Coffee and Understanding the Self



I believe that the desire to understand and describe coffee mirrors the desire to understand ourselves and the world around us.

As humans, we construct linguistic realities to categorize and make sense of our experiences. There are feelings that are good and feelings that are bad and some people never develop a vocabulary to further sort things out. Yet, when more specific terminology is introduced we see these feelings differently. If we bring in concepts like anger, jealousy, anxiousness, and stress we view our feelings differently as they are happening. If you drill down further into the different kinds of anxiety, some might even begin to cross over from good to bad due to a different system of categorization. These complex feelings don’t exist as inherent parts of reality, they come into existence as a result of our language and systems of sorting.

Coffee can similarly be seen as just good or bad. However, when given a more specific set of terminology these categorizations become more complex and the coffee begins to taste differently too. If you learn what a hoppy beer is or a tanic wine or a peaty scotch, you file these attributes away differently and form a different conception of what is good and bad and what about it makes you feel that way. Coffee can be under-extracted, over-extracted, ashy, fruity, spicy, chocolaty, metalic, nutty, and a thousand other things but you likely wont be able to appreciate until you have the language to do so

My favourite example of this has to do with black currents.

The current topic.

Black currents were illegal to grow in The United States from 1911 until 2003 because they helped spread blister rust to pine trees and were seen as a threat to the logging industry. As a result, most North Americans are no longer terribly familiar with the taste of black currents, whereas they remain relatively popular in much of Europe.

As a result of this, European coffee roasters list black currents as a tasting note far more often than North American coffee roasters. Here, you are far more likely to see these flavours described as being blackberries. Anyone who has had both of these fruits can tell you that they taste quite different. Yet, certain flavours can be interpretted as being either depending on personal experience and the language used to describe these experiences.

So, despite many of these categorizations being arbitrary and based more in convention than objective reality (if that’s a thing that even exists (which it doesn’t)), they do provide a schematic for understanding human experience and are really the best thing we’ve got going. It’s rewarding to learn knew ways of describing the world and you enrich your experiences in the process. In a weird way, describing flavours between coffee sips isn’t all that different from a visit to see your therapist…although one of the two is fortunately a lot cheaper.