Coffee and Consciousness - Becoming more aware
Through learning more about coffee we can come to learn more about ourselves. My experience has lead me to a greater consciousness of many areas in my life to which I find transferable, particularly relating to the sensory analysis of coffee. It has improved my cooking ability, increased my appreciation of art, made me more mindful of the differing perceptions of others and taught me how greater to grasp self-development.
To make the point clear, I am not saying coffee is essential for gaining these skills, but it personally set me off on a period of discovery through greater awareness and consciousness of the capabilities humans have evolved. Whether or not we realise these capabilities can be as much down to culture as family nurturing.
For example, my experience in both being raised in UK and living in China has shown me that certain cultures pay more attention to their taste buds. Many typical Chinese people are capable of discussing the basic tastes and accurately describing flavours around the dinner table. Food is such an important part of their culture. The same cannot be said for the regular British person. They can certainly say if they like something but describing exactly why doesn't come easy. This perhaps helps explain the terrible reputation British food has around the world, even if us Brits don't think so ourselves.
Sensory Analysis and Self-improvement
I used to laugh at wine tasters. I’d think, “How on earth are they getting all that from drinking red wine?” I thought they were pretentious people elevating themselves for their own gratification. While this does exist, I was generally wrong. Whereas wine competitions and scoring wine, as they do with coffee, is sometimes ridiculous, there is definitely an important part sensory analysis plays in driving towards an accepted norm of fine quality. However, to understand what professionals are alluding to when they speak about flavour and quality, because there is a large element of subjectivity, it comes down to unlocking an enabling level of sensory consciousness. That is, understanding your own taste and olfactory instruments; or being aware of what you do and don't like and why.
A simple experiment to understand the diversity of specialty coffee is to cup a series of different beans. Choosing a number of coffees of different origin, processing method and roast profile will quickly reveal this diversity to the absolute beginner. Next, you refer to your reference point in choosing what you do and don't like. For most people, they are used to commercial grade coffee roasted dark or burnt and not extracted to the coffee’s full potential. This means many look for an intense bitterness in their coffee and are surprised or repulsed when they taste acidity, like I was. However, my curiosity drove me to taste and understand more, drinking coffee for flavour over caffeine.
Over time, and it does takes time and concentration, I began noticing subtle flavours and was able to compare this with coffees I’d had before. It helped for me to have others around me to discuss taste, flavour, aroma and mouthfeel - not just for me but to gain an insight into the perceptions of others. I understood more and more what tastes I enjoy, why I like them and how to apply this to other disciplines.
One of these is cooking. Since discovering what a balanced coffee is and feeling rather let down when there was no harmonious acidity, I have applied this when cooking. I can pick out what ingredients are required to reduce the sickly sweetness of a sauce, how to add new layers of flavour and how to develop acidity for a more balanced and interesting dish (Persian food is amazing, Nigel Slater thinks so too). My cooking has consequently improved, noticed by those I cook for. I have also found myself more interested in the specific characteristics of fine teas, chocolate, honey and chillies among many other foods; some might say I’ve become very fussy.
And beyond cooking and food is art. I have a newfound appreciation for other crafts. I am more aware of shapes, sounds and designs and why they have been so carefully selected in that way. My level of awareness has massively increased and this has much to do with the development of my senses through the attention given to coffee, one of the most complex tasting fruits of the Earth. Happiness has sprung from finding this deeper level of consciousness and others are encouraged to do so.
A Growing Curiosity
A further benefit of involving myself with coffee is a growing curiosity in subjects I was ignorant of. For some context, I studied History. One big interest is the science of water, something many coffee people find themselves fascinated by. I started looking more deeply at the chemistry, its role as solvent, what factors lead to a better tasting coffee (or tea) and why that is.
I also wanted to understand how taste works. This subject is one of the most alienating things I’ve looked at, to me appearing as absolute gibberish. I compare it to Rick and Morty’s ‘How they do it – Plumbuses’ for shear unintelligibleness.
Then there's agronomy and the natural world in general, including foodstuffs, coffee’s role in politics, molecular biology, chemical reactions and geography; both physical and human. There’s still so much to learn and coffee has been a driver.
Can everyone Taste Coffee like this?
Whether or not everyone is capable of tasting to this level is unimportant for the message here. I do not have the scientific results to make such a statement, but the fact is there are many people who can. For others who believe their taste buds are shot, then the time taken to think is still beneficial.
Being aware you are capable is a different matter and an increased consciousness can lead to improvements in other aspects of your life. The final point is the ability to communicate sensations. A big reason for dangerous misunderstandings, pent up stress and a lack of awareness is through the inability to accurately describe feelings and sensations. Discussing coffee, or anything relating to the senses for that matter, encourages thoughtful ways of expression that will only improve with practice and familiarity. Why not make it about something fun, like coffee?