Zest Specialty Coffee says don’t fear the unknown

Zest Specialty Coffee’s Mandy Del Vecchio on why it’s necessary to bring flavour to the forefront of specialty coffee appreciation without judgment or intimidation.

Recently, Zest Director Rod Greenfield showed a non-coffee industry business colleague through our roastery. He was mesmerised by the rumbling of the roaster, the toasty aromas in the air, and watched wide-eyed as a batch of browned beans tumbled from the roaster into the whirring cooling tray. 

They stepped into the production lab where he noticed a line-up of about 15 cupping bowls from a recent production cupping. Rod offered the guest a spoon to taste the coffees on the bench, and he backed away. “No,” he said. “I just drink cappuccinos. All coffee tastes pretty much the same to me. I wouldn’t be able to tell any difference.” 

Rod persisted and handed him the spoon, demonstrating the basic scoop and slurp motions. He pointed to the Ethiopian coffee and asked him to taste it. Then he pointed to the Brazilian coffee and asked him to taste that too. “Tell me if you taste any difference at all,” Rod said.  

Cautiously, he did. He straightened up with a broad smile across his face and announced triumphantly: “Wow. There’s a huge difference. This first one tastes kind of fruity and the second one tastes more like coffee.” Bang on.

The next minute, he was waltzing up and down the line of bowls slurping away (he didn’t know how to spit yet), making all sorts of authoritative suggestions of what he thought he tasted and what he liked and didn’t like. What Rod experienced was that ‘lightbulb moment’ when a coffee drinker goes from appreciating coffee to appreciating flavour. It got me thinking, how many more coffee drinkers are out there who want to understand flavour but are held back by fear? 

For the longest time I pretended to be disinterested in Third Wave coffee to cover my own fear until Q Grader and Zest Roaster Rob McDonald sat me down  and explained some of the fascination in simple language, and with patience and passion.  

My disinterest eventually lifted after a few more open, dexterous conversations that carried the same sentiment – there is so much to learn if you aren’t afraid. 

There are currently two types of coffee lovers still poles apart: those who depend on their daily coffee as a comfort beverage, and the Third Wave drinker whose coffee vocabulary is impressive and equally intimidating. Regardless of why people enjoy coffee, our goal as roasters and flavour advocates should be to bridge that gap and move more people towards an elevated appreciation. 

Some people are still fraught with fear when it comes to understanding flavour. Some don’t care for the hype, and that’s fine, but there’s a promising surge of people growing a curiosity of finer nuances of flavour – in food, wine, craft beer, gourmet cheeses, and so on. Why are they so scared of stepping over the line? Did we make our lanugage too complex? Do conversations focus too much on industry politics, such as what coffee scores are acceptable, or at what price a green bean becomes specialty?

We have some great ambassadors in the industry working hard to advance this movement. Read James Hoffman’s blog post “8 steps to develop your coffee palate”. James’ language and simplicity is disarming and inviting. I noticed a comment he got in response, which said: “Hey, thanks for completely simplifying the tasting process. Even my staff read it and got the point rather than blank stares…” Or try Scott Rao’s article on flavour balance, which makes the coffee middleclass lift their head and say, ‘hey that’s me, I can do this thing.’

When you visit Ona Coffee Founder Sasa Sestic at his café, he takes the time to explain complex flavours, how he achieved them, and what you’re going to taste in the espressos he’s prepared. This is the knowledge that ignites interest. But should one have to go to the source to extract it – or can we extend the spoon outside our circle and find more channels to discuss our knowledge freely?

Flavour is something that speaks to everyone. Let’s make specialty coffee more approachable and remove the fear of the unknown. Understanding flavour is the line that divides the two types of coffee drinker, but it could also be the line that joins them. 

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