestingly, in my reading, I learned that the general enjoyment of coffee by the consumer is often due in part to someone who takes the time to analyze the coffee.  In the period from 1940-1990, the United States coffee industry focused more on cost cutting and offering the cheapest cup of coffee possible, but in so doing, the enjoyment of coffee by the general public waned.  During that time, there was a steady decline of coffee consumption in the United States.  The coffee industry wasn’t analyzing to find the best coffees; it was focused on finding the cheapest coffees it could find.  When you speak to someone who has lived most of their life in that time frame, oftentimes they have no love for coffee but instead just drink whatever it at hand and expect nothing of it.

In more recent years, though, the coffee scene has grown as people dedicated to analyzing coffee, especially those who represent the Specialty Coffee Association of America, have taken to time to sort out the best coffees and elevate them in the coffee industry, even though they often cost more.  This willingness to pay more for quality coffee has pushed forward the fair trade and organic coffee movements as coffee consumers began to understand the economics required to get better coffee.  The “third wave” of coffee we are currently experiencing, where coffee drinkers are enjoying high quality coffees, often single-origin coffees with great flavor, is due to the analyzers looking out for the enjoyment of the average coffee drinkers.

Whether you analyze coffee or simply enjoy coffee, or both, take a moment to realize the value of both.  If you’re just a coffee drinker who loves to drink coffee and aren’t too picky, be thankful for those who analyze tirelessly to make sure that cup of coffee is of a higher grade than it would have been several years ago.  And if you’re an analyzer, don’t be too hard on those who just enjoy a cup every once in a while without regard to all the nuances and methods.  The coffee world is a better place thanks to the analyzers, but every analyzer got to that place because at some point, they really enjoyed a cup of good coffee.