There are a bunch of reasons why what the consumer tastes could be different from what the expert, purveyor, or advertiser tastes. The business of translating a sensory experience from one person to another is tricky and difficult and it is certainly never perfect. The worst part about the taste incongruity is that while the descriptions on the bag of coffee and the tastes a consumer identifies may be completely different, they can both be entirely correct! Here are a few reasons why.
Experts are, well, experts. When a person spends a lifetime studying and practicing something, they get good at it. People who taste for a living learn to pay attention to subtle flavors and they learn to verbalize an enormous range of experiences. Sometimes, they detect flavors that the average person cannot detect or verbalize. Unfortunately, they can’t always tell what is easy to detect and what isn’t. So, they can end up listing descriptors that other people can miss.
Not all tasters are good at their job. We want to believe that the person getting paid to taste and write descriptions is very good. This isn’t always the case. They may be putting the wrong word to an experience or have a limited vocabulary, which hinders the precision of their word choice.
Humans are lousy instruments. People are heavily influenced by culture, history, experience, emotion, psychology, physiology, and their immediate environment. It makes humans fascinating creatures but terrible at identifying and describing organoleptic experiences: A taster may detect a flavor one day but not another; they may not have tasted the spice or fruit that could be used to describe the coffee; they may value a flavor differently than someone else and thus report it differently; they may just be physically unable to taste that flavor; they may be sick; they may have just had a spicy meal…. On top of all this, it isn’t just the taster who suffers from being human, but the consumer, too!
Analytical assessment is different than drinking coffee normally. Professional coffee tasters create environments that help them be more accurate in their evaluation. If their precision is too high, the person drinking at home, using different brewing parameters under different conditions may not have the same advantage of precision as the professional.
Coffee is dynamic. Most professional tasters evaluate the coffee within a day or two of roasting. Most consumers get it days, if not weeks, after that. In all that time, coffee is changing. It may simply be that the flavors listed on a package are no longer there!
Brewing parameters influence the taste of brewed coffee. It is very likely the brewing parameters used by the taster were different than what the consumer uses. In fact, what are the odds that they are identical for the taster and consumer? We spent a whole section discussing how water quality, water temperature, and other brewing parameters influence the final taste of a coffee. It is likely that the taste of the coffee is, in fact, different!
Verbalizing organoleptic experiences is challenging. Sometimes, tasters use words that represent feelings, colors, places, ideas, and experiences. These aren’t always helpful to the consumer, even other professionals. Still, a person is limited by their abilities and their attempts to be clear and precise may become so creative as to not always translate well to other drinkers.
With all these complications, can we ever trust the descriptors? Certainly! The descriptors aren’t incorrect, they are just one person’s (or a few people’s) interpretations of the coffee. It is not impossible for both the writer and the drinker to agree on the tastes! In cases where the consumer may not detect any of the flavors described, it can at least give them an idea of the coffee’s potential. In addition, those descriptors can also help guide the consumer in their quest to become better tasters. Knowing those flavors are there will often help consumers taste them. Sure, it can just be bias, but sometimes it is just giving the person the right word to match the experience.
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