Why isn't bitterness considered desirable in coffee tasting?

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crwper

#1: Post by crwper »

I understand this is quite subjective, and I'll most likely continue to enjoy just a little bitterness in my coffee. I was watching James Hoffmann's video, "A Beginner's Guide to Coffee Tasting", today:
At 17:35, he says:
So I did just wanna touch on one final characteristic that isn't really discussed in typical coffee tastings or coffee scoring sheets. That's bitterness.

Now, as an industry, we're not very comfortable talking about bitterness because to us, bitterness is failure. We think that one of the key sort of selling points of a specialty coffee is that it is much, much, much less bitter than commodity coffee, than commercial coffee.

But there's still some bitterness there, right? There are undeniably bitter compounds in every single cup of coffee, and it's okay if you wanna talk about that. It's okay if you like that.

For us, bitterness is kind of a failure. It's a failure of roasting. It's a failure of brewing. We don't really wanna talk about, even if you like it. And I'll be honest, it's true for me. If I'm doing a public tasting, I really won't talk about bitterness until someone raises the question.

But it's okay if you like it. It's okay if you wanna take notes about it. I just wanted to explain why as an industry we don't really talk about it.
This struck me as really uncharacteristic of James. Like, he's usually got a pretty balanced point of view, but it seems here like he has completely written off the flavour of bitterness as having any merit at all from the industry's perspective.

If we look at beer, we see sour beers, bitter beers, sweet beers--the whole gamut. Sure, most people will prefer one over the other, and some just won't like a very bitter IPA at all, for example, but it would be surprising to hear someone in the beer industry say that any of these flavours was something they just don't talk about. More likely they would say something like, "That's a very good IPA, but it's not really my style."

But the way James talks about it, it's more like if I said I like stale bread. Any baker would say staling is something they try to postpone, and while it's "okay" if you like stale bread, there are some pretty good reasons why bakers don't specifically try to emulate staleness. Like, staleness is the taste of bread going bad, so it's not considered desirable.

Is the same true of bitterness in coffee? Like, is bitterness directly associated with a process we're trying to avoid? I might have guessed over-extraction, but sourness is a sign of under-extraction, and James specifically mentions that many tasters place a high value on sourness.

I guess I'm just a little mystified that James has written off a flavour which seems to be such an inherent part of coffee.

I'd love to hear what you guys think.

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Jeff
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#2: Post by Jeff »

For me and my tastes, there are two kinds of bitterness. There's roast bitterness, which I dislike. I've fought it back for too many years that I tend to shun most classic "espresso" roasts. (I do have some Saka queued up, which I hope will surprise me.)

Then there's "innate" bitterness. Like chocolate, when in balance, it can accentuate the sensation of sweetness in coffee, or serve as a pleasant contrast to "bright" (ok, sour) flavors. The key is balance.

For commodity coffee, the old adage about (commodity) decaf rings true to me, with or without caffeine, "It's just hot, bitter water."

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keno

#3: Post by keno »

crwper wrote:This struck me as really uncharacteristic of James. Like, he's usually got a pretty balanced point of view, but it seems here like he has completely written off the flavour of bitterness as having any merit at all from the industry's perspective.
I guess I have a different take on the Hoffman passage you quote. Seems to me like he is taking a balanced view. He's not saying bitterness is unequivocally bad. He's saying that in specialty coffee we have a problem talking about bitterness and acknowledging that it is an inherent element of coffee which is a pleasing taste for some people. I enjoy sweet light roasted filter specialty coffee but I also enjoy a cappuccino with a bitter dark chocolate note (but not *$ level bitter). Hoffman admits bitter is not his preference, but that seems pretty balanced overall. No?

crwper (original poster)

#4: Post by crwper (original poster) »

keno wrote:Hoffman admits bitter is not his preference, but that seems pretty balanced overall. No?
That could be. I think what strikes me as odd, then, is that he chose to acknowledge the failure of the industry in this regard, but perpetuated that failure in his own video--the extent of his discussion of bitterness seems to have been an acknowledgement that it's not talked about. I would love to have seen James expand on the kinds of bitterness, similar to what Jeff said here. Even if it's not his thing, as an expert in the field, I'm sure he has some insight to offer.

Edit to add: To be clear, it's not my intention to criticize James here, so much as to understand if the opinion he expresses is actually shared broadly within the industry. My initial reaction was to think it's a shame that the industry isn't more open toward bitterness, but as someone who's really just starting their coffee journey, I also didn't want to be the guy saying, "It's a shame the bread industry isn't more open toward staleness." :-)

Pressino

#5: Post by Pressino »

Hoffman does begin his discussion of "bitterness" by stating that the coffee industry considers it a bad thing when it is found in brewed coffee, but he also notes that bitterness is a characteristic that is essentially present to some degree in the complex chemical mix that makes up any extracted cup of coffee. Current understanding of how human taste works involves 5 basic tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and "savory" (or "umami" in Japanese), which have their own specific receptors (taste buds) geographically arranged on the tongue. Caffeine is just one of the many chemicals dissolved in brewed coffee, and it has a bitter taste. It wouldn't be coffee if it didn't have at least some detectable bitterness.

What I take from Hoffman's video, is that the tasters who work in the industry are simply ignoring bitterness that is actually present in quite a few good cups of coffee and only commenting on it when it is unpleasant (at least to the majority of tasters).

He does mention that many coffee drinkers who are not "experts" confuse "sour" with "bitter." My suspicion is that many expert tasters have developed a bias, based on their training, to ignore "good" bitterness and reserve describing bitterness to coffees that they don't like because they seem "bitter" to them. For me, a coffee that doesn't have at least some bitterness seems a bit flat and even hollow, but YMMV.

BTW, here is an article that discusses bitterness in beverages, including coffee, from a scientific point of view:

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-34713-z

crwper (original poster)

#6: Post by crwper (original poster) »

Pressino wrote:What I take from Hoffman's video, is that the tasters who work in the industry are simply ignoring bitterness that is actually present in quite a few good cups of coffee and only commenting on it when it is unpleasant (at least to the majority of tasters).
This makes me think of Scotch. When I was younger, it just tasted like jet fuel, but then a couple of friends walked me through the spectrum of peat and sherry during a tasting session, and that gave me a much better sense of what was under the obvious taste of alcohol. That said, I think most Scotch lovers would understand if I said I enjoyed a particular cask strength Scotch because of the volatility or the sharp kick of the alcohol.

Maybe there's a similar arc with coffee, where the thing that stands out when we first drink it is the bitterness, so there's an inclination to say, "Okay, but what *else* do you taste?" But then once you're accustomed to the basic taste of coffee, it would be a bit stubborn to deny that there can be some nuance to the bitterness itself.
Pressino wrote:BTW, here is an article that discusses bitterness in beverages, including coffee, from a scientific point of view:

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-34713-z
Fantastic. Thanks!

TigerStripes

#7: Post by TigerStripes »

My girlfriend enjoys the smell of my SOE espresso - so every once in a while she is tempted to taste it. 100% of the time she takes a tiny snip, make a huge cringe, and rushes to rinse her mouth out with water. To her - everything about coffee is bitter.

To experienced coffee drinkers though, Coffee is balanced, and it's usually only noticeably bitter when you've burnt the roast. Burnt things don't generally taste good.

Some people like burnt toast. I'm not saying you're wrong for liking your toast black on both sides - but it's definitely not what most people enjoy. It makes it harder to taste the good things that you enjoy about the thing, if you're distracted by strong/unpleasant bitterness.

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crwper (original poster)

#8: Post by crwper (original poster) »

Pressino wrote:BTW, here is an article that discusses bitterness in beverages, including coffee, from a scientific point of view:

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-34713-z
This is really interesting. If I understand the study correctly, they found that a genetic ability to taste the bitterness of caffeine predicts a person's coffee consumption--i.e., if you can taste the bitterness, you're more likely to be a regular coffee drinker.

This suggests to me that it's a "complicated" relationship James is describing when he says:
For us, bitterness is kind of a failure. It's a failure of roasting. It's a failure of brewing. We don't really wanna talk about, even if you like it. And I'll be honest, it's true for me. If I'm doing a public tasting, I really won't talk about bitterness until someone raises the question.
Like, empirically speaking it's likely that bitterness is a significant part of the reason why we drink coffee, but for some reason the specialty coffee industry (as described by James) associates this flavour with failure.

James describes several different kinds of sweetness, including the sweetness of fresh fruit, cooked fruit, Maillard products, etc. I think we could see the same diversity in bitterness. A variety of things taste bitter, including:
  • Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and kale
  • Citrus peel
  • Cranberries
  • Ginger
  • Dark chocolate
There are so many different flavour profiles to explore, so I'm still a little mystified that the specialty coffee industry doesn't embrace this wholeheartedly.

Pressino

#9: Post by Pressino »

That taste perception can be modified by prior exposure is an interesting way to look at expert taster's opinions of coffee bitterness, and I think you are right. The authors of that report also discuss genetic variability in tasters...it's well-known that there is genetic variability in taste and smell. These would be individual differences, but could also vary in frequency between different populations, geographically as well as ethnically. It would be very interesting to study these differences in the perception of coffee aroma and taste (as you know smell and taste are closely linked). Preference for drip versus espresso, plain coffee versus milk-based drinks, etc may vary between different populations as well as between individuals.

This makes wonder if there is any selective bias in taste testing results, bias that may be due to there being more "expert" tasters from one or two ethnic groups.

I don't know whether the coffee industry has really looked in to it, but it would really be fascinating to study. :idea:

crwper (original poster)

#10: Post by crwper (original poster) »

This reminds me of the well-known issue with cilantro--some people have a genetic attribute which makes it taste like soap instead of, well, delicious:

https://blog.23andme.com/23andme-resear ... tic-trait/

That realization changed the way I respond when someone says they don't like cilantro, because it's possible they're actually tasting something very different from what I'm tasting.

I hadn't considered the correlation with ancestry. The study you linked previously was conducted entirely in the UK, which, on the one hand, I appreciated as a way to eliminated confounding variables. But it would be interesting to see the results of a larger study looking at coffee consumption in different cultures. I guess the question would be (a) if the result holds across cultures; and (b) how the genetic marker for tasting caffeine as bitter varies from one culture to another.