Is bitter better? The philosopher’s coffee quest

Are you a sourist, a bitterist or an Americano? A Trinity College professor has turned his attention to the ancient beverage as part of an intellectual exercise

 

Esteemed philosopher Prof David Berman is on his second cup of coffee at hip Rathmines outlet Two Fifty Square, and he is not impressed.

“It’s too milky for me,” he says as he lowers the frothy cup containing a house blend of Rwandan, Ethiopian, and Brazilian beans. “I am probably being very undiplomatic but, for me, it’s coffee for people who don’t really like coffee, who want it to be modified by a lot of milk. I think a lot of women like that, just as they sometimes like cocktails with the fruity stuff and so on.”

Should this sound harsh, bear in mind that Berman is a bitter guy; or, more precisely, a Bitterist. He likes bitter coffee.

Having spent nearly 40 years teaching philosophy at Trinity College Dublin, Berman – a world-renowned expert on George Berkeley, probably the university’s most celebrated alumnus – has turned his attention to this ancient beverage not just for pleasure but as part of an intellectual quest.

Coffee, for Berman, is a window to understanding your tastes: How do you know what you like? How do you describe experiences or sensations? Are your tastes better than other people’s tastes?

These questions are not easily answered, but Berman believes we can find a way of working through them, with Berkeley as his guide. The Kilkenny-born Church of Ireland Bishop of Cloyne, who died in 1753, tested his theories against observations in the natural world.

“Berkeley is an empiricist, and suspicious of the way language can influence our thinking and fashion. He believes that through direct experience we can make contact with what really exists.”

There is an established language in the coffee world aimed at defining tastes and smells. A huge industry has grown on the back of it, initially what has been called the second wave – the rise of major coffee brands such as Starbucks and Costa – and now the third wave: the proliferation of independent and artisan coffee traders.

In his self-published booklet The Philosophy of Coffee-Tasting, Berman explains how “the expert theory of taste . . . is not fully fixed or standardised as in a science, like chemistry”. Rather, the professionals have shifted ground with each wave, and the “elite educated consensus” now favours the third wave over the second.

Berman isn’t seeking to take sides between Insomnia and independent coffee houses, but he asks how to make sense of coffee descriptions such as: “The acidity is so bright, still has a nice body and a long finish.” He writes that, “While this might well sound to the uninitiated like pretentious and ‘ridiculous lingo’, for the Third Wave aficionado it is the way to gain a grip on the accepted theory.”

 

Honeysuckle florals

Speaking of lingo, the coffee now before him is called Guji, a filtered brew from Ethiopian Fairtrade beans. The roasting notes read: “A beatifically complex coffee with bright and vibrant fresh limes, apricots and nectarines with distinct honeysuckle florals.”

Serving Berman, shop owner Adam McMenamin chips in: “It gets better as it cools down.”

The professor has a couple of sips before delivering his verdict. “I would say it’s definitely in the sour or acidic range, which is what you’d expect from Third Wave coffee shops. It has a nice, lively taste, but how much of that is aroma and how much is actually taste is hard to say without doing a fair amount of direct experiencing.”

One technique Berman uses here is to hold his nose while drinking. “It’s not so much that it will taste differently, but you eliminate the aroma.” (Risk the dirty looks from baristas and try it next time you have a coffee; it definitely changes the experience.)

“Now that I’m kind of getting used to it, what I’d say is it doesn’t have much density or heaviness,” he says. “It’s kind of bright, and almost like a kind of sparkling wine, a kind of dry rosé.”

Berman has put in a lot of work to reach these heights of analysis – “I can’t tell you the number of coffees I’ve had” – and concludes that there are essentially two coffee types: sour and bitter. (For sour, think of the acidic taste of grapefruit or vinegar; for bitter think the sharp, acrid taste of citrus peels or olives.)

He describes these as the two “true tastes” of coffee. The sour, produced by lighter roasting, is more complex, delicate and subtle. The bitter, produced by darker roasting, is simpler, more uniform and easier to get right.

This dichotomy challenges mainstream industry theory, for which sour translates as “coffee that has gone wrong” and bitter “a perversion” arising from the burning out of flavour (to quote two third wave experts). “The experts have a lot to say and teach but I think it needs to be tidied up somewhat, and that’s always been the job of philosophers: to bring conceptual clarity to what can be a kind of messy area.”

Berman has always preferred bitter coffee. As a young boy, he “always went for dark chocolate, which is also bitter. So it’s as though I’m hard-wired to be disposed to the bitter.”

Does that mean you’re born either a sourist or bitterist (to use his terminology)? “No, I don’t think I’d go that far,” he says, but he’s suspicious of the notion that tastes evolve or swing between extremes.

The serious message here is that if we aren’t careful, we can allow our tastes to be determined by the market, and if we don’t reflect on what we really like we may end up taking the expert opinion as gospel.

“Just like I would oppose the market view of the academic, I would oppose the market view of coffee. You should be able to enjoy a good supermarket coffee if you like that kind of thing. I think excessive snobbishness – or even any snobbishness – is a bad thing.

“You have to try to work out your taste as far as you can through direct experience, while taking into account what people tell you.”

 

Doing Guji justice

Berman is on to his last coffee, requesting an espresso version of Guji, despite McMenamin’s wincing. The Dubliner, who learned his trade in Melbourne, Australia, before opening the critically acclaimed Two Fifty Square two days shy of his 30th birthday, explains that all his beans are designed to be lightly roasted in very specific ways “to do the farmers justice”. ( The I rish Times gave McMenamin’s brew a “best coffee” award last year.)

“I think this is good third-wave, sour coffee,” Berman says. “I can appreciate it but I don’t think anything that is going to be said to me is going to convince me that I like it more than I like bitter coffee. I don’t want to be brainwashed and I don’t want to try to conform in order that people would consider me kind of fashionable or ‘in’. I think that has to be resisted.”

 

COFFEE DRINKERS: THE THREE TYPES

  • Sourist: Prefers lightly roasted beans and more complex flavours; has “a nuanced palate, a taste for social justice, and a fat wallet” (quoting John Hartmann in Starbucks and the Third Wave).
  • Bitterist: Prefers dark-roasted flavour, just shy of turning burnt or smokey; regarded by coffee snobs as unsophisticated “French roast”.
  • Americano: Likes an indistinct, “generic” coffee flavour; “also probably most subject to fashion”.

From The Philosophy of Coffee-Tasting by David Berman

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