Who has tasted the authorities' coffee? What is it like?

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luca

Postby luca » Dec 16, 2018, 3:01 am

I look around to see what useful resources are around every now and then and it looks like in the last ten years we have seen a lot of writing emerge that purports to use science to explain what we can and should do.

I majored in chemistry and found final year organic chemistry one of the most challenging things I have attempted in my life. Whilst my friends were complaining that they had two hours of lectures for law subjects, I would spend 25 hours in a lab to synthesise and analyse just one compound. One of my friends who studied with me went on to complete a pHd; I remember reading one of the posters that he prepared for a conference, which included a sentence in a footnote that said something like "we examined 267 analogous proteins, but none showed the same binding activity". I asked him how much work that was. He said that two or three people worked on that over about three years and all that it merited was a single sentence in a footnote. So you'll forgive me in being sceptical as to whether published coffee "science" is as rigorous as actual, hardcore, professional pHd scientist science.

Of course, there is a very easy way to judge the usefulness of what the coffee authorities are writing - what does their coffee taste like? Does it taste good?

At the moment, I'm kind of mulling over whether or not I ought to buy any of Scott Rao's books. I have flipped over them at various times and my blink impression at the time was wondering what sort of research backed the statements that seemed to be sweeping generalisations. Anyway, what would be kind of helpful for me is to know if anyone has tasted any coffee brewed or roasted by him and what it is like. If he has a coffee roastery, could someone point it out - then I'd just go and buy some of his coffee to form my own opinions. Also, does anyone know if he has passed the Arabica Q? It's not the be-all and end-all, but it is about the most rigorous thing that the industry has to get everyone talking a common language.

If it helps anyone else, I have tasted a fair bit of Square Mile coffee over the years and it has led me to value the Hoff's opinion. Actually, it really really led me to value Annette Moldvaer's opinion, but she is quite quiet online and in print! Tim Wendelboe is the other coffee roaster whose advice and opinions are pretty accessible and whose coffee I have come back to over the years because I like it. What both Square Mile and TW's coffee has in common is that it does a very good job of highlighting what you might consider the distinctive taste characteristics inherent in whatever green they are roasting. TW is probably a little lighter in roast than Square Mile, but both are usually very enjoyable. George Howell doesn't write that much stuff, but, again, my experience in tasting his coffee (and exposure to the COE jury process that I understand he was a big part of developing) leads me to pay attention to what he has to say.

I guess what has prompted me to post this and ask is that I've flicked across a number of comments from Scott Rao about under-development of roast. I agree that this can be a problem, but from what I taste all around Melbourne - even in the places that are widely heralded as fantastic - the danger is still much, much more likely to be over-development. So, basically, I don't want to spend cash on a book that is predicated on getting flavours that I don't like.

(As an aside, I think that a lot of disappointment in the world of coffee stems from people not knowing whether they are dealing with someone that prefers the caramel/nut/chocolate/high body/low acid or the fruit/floral/low body/high acid ends of the coffee flavour spectrum. That said, there are still plenty of people who do a bad job of achieving their preference at either end.)
LMWDP #034 | 2011: Q Grader Exam, Brewer's Cup #3, Australian Cup Tasting #1
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TomC
Team HB

Postby TomC » Dec 16, 2018, 3:53 am

Great post (as usual from you)!

I don't think it's a case of "the emperor has no clothes", but I do think its common for authors and consultants to suggest something akin to secret knowledge to further their career and public persona. I have all of Scott's books and agree with most of what he writes. Some of his more recent stuff with roasting, I take with a grain of salt and don't view it as rigorously tested science.

All that being said, I've never tasted anything he's roasted or brewed. But I certainly would, if it were convenient for me.

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aecletec

Postby aecletec » Dec 16, 2018, 8:41 am

Rao does describe how much research he went to, so try to read the beginning rather than flip through it.
Also, it was published in 2014, so while lately I've been finding 3rd wave to be doing a better job, in the years prior to 2014 I'd agree that underdevelopment in light roasts was pretty common.

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Almico

Postby Almico » Dec 16, 2018, 9:27 am

luca wrote:...Of course, there is a very easy way to judge the usefulness of what the coffee authorities are writing - what does their coffee taste like? Does it taste good?

...That said, there are still plenty of people who do a bad job of achieving their preference at either end.


True and true.

The first one is the crux of the issue. It all comes down to personal taste. Who's to say a coffee is underdeveloped if that person really enjoys the taste of lawn clippings? For other people, coffee cannot be bitter enough.

In my limited 5-year journey with coffee I've arrived at a healthy skepticism of anyone posturing as an "authority".

Scott Rao definitely sets himself up for criticism. His "sweeping generalities" about roasting, as well as his statements admonishing the quality of the vast majority of coffee roasted today, seemed overly self-serving to me for a long time. But after honestly applying his very straight forward "rules", I'm now a devout believer.

Scott does not claim to apply organic chemistry science to any of his axioms. His "science" comes from running 1000s of trial and error experiments roasting, brewing and tasting coffee. His testing equipment is his palette. His expertise derives from the ability to recognize patterns in the cup from various coffee process applications. The value of his systems for me at this point are more about eliminating roast defects than maximizing a coffee's potential.

He works as a consultant and no longer roasts and sells coffee or owns a coffee establishment that I'm aware of. I don't believe he has a preference for lighter or darker roasted coffee. He does have a bugaboo for underdeveloped coffee, but I have never read him use the term "over-developed", just "baked and roasty".


I set up a coffee bar a little over a year ago and have applied everything I have read from his blogs with respect to batch brewing, extraction yield, roasting philosophy etc. I am a Rao shop and have quickly gained the reputation of being the best coffee in the area. What makes that even more interesting is the other roasters around here are using more traditional Probat and Diedrich roasters, while I'm using a very pedestrian fluid bed roaster coupled with a 3 gr lever espresso machine with 80-year old technology.

I am far from an expert on coffee roasting and am nowhere near the point of being able to extract the last flavor nuance out of every coffee I roast. But with Scott's help I have been able to virtually eliminate most, if not all roast defects. Without that, nothing much matters. I wish I had the time to sample roast coffee 6 ways to Sunday and cup all day and take notes. But I have a coffee roastery and bar to run. Time is luxury I do not possess.
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happycat

Postby happycat » Dec 16, 2018, 1:31 pm

First, I agree with the main question

But I do think it's pretty funny how a fairly arrogant (and I do not mean that as a put down... just an observation of chauvinism) pro-scientism (meaning belief in ever more OCD of measurement and control = goodness) opinion boils down to demanding subjective evidence through tasting... an unintentionally funny undermining of positivism and reinforcing the subjectivism that is complained about.

Value in science is defined by the research problems. Some require testing 267 things to see differences. Others do not. Take a read of Kuhn's book on paradigms and scientific revolutions. It would suggest that your friend's chemistry area is so advanced as to be in what Kuhn calls the janitorial cleanup of gaps mode, whereas coffee "science" is still very much to be explored... particularly as coffee is such a subjective experience.

When 3rd wave was surging, there were HB members who refused to see it as a different paradigm of coffeemaking. Instead they applied their existing rule set to denigrate the flavours, roasting, and EK43 grinding. To me, it's simply a different set of values and approaches to fulfil those values. I lean towards constructivism rather than norms focused paradigms. Being married to s9meone who grew up on the other side of the planet reminds me regularly how my set of norms are culturally defined :)
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aecletec

Postby aecletec » Dec 16, 2018, 7:28 pm

Another point I recall - Melbourne's water is of course different to Brisbane's and in the multi-roaster joints I hang in, they feel that because of this difference their coffee extracts differently and the roast has been adapted to suit that, i.e. darker than ours. Not too many people run and maintain ROs due to cost in tight margin cafes.
OTOH, I hardly ever aim for 25% DTR and Rao notes in one of his interviews it was an attempt to bring his commodity clients back from longer DTRs rather than push for every specialty roaster to go longer... context!

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Marshall

Postby Marshall » Dec 16, 2018, 7:58 pm

luca wrote:So you'll forgive me in being sceptical as to whether published coffee "science" is as rigorous as actual, hardcore, professional pHd scientist science.

I doubt Scott would claim his books of advice are peer-reviewed hard science. On the other hand a lot of actual "hardcore" science has been and will continue to be done on coffee, much of it published in scientific journals. The ASIC in France is the most famous source. Its website has a host of links to scientific information: https://www.asic-cafe.org/

The newest is the U.C. Davis Coffee Center: https://coffeecenter.ucdavis.edu/research.

Much basic research is also done by other labs, some proprietary, some not. The industry is simply too large and well-funded to ignore the information available from serious scientific research.
Marshall
Los Angeles

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luca

Postby luca » Dec 17, 2018, 5:20 am

Hi guys,

Thanks for the responses ...

I waffled a bit in my original post, so I want to clarify that there are two different issues regarding coffee writing that I am talking about:
1. Is the writer aiming to achieve a result that I am likely to agree is good?
2. Are the writer's statements credible, or worth following? (This is the point that the rigour of research is relevant to.)

What I am asking for is people's opinions regarding what authors' coffee is like, so that I can take an educated guess as to whether or not they are aiming to produce a result that I am likely to agree is good, based on my subjective taste preferences (and so that others to do the same, noting that our preferences might be totally different, so we might not agree).

I'm not saying that the mere fact that an author uses scientific or technical jargon, references to experiments, etc. is something that is determinitive of my view on anything. Nor am I saying that Scott would assert that his statements are backed by any particular level of scientific rigour. What I am saying is that my approach is to sceptically examine what anyone presents and that this is a lot of time and effort that I don't want to spend if it turns out that the writing is geared towards achieving a result in the cup that I'm not interested in in the first place. In other words, I don't want to pony up $50 on one of Scott's books only to later learn that he tries to make every coffee taste like Monsooned Malabar (ridiculous, extreme example, not grounded in reality, obviously)! Sorry if I caused any misunderstanding.

happycat wrote:But I do think it's pretty funny how a fairly arrogant (and I do not mean that as a put down... just an observation of chauvinism) pro-scientism (meaning belief in ever more OCD of measurement and control = goodness) opinion boils down to demanding subjective evidence through tasting... an unintentionally funny undermining of positivism and reinforcing the subjectivism that is complained about.


Science can tell you things like what a measurable quantity is, or how to achieve it. Science can't tell you whether or not that quantity is good. I'm saying that the purpose of science is to repeatably achieve a desired taste outcome. If the taste outcome being achieved isn't desired, then the science that achieves it is irrelevant. One of my friends spent several years using his chemistry degree to work out how to formulate a particular paint. None of his work tells you whether you like the colour. Again, sorry; I think my original post didn't make this distinction clearly.

He works as a consultant and no longer roasts and sells coffee or owns a coffee establishment that I'm aware of. I don't believe he has a preference for lighter or darker roasted coffee. He does have a bugaboo for underdeveloped coffee, but I have never read him use the term "over-developed", just "baked and roasty".


Thanks, I think this is kind of what I was after.

aecletec wrote:Rao does describe how much research he went to, so try to read the beginning rather than flip through it.


Good to know. Which book are you referring to? I'm probably more interested in the extraction books than the roasting book at the moment.

Cheers,
Luca
LMWDP #034 | 2011: Q Grader Exam, Brewer's Cup #3, Australian Cup Tasting #1

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aecletec

Postby aecletec » Dec 18, 2018, 1:18 am

luca wrote:Good to know. Which book are you referring to? I'm probably more interested in the extraction books than the roasting book at the moment.

I can only recall in the roasting book that he cites his own work (roast logs, client data etc). Perhaps someone with the extraction book on hand can assit there.

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drgary
Team HB

Postby drgary » Dec 20, 2018, 3:39 am

Hi Luca,

In your search for tasting authorities' coffee, have you included Jen Apodaca of Royal Coffee? I don't know if she roasts commercially, but in Royal's Crown Jewel program, the roast profiles and notes she and her team use to characterize the potential of greens could be tried on similar equipment with their coffee selection, or if you have an Ikawa, you could try replicating her profiles.
Gary
LMWDP#308

What I WOULD do for a good cup of coffee!