When the coffee is good enough, you don’t need caramel and pumpkin spice syrup (although those are pretty darn good too).
Really good coffee does taste interesting enough that you don’t need additives- or any additives you do add are just extra enhancers rather than cover uppers.
When things taste different we can tell. But do we also make things taste better when we decide we want them to?
Coke and Pepsi and marketers and neuroscientists have long been fascinated by blind taste tests and why people think soda tastes better when it comes in a certain can or a certain color. Taste perception is not a new field, but it’s certainly a tricky one.
When we eat home cooked food it just tastes like home. Forget about all the fine dining in the world; there’s nothing like grandma’s meatloaf. Smells and favors have the powerful ability to slice through distance of time and place and catapult us years into the past to the kitchen where we used to eat or that streetcart in Istanbul where we had the best pistachio kebap of our lives. We constantly unconsciously associate food and drink with endless emotions, places, and people. So how much of our evaluation of what tastes good or better has to do with the actual taste, and how much to the associations we attach to it?
Does mom’s Mac and cheese really taste better than a $25 gruyere concoction? Does a $15 omelet from the Smith really taste better than dad’s scrambled eggs, or do we just tell ourselves it does because we certainly want it to if we’re paying that much?
I spend a lot of time tasting coffee these days. On farm visits I attempt to taste it like the cuppers and Q graders, noting the hints of fruit or nutty aftertaste, carefully evaluating the mouthfeel. I also make coffee every morning: sometimes with fresh ground beans from Panama’s household gourmet brand, and sometimes from the 20 cent little envelopes from other Panamanian brands that are known for mixing their ground coffee with rice and beans and corn. I also make plenty of afternoon pit stops at espresso bars or hole in the wall two-table restaurants.
And I always ask myself, does this coffee taste good? Does it taste better or worse than the last coffee I had? Sometimes I’m disappointed because I want coffee made by a company whose owner I like and whose workers are happy to taste good, but I really just don’t like it that much. And sometimes I find myself really liking one coffee simply because it’s Roberto’s coffee and I saw the homemade machine he roasted it on. Sometimes I recognize that a certain coffee might not taste the best, but I like it anyway because I know whom it came from.
Marketing departments love it when we develop product loyalty, and I know I’m developing narrative loyalty. I’m starting to think coffee tastes better if I know who grew it, if I’ve walked through the farm, watched the mill churning away, and maybe even seen the roaster drum rotating lazily.
How much of our taste perception based in actual chemistry and how much is wrapped up in the stories we hear, tell ourselves, and experience firsthand? Tang tastes like being 10 and relishing breakfast on summer mornings without having to get ready for school; Chianti tastes like being 20 and wandering the streets of Florence with good friends. Coffee tastes like being crazy enough to show up every week in places I don’t know and climbing the steep cafetales side by side with the most generous people in the world.