Some of you internet savvy coffee folks may have noticed the Wet Mill blog that has blown up so recently. It started as a twitter debate on the impact of variety on flavor. Oliver Strand, Coffee writer for the New York Times and administrator of the Wet Mill Tumblr, explains the need for the forum in his introduction:
“Should we pay closer attention to varieties? What is the impact on flavor? A spirited exchange followed on Twitter, and after some discussion it was decided to move the conversation to Tumblr, where the character counts aren’t limited and where the dialogue, hopefully, will be easier to follow.”
the twitter debate
The twitter buzz seems to have started with some of Peter Giuliano’s tweets related to a Counter Culture pro-series session on variety. The themes of the twitter debate could best be summed up by a couple of Peter Giuliano’s tweets from March 6th (and their counter arguments):
(1) “To summarize: variety is much more useful than country of origin in predicting the flavor of a given coffee.”
(2) “So, since variety is better than country for purposes of predicting flavor, why do we say ‘The El Salvador’ or ‘The Colombian’ all the time?”
With the 140 character limit, the debate was characterized by heated, provocative and sometimes hilarious quips from highly esteemed coffee folks.
@NickCho: “@PeterGiuliano The first time a customer comes in and asks, “So what Bourbons do you have today?” I might stab myself in the eye.
@PeterGiuliano: “@NickCho Why? But your eyes are so purdy!”1
the tumblr debate
When the debate did finally move to tumblr and the character-limits lifted, it turned out that opinions didn’t necessarily vary as much as it appeared they might on the twitterwebs. Everyone agrees that a number of factors have a complex relationship to the flavor of a coffee before it is ever roasted (variety, processing, altitude, climate, etc.). Nick Cho and Peter Giuliano’s differences over “taste of place” seem to be primarily semantic in the end; Peter separates variety from “taste of place” or origin,2 while Nick includes varietal trends in his definition of “taste of place”:
“…there are regional trends in variety, harvesting, processing, etc. Those regional trends create what ‘taste of place’ is.” (emphasis his)
So (to summarize), not everyone agrees with the first statement of Peter’s that I quoted above, that “variety is much more useful than country of origin in predicting the flavor of a given coffee,” but everyone acknowledges that variety is one important factor of several in terms of ultimate flavor expression. The bulk of Wet Mill Tumblr content has been about that.
If we set that aside, the really interesting and provocative area of debate deals with the second tweet of Peter’s I quoted above, in which he asked why we call coffees “‘The El Salvador’ or ‘The Colombian’ all the time.”
how we talk coffee.
The question that I find most fascinating here is should coffee be sold varietally? Peter Giuliano seems to think so. Nick Cho would rather stab himself in the eye than see this happen.
Someone3 phrased the question from a different angle a few days ago: “At the consumer level…should variety be the most important element in guiding my choice of beans from a roaster?” I liked Oliver Strand’s response: “Not Yet.” He gives his “list” – what he tastes in coffee (“roast, coffee company, process and producer”) – then addresses the issue of variety:
“Where does variety fall in that lineup? I’m not entirely sure, in part because I’m not tasting it.”
The point is that most of us, even very serious coffee people, aren’t tasting enough to have a sense for the flavor of variety, the way that those who taste “at origin, at auctions and at roasters” (Strand’s words) might be able to. But even when we consumers, baristas, etc. are given information about varieties, most of the coffees we drink, even very good single origin coffees, are not single variety (I think? Please someone correct me if I’m wrong).
Should we start marketing coffee primarily varietally? Again, not yet. I think that most coffee pros (myself definitely included) have a lot to learn about variety before that could really be considered. I won’t be ready to bother my customers with information about variety until I can share more with them than “you know, it’s kind of like wine, or something…you know how they have different types of wine? or something.” Which is about where I’m at now.
This isn’t to say that variety isn’t useful information about a coffee – just that most of us aren’t equipped to use it. I saw the Counter Culture pro-series video; it was awesome. the tumblr is awesome. Here’s to hoping the Wet Mill contributors will keep up with it! It’s a great start to a conversation that really needed to happen, and I’ll surely be following along.
- Peter was surely kicking himself afterwards for not making a punch-the-customer-in-the-dick joke – but that’s neither here nor there.
- In a recent response to a post by James Hoffman, Peter recently included variety in his list of elements a “farm name” can evoke: “variety, process, microclimate, harvest technique.”
- the guy who does the portlandcoffee tumblr.