By Catherine Franks
Visitors to Steampunk know that we offer two options for espresso at our coffee bar. We used to simply call these Espresso 1 and Espresso 2 but we’ve decided to be more descriptive and call them our Complex Espresso and our Mellow Espresso. We felt the use of Espresso 1 and 2 was arbitrary and generic and didn't give you, the customer, a reference point to decide which coffee you'd prefer. Mellow and Complex seemed like the most accurate words to describe the coffees in a way that would enable you to choose what you’d like to drink that day.
But the process of choosing these descriptors got us thinking. Why do we use the words we do in specialty coffee? How do the words we use impact our experience of flavour? How useful are flavour descriptions to customers? Are they just marketing bunk? Do we reinforce cultural biases with the words we use? It’s a big topic, so let’s start close to home: how will you choose your espresso when you come to Steampunk?
Mellow is a feeling rather than a flavour. It is an experience and a description of how we want our coffee to leave you feeling. Our Mellow Espresso option is the one we use as standard in our milky coffee drinks (latte, cappuccino, flat white) unless the customer requests something different. The reason is that this coffee works with milk. The acidity is low so it doesn't fight the milk and make it taste sour, it is sweet and smooth but has enough body to push through the milk and still taste like coffee. When a customer orders a latte we reckon that although yes, they want to taste coffee, they also want something creamy, sweet and comforting—that is exactly what we are aiming for with this espresso choice.
When describing the mellow coffee I am trying hard to use descriptors that are positive or neutral, but interpretation can differ wildly when it comes to language and one person’s mellow can be another’s bland.
Is description possible without judgement?
Our current Mellow Espresso is from Fazenda Caxambu in Brazil. This coffee is very popular and much loved, so why would you ever want to try something different? Let's try out some other adjectives instead of mellow…
bland, simple, unchallenging, basic, plain, ordinary, average, common
unassuming, straightforward, unpretentious, honest, unfussy
I reckon if the first set of words was used to describe your cup of Brazilian coffee you would be a lot less likely to try it and than if a word from the second set of terms was used. But the definitions are roughly similar. Now, I would never describe our Caxambu as average—that would be doing a great disservice to the attention and care put into the growing, roasting and brewing of that coffee. It is delicious and an excellent example of its origin. But due to all the factors that go into its production—altitude, terroir, varietal—a coffee from Brazil will tend to be ... well, straightforward. It is a coffee which is nutty, sweet and pretty low in acidity. It has a bit of fruit (it is a naturally processed coffee after all) but it’s gentle, more like a stewed plum than a fresh one. It does what it says on the tin. It will leave you feeling comforted and satisfied. That is sometimes a good thing.
Sometimes you want a bit more
Complexity is about all the different flavours possible in the coffee. Did you know that coffee has more flavour compounds than wine? Way more! Every single-origin coffee (coffee not blended with other coffees from other farms or countries) tastes unique, and it's these differences that we highlight and celebrate at Steampunk. Some of the flavours possible in coffee are fruit-like flavours (citrus, stone fruits, berries, tropical fruit, dried fruit, boozy fermented fruit), florals (honeysuckle, violet, rose, jasmine) and earthy tones (leather, tobacco, malt, spices). These are in addition to all the typical flavours you'll find in our Mellow coffee like chocolate, hazelnut, and caramel.
Check out this article if you would like to dive a bit further into the topic of complexity: Tasting Complexities in Coffee. It raises some interesting comparisons between sound and taste and I love the analogy about how the shouty person you meet first may eventually become someone you like less than other more soft spoken friends you get to know over time.
Like tasting wine, identifying individual flavours in coffee is a skill that you can develop with time and practice. Getting to know new flavours, becoming familiar with them and being able to pick them out from a complex mix of flavours within a coffee is fun and rewarding. But our goal with our Complex Espresso is to give customers something they’ll enjoy because its multiple flavours combine into a cup that is delicious. You don’t need to pick out the mango or lavender tasting notes to be able to enjoy it. It just tastes good because the complexity of the acidity and sweetness and aromas are balanced and pleasing to drink.
Of course, if you wanted to grow your appreciation of coffee and interpret flavours more confidently you could challenge yourself to pick out individual notes. Coffee is one way to expand your horizons, discover a new taste you love, and open your palate—and mind—to the full range of sensory possibilities. Isn't there a joy to be found in the unexpected? After all, challenging our expectations and preconceived notions of the world, beauty or ways of thinking is how we grow as humans.
And here’s the kicker: It’s enjoyment of coffee’s complexity and range of possible flavours that makes our job as roasters and baristas interesting. Our greatest joy is to share that experience with our customers.
Tasting notes: the good, the bad and the ugly
If our goal at Steampunk is to give you a coffee that simply tastes good, why do we bother with tasting notes? I love this video by The Real Spromethius: Flavour Notes Must be Stopped! He gives a helpful account of those tasting notes you find on bags of coffee and argues that perhaps a broader, less specific description could be more helpful to consumers in choosing a coffee.
As Steampunk has evolved as a roastery we have had an ongoing discussion about how we present tasting notes and what their usefulness is to our customers. Nowadays we tend to try to describe the three main points of the coffee: the sweetness, the acidity and the body with three different words. An example is the Fazenda Caxambu - hazelnut, plummy, creamy. We do on occasion find ourselves using very specific references when they accurately convey something that is otherwise difficult to describe. A great example is our Tanzanian Lunji Estate (our current Complex Espresso) which we have described with Elderflower, Lychee and Cola. These are three very specific flavours that stood out on the cupping table. There are such interesting florals, a very specific juicy fruit flavour (lychee) and the slightly herbal yet sweet taste of the cola nut. We are not sure though how customers will feel about this description, will it encourage you to try it or frighten you off? I guess time will tell.
One thing we do try to avoid is very specific flavour references that most people are unlikely to know and therefore serve more as marketing hype than a useful guide. Dragonfruit or Tamarillo anyone? Yes they are fruits and yes you may taste them in coffee but unless you know the reference that descriptor would be lost on you. Maybe in some cases the descriptions are more about sounding different or showing off a roaster's palate than helping the consumer choose a coffee.
Not good, not bad… just different
Context is everything. What is right for us so often depends on the moment. How we experience a cup of coffee has so much to do with factors other than the coffee: our environment, our mood, who we’re with, they said right before we took a sip, what we are eating with our coffee. Check out Coffee Science: What affects the flavour of Coffee? to delve a bit deeper into this.
Environmental factors as well as your flavour references have a huge impact on how you perceive coffee. A flavour is not an objective fact, your interpretation of it is crucial. A clear example shared in the article mentioned above is if you take a sip of water - it tastes pretty neutral. Then suck on a slice of lemon and after that try another sip of water, the water will now taste incredibly sweet. The water hasn't changed but your taste reference has.
Let's imagine you just swam in the North Sea and are cold yet elated. You need a warm blanket of a drink. You will probably really enjoy a latte with a smooth coffee. You’ll let the familiar sweetness soothe you and ease you back into your day.
On the other hand, maybe you’ve left the house for a walk, trying to escape the mundanity of WFH and the never ending grind of lockdown life. You yearn to experience life outside your bubble. You can barely remember a time when the angle of a foreign sun hit your face and cast the landscape in shades so starkly—gloriously— different from home. Remember travelling far away to a place where your senses were assaulted by unusual smells and sounds? Remember rediscovering that the world is a beautiful, rich, terrifying, surprising and exciting place? This is where a complex coffee can step in - a small yet powerful reminder of the possibilities that life can hold.
Coffee can and should surprise us and act as a reminder that we are small insignificant specks and a part of something bigger and more beautiful, complex and incredible than we can ever hope to understand.
So mellow or complex - neither coffee is good or bad. Mellow is one thing and complex is another. One may be right for you one day and wrong another. The joy in coffee is that each day you can decide something different.
Words have power
Coffee is a global product. It is largely produced in the global south and yet the culture, language and descriptions that we (well-to-do Europeans) associate with coffee are very much centred on the European and North American experience of the beverage.
Yes, it is hard to step outside our own cultural norms and look at coffee culture through a different lens but that doesn't absolve us from the need to do it. At the very least we need to be willing to admit that our narrow lens exists and recognise that there is a much bigger picture. In coffee this means recognising the obvious bias and inequality of the system of trade, and it also means acknowledging bias in the terms we use for flavour, the implicit meanings those words have (dirty, earthy, clean, refined...) and our assumption that our coffee culture and ways of brewing and enjoying coffee are better or more valid than the traditional methods in coffee-producing cultures.
We must strive to become aware of our cultural bias in coffee language and also look out for cultural appropriation and devaluation of coffee cultures. We should respect and acknowledge the rich history of coffee that exists in other parts of the world—namely the parts where coffee is grown. Europeans did not invent coffee nor did we perfect it and we should stop acting like we did. This video on Decolonising Coffee Through Flavour is a good starting point in thinking about how we talk about flavour in coffee.
How we describe a thing can have a strong impact in how we experience it. Flavours are subjective and they are affected by both suggestion and context. The only way to grow is to remain curious, to try new things, to embrace complexity but also acknowledge our need for comfort to smooth out the challenges of life. Coffee offers us both.
Did you know that we offer a Variety Pack that has our full current range of single origin coffees? That way you can try them all - mellow and complex. Variety is the spice of life!