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When I turned thirty in December, I set a goal for myself to read an average of one book a week during my thirtieth year. Inspired by a friend who does not read fiction books at all, I decided that it would be 52 works of nonfiction.
Blink by Malcolm Gladwell was book number twelve.
Blink is filled with all sorts of mind blowing insights that can’t help but alter the way a reader perceives the world. It is a book about first impressions and the subconscious. It is about bias’ and how it is nearly impossible to not be swayed by things going on behind the scenes of your brain. I loved it and I recommend it.
What does Gladwell’s book have to do with coffee? More than I ever expected it to when I first picked it up for some mental exercise.
Pepsi, The New Coke and How We Experience Tasting
In chapter five of this book, there is a lot of discussion about tasting and how our opinions of food can be altered based on how we approach it. While some of this information may not be news to people schooled in flavor sensory analysis, it is pretty interesting stuff to the amateur tasting enthusiast trying to understand coffee.
The sip test versus the home-use test
Gladwell gives a brief summary of the Pepsi challenge of the early 1980’s and how Coca-Cola responded by coming up with the formula for New Coke. It turned out to be a train wreck and Coca-Cola was forced to bring back Coca-Cola Classic within a few months. What happened?
The book contends that the Pepsi challenge depended solely on the use of a head-to-head sip test, which Pepsi is essentially designed to win. Coke on the other hand fares better in a home-use test than a sip test. When people take the product home and drink an entire can in a setting they are familiar with, Pepsi is no longer the clear favorite. New Coke beat Pepsi in the sip test but failed the home-use test miserably.
What matters most?
With coffee, sometimes we focus a lot on cupping. It is the standard by which coffee is evaluated in the industry. People want to know a coffee’s cupping score.
I don’t have a problem with cupping scores and I think they are valuable for grading and evaluating coffee. However, let’s not forget what is actually important, the final product. How is the coffee experience throughout the entire cup? Do I like this coffee? Could I sit down and drink a mug of this? Don’t forget to brew coffee just to enjoy it, there is nothing wrong with that. It is why we drink coffee in the first place.
The mind boggle that is sensation transference
Gladwell goes on to explain a concept called sensation transference. This is a strange phenomenon where most people are unable to evaluate a product and it’s packaging separately. The packaging influences how much people like the product and even some of the flavors they taste.
The book gives a few bizarre examples. My favorite example was regarding 7up. When 15% more yellow is added to the green of a 7up can, people taste more lemon and lime flavors. They actually complain that the formula has been changed.
In addition to sensation transference from packaging bias that could exist with coffee, I believe you could have a sensation transference type response to origins. If you have made up your mind that you do not like Sumatra coffee for example, you will gain less enjoyment out of a Sumatra coffee because you are lugging around that baggage in your subconscious.
How does information irrelevant to how an actual coffee tastes, like packaging, change how you perceive it?
Sometimes you can confuse yourself
Another experiment in the book had college students rate five jams from best to worse. What they found was that the college kids were pretty good and rated the jams nearly the same way that professional food tasters had rated them.
The interesting thing about this experiment is that when it was repeated, they asked the students to fill out a questionnaire quantifying their jam choices. In Gladwell’s words, they became “jam idiots.” They didn’t know why they liked certain jams. When they were asked to explain their preferences instead of going with intuition, they talked themselves out of which ones they really liked.
If you are like me, you have probably known this feeling. Translating what you intuitively like or do not like about coffee (or anything) into words is hard. It takes a lot of practice and tasting. Don’t be surprised if your favorite coffee gives you writer’s block when you try to talk about it, it is kind of normal.
The value of becoming an expert
The true gold nugget of this section of the book for me was Gladwell’s discussion about food experts. Experts are not fooled by sensation transference and understand how to translate an intuitive taste into a memory than can be written down and described.
In the book, Gladwell says that the differences between Pepsi and Coke are insignificant enough that the average person can not actually tell the difference. He asserts that, while you may be able to pick them out in a blind side-by-side taste test, most people have as much chance as luck in picking out the odd cola from a triangle test.
“We have to be able to describe and hold the taste of the first and then the second cola in our memory and somehow, however briefly, convert a fleeting sensory sensation in something permanent—and to do that requires knowledge and understanding of the vocabulary of taste.” (Blink, 186)
Feeling incredulous? Feel free to give it a try.
Some Practical Action Steps
Here are a few things you can do to increase your coffee knowledge and add to your sensory translation vocabulary.
Get a subscription to Angel’s Cup
I have mentioned this company before and it seems like the perfect time to bring them up again. Angel’s Cup is a coffee subscription company that sends you four 30 gram samples of coffee each month (or week). This is enough to do a cupping and a “home-use” test for each coffee.
Each coffee comes in a packet and is only distinguished by a code that is unique to that coffee. This is a blind taste test at it’s finest. There are no fancy packages or exotic origins to contribute to sensory transference. It is just you and an unknown coffee (unless, of course, you peek at the answer sheet).
Angel’s Cup also helps to build your sensory translation vocabulary. There is an app that accompanies the coffee. The app will walk you through your tasting and help you record your sensory sensations. At the end of the tasting, you are able to see the actual roasters notes on the coffee right next to yours and compare. It is pretty cool.
Do some triangle tests
A triangle test, is a blind tasting with three samples. Two of the samples are the exact same and one of the samples is different. The goal is to simply pick the sample that is not like the others. You will need an assistant to set up the tasting so it is truly blind.
I recommend using three mugs that are exactly the same when doing a triangle test. This will help to remove any mug shape discrepancy variables. Start with things that you think are fairly easy to distinguish between for the first test. You can see how you do and adjust the difficulty setting from there.
Practice, practice, practice
Taste things, not just coffee, taste everything. Think about what you are tasting, how you would describe it and how it compares to other things. Talk about what you taste with other people and ask them what they taste. When you get the opportunity to taste two coffees side-by-side, do it and think about the differences. The more practice you have with translating your taste impressions into meaningful words, the better you are going to get at it.
If you are not an expert, you are going to be at the whims of your first impressions and bias’. That’s the bad news. The good news is that you don’t have to be an expert to enjoy coffee or even to talk about coffee. You don’t have to be able to name everything you are tasting in coffee, or make notes that will help you remember exactly how it was. Not everyone needs to be an expert. The world needs coffee lovers, dabblers and enthusiasts too.
If you like some of the concepts I talked about in this post, I would encourage you to check out the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. I found it to be a very interesting, thought provoking read.
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