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The subjectivity of taste


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An interesting comment appeared in a recent thread about decaf coffee

[basque,Dec 5 2003, 06:17 PM] It's interesting how beverage taste is arguably much more subjective than savory taste, isn't it?

In light of my decided inclination towards coffee and espresso rather than other beverages, I'm curious to see how people feel about that statement in this context.

A truly excellent espresso shot will have characteristics that are described by some aficionado's as sweet and although that sweetness is only relative when compared to sugary substances, a distinct lack of bitterness can also be the hallmark of a great shot. I stress "can be" in light of the fact that an element of bitterness is a desirable part of the flavor profile for some blenders and roasters.

So... in your opinion how true is the opening statement and why? Is a good espresso described as sweet by virtue of its lack of bitterness or because there are subtle sweetness elements present that are derived from the caramelization of sugars in the roasting process and the ability of the barista to extract those characteristics? Or are such characteristics totally dependent on the experience of the taster? (i.e. is the taster in question someone who has enough experience with and appreciation of espresso to detect such subtleties).

It seems reasonable to state that most people can agree as to whether a given food item is sweet, salty, sour or bitter. Is it really that much different for beverages, in particular coffee or espresso? I know of many people who are experienced in fine dining and able to appreciate great subtleties and nuances in food items yet seem some oblivious to the subtleties offered by various single varietal coffees and differing roast profiles. These are folks who consider all plain black coffee to be bitter and assume that it requires sugar. Is it because they haven't been exposed to truly excellent coffee or is it just subjective?

Is it just a matter of personal interest (e.g. they're more interested in the food and wine experience than in coffee or espresso) or is there truly something more subjective about the physical experience of consuming and appreciating the flavor profiles of beverages?

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A couple of ideas off the top of my head...

First of all, I think a palate is not something one is born with; it is trained. So what a person tastes of any food will depend, in part, on what he or she brings to the table, so to speak.

Also, I think we do taste things differently. I have a friend who will not drink certain brands of tea because of an aftertaste she detects, that no one else I know has been able to detect when I've asked them. I cannot drink any form of Snapple because of a very strong aftertaste I get that apparently doesn't bother others. I think this happens more often with beverages than with other foods, but I think it happens, to an extent, with all foods. And my own palate has changed as I've aged; food that tastes fine to everyone else, is often extremely salty to me.

I have also noticed that what I taste, when drinking coffee, can be highly dependent on the temperature of the coffee. Certain Starbucks flavors are fine when extremely hot, but I can't stand them after they've cooled a bit.

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I think the flavor nuances in brewed coffee are particularly subtle. Coffee is probably an aquired taste in the first place and once aquired , some drinkers will go further and educate their palate beyond the basic. Even the pro coffee cuppers must brew up 3 cups of the same bean to make sure they are getting a tru flavor sample. Coffee flavors do change as they cool. What may have started out as pungant can become chocolaty as it cools. Coffee needs its own descriptive vocabulary like Eskimos have so many words for snow.

I think that with straight shot espresso it is easier to detect flavor characteristics.

Edited by joebella (log)
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