The more you know, the better it tastes

By Felix Salmon
July 6, 2010
Patrick LaForge was underwhelmed by his visit to McNulty's Tea & Coffee:

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Patrick LaForge was underwhelmed by his visit to McNulty’s Tea & Coffee:

I inquired about the roaster and was told with a shrug that the shop used an unnamed roaster in Long Island City, Queens. Presumably the beans had been roasted recently.

Many coffee sellers now offer tasting notes as florid and adjective-rich as wine descriptions, but there was none of that at McNulty’s. The country of origin was listed and in some cases beans were described as organic or free trade. No details were offered about the specific growers. I didn’t realize how hooked I have become on knowing this information, even though I am not an expert who can make useful judgments based on it.

This is in some respects just a difference in marketing. A place like McNulty’s relies on the mystery and mystique of foreign lands. A roaster like Intelligentsia and shops Stumptown and Cafe Grumpy appeal to a different type of consumer.

This type of customer is obsessed — perhaps too much so — with authenticity. For these consumers, coffee is no longer an exotic product arriving by ship from third-world places with unusual names. Knowing the details of origin improves the taste.

LaForge has hit on something important here, which is clearly making its way into the world of coffee from the world of wine, where it has been going strong for decades. The more you know about your beverage, the better it tastes. That’s why so many wineries put so much effort into wine tours and that’s why you’re much more likely to enjoy your bottle of pinot noir if it has been preceded by a short explanation from the sommelier of who the winemaker is, where they’re from and what exactly they’re doing. There’s really no way of telling how or whether any particular part of the story affects the taste, but the simple telling of the story makes an enormous difference.

And so when you go to the Intelligentsia website, you’ll find them featuring specific coffees like the one from Edelweiss Finagro Estate, in Tanzania. You’ll learn what to look for when you taste it: “Toasted marshmallow and sandalwood greet you in the nose while saturated notes of pomelo and red wine appear immediately on the palate.” You don’t have to have any clue what a “saturated note of pomelo” is in order to get the message.

But that’s just the beginning of what Intelligentsia serves you with your pound of joe. They’ll also tell you who’s growing the coffee (Neel and Kavita Vohora), exactly where the farm is, what varietals are grown (Bourbon, Kent, SL-28, Tacri), what altitude they’re grown at (1700 – 1800 m) and what months they’re harvested (July – November). They’ll then add some color:

These are the only farms I’ve been to in the world where the biggest source of worry is not fungus or insect damage but invasion during the night by marauding herds of elephants, buffalo and even lions! They pass through from time to time looking for water and elephants will actually locate underground pipes and dig them up with their tusks. When they walk through the farm they trample everything in their path, leaving a big swath of razed land.

People like LaForge don’t want altitude information on their coffee because they prefer 1700m coffee to 1400m coffee. Instead, Intelligentsia is supplying something much more important and valuable: a unique narrative. It’s the same thing that’s going on in the wine world:

Unlike Bordeaux, where many of the best-known chateaus are run by corporations or wealthy absentee owners, Burgundy is full of estates, including many of the leading ones, that are essentially small businesses. Dealing with Bordeaux often requires working with middle management and marketing specialists. It’s much easier to visit a Burgundian estate and find the one person who has dirt on the boots, wine on the hands and a name on the bottle.

“For people of my generation, 30 to 50, I don’t think we’ve had the same magical Bordeaux moments, not in the same way we’ve connected to Burgundy or even the Rhone,” said Laura Maniec, who runs the wine programs for more than 15 restaurants in the B. R. Guest group.

She still buys a lot of Bordeaux for restaurants like Primehouse, a Manhattan steakhouse, and Blue Water Grill, a Manhattan seafood restaurant that hosts plenty of corporate parties where Bordeaux is nearly obligatory. “But there’s a passion and a spark and a personal connection that are missing,” she said.

What you get in Burgundy is a story and that personal connection, which is impossible to find in Bordeaux. And you’re increasingly finding the same thing in the new school of coffee roasters and importers. It’ll be interesting to see where it turns up next: tea? Truffles? Tofu?

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