§1: Introduction and Editorial Principles
§2: Letter to David Robson
§3: Background to Letter; also how to order The Philosophy of Coffee-Tasting
§4 Paragraphs from Robson’s BBC article with glosses and notes:
Are you a Coffee-ist or Tea-ist?
§1: Introduction and Editorial Principles:
This blog, ‘The Independent Review of Coffee-Tasting’, is being set up, in the first instance, as a result of an interview I gave to the BBC journalist, David Robson, which appeared on the BBC web-site, ‘Future’, on 18 May 2015, and the interest it generated. But the primary reason the blog is being set up is to examine the theory of coffee-tasting as set out in my little book, The Philosophy of Coffee-Tasting- which, with the blog, is also being launched at this time.
When David Robson contacted me initially about a talk I was about to give on the subject, he asked if I would answer three questions about my work on coffee tasting. The letter printed below, in §2, contains my responses to his questions, as well as providing the background and filling in relevant detail to Robson’s article.
However, before printing the letter I emailed to Robson, I need to say a word about the format of this blog and its principles, so what I think distinguishes this coffee blog. In a word, it is its INDEPENDENCE- from roasters, baristas, coffee sellers, whether of the so-called Third Wave- of specialty coffees- or the Second Wave companies, like Starbucks or Costa- so from the present experts and generally-accepted expert knowledge. Hence I am prepared to praise some inexpensive supermarket coffees in preference to more intrinsically superior and expensive Third Wave coffees, as explained in my Philosophy of Coffee-Tasting. And yet I go along with Third Wave artisan approach, especially its emphasis on education and making the expertize gained over the years available to the interested, lay public.
But while I see myself as supporting the artisan approach, my focus is on the the individual drinker/taster of coffee, not the roaster, barista, or expert tasters employed by coffee companies. In this respect, I go back to an older philosophical tradition, shown for example in Schopenhauer, who instead of valorizing the artist or producer- as his student Nietzsche does- takes up the perspective of the perceiver or experiencer- what Schopenhauer calls (appropriately for our subject) the person of ‘good taste’, and I might call the artisan taster.
I also need to note that my aim is to issue the Independent Review of Coffee-Tasting and Philosophy- or Review, for short- as if it were a printed Review, issued at regular intervals. So I intend to add and up-date it on one day each month. Like many philosophical journals, forthcoming numbers of the Review should have three sections: the first containing main articles; the second discussions; and a third reviews of books and coffees. I welcome articles, comments, discussion, reviews of books and coffees from readers, which might be printed. These should be sent directly to me, that is my email, which is email@example.com. So I, as editor, decide what to print in each monthly issue; so there is no concurrent discussion, as in most blogs. The idea behind this is to slow things down and hopefully make the Review more reflective and substantial- more like the old-fashioned philosophy reviews and journals.
In the next issue or post, I plan to review James Hoffmann’s recent book, the World Atlas of Coffee, to be printed in section three; continue my account of the Tea and Coffee type, by drawing on Okakura’s great Book of Tea, and his idea of Tea-ism- and my idea of Coffee-ism; and also give an account of how I, a specialist in the philosophy of George Berkeley, came to be working on coffee-tasting.
§2: Letter to David Robson:
7 May 2015: You ask three questions, which I deal with in the order you mention. To answer your first question about the kind of psychology I use in my work on coffee, I think I need to say a word about modern scientific psychology and the three stages it has gone through in the past hundred years, which began with  the introspective stage, circa 1880s-1920s, usually identified with Wundt, then  Behaviorism, 1920s-1960s, developed by J. B.Watson, then, in the late 1960s to the present,  that of cognitive-neuro. Now I draw very much on the first development, and particularly on the work of Wundt’s Anglo-American student, Edward Titchener, and his use of introspection and also his general understanding of psychology and how it fits with the other sciences. I also use Francis Galton’s work on mental images, and the way it was developed into the first modern theory of mental types, by for example Charcot. But here I also draw on psychological philosophers- especially Plato in his account of mental types in the Republic, and on Bergson, who also uses introspection, or direct experience, although he calls it intuition. (And another psychologist, who has influenced me and fits into the first, Wundtian stage of psychology, but is not seen in that way, is Freud and his key idea of the Fundamental Rule in Psychoanalysis, which is that the analysand must be aware of what he directly experiences, and then express it to the analyst.) So in my study of coffee tastes- which is actually composed not just of tastes but also of mouth-feels and mouth-smells- I use this experiential method taken from these various thinkers of first stage of psychology. And from this psychology I also get much of my theory of types, and so (as I try to explain below) my understanding of the bitter and sour taste types, which I represent in what I call my Taste-line, which is modeled on Galton’s scale of imaging from 0 (non-imaging) to 100 (photographic and eidetic imaging). My own, more simplified taste-line looks like this (but 0, 5 and 10 need special glossing):
Lightly roasted and sour Darkly roasted and bitter
Your second question gets me more into the content of my talk, where I use the historical structure of the Three Waves of Coffee, but I think I take it further and deeper in a number of ways. One way is to identify what preceded the First Wave, that is before coffee was industrialized, by going to William Ukers’s monumental All About Coffee, 1922. I see Ukers as the great champion of the First Wave, and the great critic of what preceded it, especially its preference for bitter coffee made with boiling water. So drawing on Ukers, but also on a more recent expert on coffee, namely Kenneth Davids, who like Ukers, wrote a key Coffee Book (5th ed. 2001) and also edits an influential coffee review. So coming directly to your question, I think that the pre-First Wave period favoured dark roasted bitter coffee, which was then superceded by the First Wave, of industrialized, light roasted sour, and (at its best) aromatic coffees, like the tinned supermarket coffee of my youth, which was successfully challenged by the Second Wave and the bitter dark roasted coffee of Starbucks and Costa in the 1980s. However now, for the past 15 or 20 years, we have had another thrust, a return of the preference of the First Wave, but with the difference that this Third Wave has gone small and artisan and more subtle, which is required if their coffee is to be a viable alternative to the still massively popular dark-roasted bitter coffee of Starbucks and Costa.
To summarize, the Third Wave places great value on what it calls acidic or fruity or lively coffee, which I see as sour under another description, which opposes the bitter coffees, for one thing because while they eliminate the taste flaws in coffee, they also destroy the subtle aromatic notes in coffee, which the Third Wave values as much as acidy.
But I also need to note that between these opposed tastes- that is the Second Wave bitterists and the Third Wave sourists- there is another type that needs to be brought in- a silent majority amidst the clash of the Two Waves- namely those whose taste is for just coffee or the essential caffeol oil aroma and flavour. And probably the majority of coffee drinkers are in this group. What they want is is plain generic coffee or balanced coffee, which is neither very bitter or very sour. And knowing that is the case, that is just what most coffee companies offers them.
Now, about your third question, how my talk could inform philosophy, I need to be even sketchier than I’ve been above, because I believe there are a number of different ways that philosophy can benefit from an understanding of coffee tasting. One way is to see that the historical development of coffee tastes, the swinging from bitter to sour, then to bitter and now sour again, reflects philosophy’s own historical swings, which are sometimes described as the scandal of philosophy, and which I think should be understood, as in the case of coffee, in terms of opposing types, i.e. first one becoming dominant, then being defeated by its typal opponent, and so on. To illustrate this, I can bring in a bit of history of philosophy through William James’s last philosophical essay, his ‘Bradley or Bergson?’, published in 1910, in which he posed a challenge to his fellow philosophers, that they should decide to go either the conceptual, Hegelian way of Bradley or the anti-conceptual and direct experiential way of Bergson, which James favoured and called in his essay the way of ‘non-“transmuted” percepts’. In the event, 20th century philosophy did go conceptual, but not in the old Hegelian mode, but the new Analytic mode of Russell and Moore in Britain, and Frege and Husserl on the Continent. But now I think that philosophy has another chance to go the experiential (and typal) way, inspired, if in a small way, by the understanding of coffee tastes, if philosophy is to have a chance of solving the great, but presently deadlocked, problem of consciousness. To see the deadlock in philosophy, I would say look at the ‘debate’ between those like Tom Nagel, on the one side, and those like Dan Dennett, on the other, which I see as representatives of two opposing types, like the bitterists and sourists I examine in my Philosophy of Coffee-Tasting. So the Dennettians and the Nagelians disagree, I would say, in much the same way as the Second and Third Wavers do.
Another very different way that coffee tasting can help philosophy can be seen by going to the classic work by Okakura, called the Book of Tea, 1906, in which he uses tea to get at what he calls Tea-ism, which he thinks expresses the Eastern way of thinking, shown especially in Taoism and Zen Buddhism, which he distinguishes from the ‘the self-consciousness’ of coffee. What I think Okakura has in mind here can, I think, be expressed by saying that, unlike Tea-ism, the essence of coffee-ism and the Western mindset, is dualism, whereas the Eastern is monism. So coffee has an essence, a taste that all coffees have and which distinguishes them, namely the coffeol oil aroma or flavour, mentioned above; whereas tea does not have any generic essence, i.e there is no one taste that all teas have; so, to compress a lot, for Tea-ism the great truth is not in the essence of things, but in One-ness.
One additional point which I should mention is that much of the talk I plan to give this Sunday, 10 May 2015, is based on a little book I am completing, called The Philosophy of Coffee-tasting, in which I begin by discussing what seems to be the first general book on Philosophy and Coffee. This is: S.F. Parker and M.W. Austin (editors), Coffee: Philosophy- Grounds for Debate, Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, which contains three essays which bear particularly on coffee tasting and which I look at. These are:
Kristopher G. Phillips, ‘The Unexamined Cup is not Worth Drinking’, pp. 34-45.
Kenneth Davids, ‘Is Starbucks really better than Red Brand X?’, pp. 138-151.
John Hartmann, ‘Starbucks and the Third Wave’, pp. 166-183.
With good wishes,
§3: Background to Letter; also how to order The Philosophy of Coffee-Tasting:
To explain the background of my letter to David Robson, I should say something of the talk mentioned above; for it was from an announcement of that talk that Robson learned of my interest in the philosophy of coffee-tasting. The announcement or advert was as follows:
The Philosophy of Coffee-Tasting
A talk by Prof. David Berman, TCD, in which he looks at the history, psychology and politics of coffee-tasting, beginning with the conceptual confusions around the key concept of taste, and how the taste of the experts has favoured certain tastes, in both the so-called First Wave and present Third Wave of Coffee, e.g. the acidic, as against the bitter. This is illustrated, in a hands-on way, by samples of two different coffees. Berman then goes on to argue that just as an appreciation of coffee can be enhanced by philosophy (in the large sense), so philosophy itself can be helped by drawing on the critical study of coffee tasting. This is then followed by discussion, accompanied by a third and rarely sampled coffee.
Time: Sunday, 10 May 2015, 10:30-12:00
Location: Gurman’s Tea and Coffee World
Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre
Fee: 15 euros, which includes 3 cups of coffee
Limited places. To pre-register, contact: ArtisanPhilosophy@gmail.com
Here I also need to say something more about my little book, The Philosophy of Coffee-Tasting, and how it can be obtained. First, here is a summary of it:
This book begins by looking at recent developments in coffee drinking, especially the so-called Third of the Three Waves of coffee, and also the first book devoted to philosophy and coffee, Coffee Philosophy for Everyone, 2011. Probably my main criticism of the Third Wave and present expert theory of coffee tasting is- to put it somewhat dramatically- that while it does not throw the baby out with the bath water, it manages to look carefully at virtually every part of the baby but her face. Put more specifically: instead of focusing on the two actual tastes of coffee, i.e. bitterness and sourness, the Third Wave and expert theory regards bitterness as a flaw, while praising acidity or fruitiness, which I argue is in fact sourness under another description.
Moving into a more positive mode, I then present a more inclusive theory of coffee tasting which not only aims to bring back tastes to their proper and central place, but also shows the importance of taste types- the sourists and the bitterists- based on the two true coffee tastes.
Having offered what I think is an empirical or hands-on way getting into philosophy through coffee tasting, I then conclude by drawing on this work to support the empirical (as against the conceptual) way of doing philosophy, a way which was (unsuccessfully) championed by William James and Henri Bergson at the beginning of the last century.
This book- or perhaps I should say long essay or booklet, since it is 34 pages, about 13,000 words- is available, issued by Artisan Philosophy Workbooks, plainly printed in A5 size and simply bound in paper covers, and aiming (in line with the artisan approach) to be useful and solid, rather than fancy or fashionable.
The Philosophy of Coffee-Tasting is priced at 5 euros per copy, including postage; or 3 euros per copy for orders of five copies and 2 euros for orders of ten copies, including postage in both cases.
To obtain a copy or copies, write to Artisanphilosophy@gmail.com
for information on paying and a Catalogue of the other books available for sale.
§4 Paragraphs from Robson’s BBC article with glosses and notes:
First, I want to express my appreciation of Robson’s interview-article- which can be accessed through this link:
-and also my feeling that Robson did a good job. But it isn’t easy to express someone else’s views on a complex matter, especially in philosophy, and so here, with his permission, I quote some portions of his article, inserting my own reflections and glosses in capital letters within square brackets. I also add a long note at the end.
Armed with a strong Americano – and an open mind – I ask him [David Berman] to lead me through some of his thoughts. The conversation that follows will explore the values of introspection and why coffee and tea drinkers are fundamentally different people. [I DON’T THINK THEY ARE TRULY ‘FUNDAMENTALLY DIFFERENT’; RATHER THEY EXPRESS OR POINT TO WHAT ARE FUNDAMENTAL DIFFERENCES, ESPECIALLY THAT BETWEEN THE MONIST THINKING OF EASTERN PHILOSOPHY AS AGAINST THE DUALIST WAY WHICH CHARACTERIZES WESTERN THINKING.]
Peeling back those layers could therefore give you a better understanding of yourself and your inner world. “If you take coffee as seriously as I do – though I don’t think that’s necessary to do so [TO ENJOY COFFEE]– then the idea is to try to get to direct experience,” he explains. Coffee, he thinks, is particularly fruitful for this pursuit. “When we drink coffee, we are taking in caffeine, stimulating the mind, and making it more acute. You’re not in a mentally sluggish condition. You are in a state of [GREATER] clarity and distinctness.” [YOU ALSO HAVE A DISTINCT SENSORY OBJECT THAT YOU ENJOY, HENCE A GOOD OBJECT TO TRY AND GRASP THROUGH DIRECT EXPERIENCE.]
So I take a sip and try to absorb [MAKE DIRECT CONTACT WITH] the taste. [BUT THE TERM TASTE IS HIGHLY AMBIGUOUS. SO IT IS JUST HERE THAT PHILOSOPHY CAN ENTER THE PICTURE IN A USEFUL WAY, BY DOING WHAT IT DOES WELL, DELINEATING CONCEPTUAL JOINTS. ON THIS, SEE NOTE * BELOW.] The symphony of flavours certainly does seem more vivid – as if the conductor has suddenly turned up the orchestra’s volume. I’m also conscious of the way I can pick apart the different notes – the smoke, the rustle of silk across the tongue. It is indeed a “hard problem” when I consider how the brain constructs those many distinct “qualia” – instances of subjective experience which words can never express fully – and builds our conscious experience.
As I ponder that thought, Berman explains how his research has informed his understanding of the drink. All varieties of coffee will share a common note that comes from just one oil – caffeol. “It makes up a small portion of bean – just 0.5%,” he tells me – yet without it, the drink would not be recognisable as coffee. In contrast, he says, there is no single “essence of tea”; tea is made from a wide variety of compounds [AROMAS OR FLAVOURS], but no single one is essential.
Tea-ism versus coffee-ism
Berman proposes that coffee and tea therefore reflect two different philosophical outlooks. [‘OUTLOOKS’ IS A GOOD TERM, BECAUSE SUITABLY VAGUE AND MODEST] Tea is about the way many different flavour components complement each other, he says – recalling the Eastern concept that all beings are interconnected. Coffee, by contrast, is defined by that single key ingredient caffeol, [BUT ALSO THE 2 TRUE TASTES, OF SOUR AND BITTER, AND THEN MOUTH FEELS AND MOUTH SMELLS OTHER THAN THE CAFFEOL ONE] which stands apart from the other flavours – perhaps reflecting a Western tendency to draw boundaries. I have a feeling he might not persuade everyone.
Coffee’s single ingredient, however, can be deceiving. Taking a sip, I feel as though the distinctive caffeol flavour is firing up my tongue – yet this is an illusion. To explain why, Berman tells me to hold my nose as I take another sip. All I am left with is a faint ghost of the original flavour. “That’s one of the surprises in it,” he says. “You think you are tasting coffee – but if you engage in [SERIOUS] introspection, [DIRECT EXPERIENCE,] you realise it’s actually a smell that is misperceived as a taste [WHICH I CALL A MOUTH-SMELL].”
As coffee connoisseurs will tell you, that central motif doesn’t prevent baristas from composing many different variations around the theme. A light roast will allow the coffee’s acids to shine through, giving a “brighter” quality. In contrast, a longer, darker roast leads to the build-up of new proteins and enzymes inside the bean. These chemicals constitute the “body” of a coffee; they can make it feel heavier, more viscous, and they blunt the edges of the acid. [BUT MOST IMPORTANTLY AND ESSENTIALLY BITTER.]
This see-saw between two extremes might illustrate something deeper about human personality more generally, he thinks. He suspects that a taste for bitter versus aromatic coffee represents a fundamental [I WOULDN’T, AS MENTIONED ABOVE, SAY FUNDAMENTAL] mental “type” – you are either in one camp or the other, and you will find it very difficult to understand the other’s viewpoint. “What you find in coffee tasting shows in a number of important ways how people disagree about fundamental matters,” he says [YES, IT DOES HELP TO GET AT FUNDAMENTAL ISSUES AND MORE FUNDAMENTAL TYPES, AS FOCUSSING ON THE SMELL OR DISTAL SENSORY TYPE AS DISTINGUISHED FROM THE TASTE OR CONTACT TYPE- A DISTINCTION WHICH GOES BACK TO ARISTOTLE- BUT ESPECIALLY THE MONISTS AND DUALISTS. HOWEVER, FOR A FULLER UNDERSTANDING OF WHAT I HAVE IN MIND HERE, I SHOULD REFER THE READER TO TWO WORKS OF MINE, ONE CALLED PENULT ΨΦ, THE OTHER THE LOGIC AND CREDIBILITY OF AFTER-DEATH EXISTENCES, BOTH AVAILABLE FROM ARTISAN PHILOSOPHY WORKBOOKS, WHICH HELP TO EXPLAIN WHAT I AM TRYING TO GET AT BY TALKING ABOUT TEA AND COFFEE TYPES.]
My conversation with Berman has certainly given me plenty of food (or drink) for thought. As I drain the last dregs from my mug, I realise that I haven’t taken so much pleasure in a cup of Joe for a long time. Even if you’re not persuaded by coffee’s value to philosophy, perhaps Berman has a point about the value of introspection [OR DIRECT EXPERIENCE] and contemplation [I WOULD SAY CONCEPTUAL REFLECTION, WHICH IS A WAY I BRING TO BEAR THE TYPICAL PHILOSOPHICAL INTEREST IN CONCEPTUAL CLARITY, FOR AN EXAMPLE OF WHICH, SEE THE NOTE * BELOW.]. When it comes to probing our inner experiences and open our minds to our senses, we’d all do well to wake up and smell the coffee from time to time.
`Note*: I think there are at least four concepts of taste which it is useful to distinguish:
1: taste in the most narrow and literal sense, which according to most taste psychologists are four in number, namely sweet, salty, sour and bitter, which are known to be true tastes, because they are still experienced when the taster’s nose is plugged.
2: So they differ from tastes in the wider sense, which is experienced in the mouth, but are usually smells, so for example, the so-called taste of chocolate or 7up, which disappear when the taster’s nose is plugged, so showing it is really a smell, misperceived as taste- what I call a mouth-smell, but present-day taste psychologists refer to as retro-nasal olfaction.
3: So there is a larger sense of taste, which includes true tastes and smells but also another important thing experienced in the mouth, which in the wine industry is called body or mouth-feels; and taken together these make up what taste psychologists often call flavour.
4: But apart from these three concepts (above) of taste, there is in an even larger use of the term taste, understood as the aesthetic sense, where we talk about those who have a taste for sweet things, or a taste for jazz or classical music. So here taste indicates type or mindset, or-to use Robson’s helpful term outlooks. So focussing on the subject in hand, I suggest that there are three tastes in coffee, or three coffee types. So some people prefer bitter coffee, others more acidic and still others coffee, who do not care for either very bitter or very acidic coffee, but something in middle, namely just generic coffee. And going further, I think it is also helpful to talk of a coffee types as distinguished from a tea type, although I would not say these are fundamental types, but point to them.
In my little book, The Philosophy of Coffee-Tasting, I look specifically at coffee taste or tastes. Much of my book is taken up with sorting out the elements in coffee tastes, first (in chap. 2) where I criticize the present expert theory of coffee taste, then more constructively (in chap. 3) where I present my own constructive theory.
But the main differentiation I am interested in is that between the different types- so with respect to coffee (chaps 3 and 4) the sourists and the bitterists and those between- the source of which is their different experiences.