Dispatches from the Nespresso Coffee Conversation, Portugal

Beyond the bean: Coffee is about far more than taste - what about when, where, and why you drink it?

By Rachel Arthur

- Last updated on GMT

Coffee is more than a scorecard on taste: The concept of coffee quality is far broader than the beverage itself, say experts
Coffee is more than a scorecard on taste: The concept of coffee quality is far broader than the beverage itself, say experts

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The taste and flavour of the coffee you drink is important – but the quality of the experience is far broader than the first sip, said coffee experts as they explored the definition of quality at a Nespresso forum.

The beverage itself is just one component of the coffee drinking experience, and the idea of quality should be far more holistic – from the cup to the spaces where people enjoy the beverage, they argued.

Now in its second year, the Nespresso Coffee Conversation Symposium took place last week on the eve of the International Congress on Cocoa, Coffee and Tea. This year it was hosted by Aveiro University in Portugal, and speakers weighed in on the theme: the quality of the experience.

Coffee: fuel or fun?

Peter Giuliano, director of the Speciality Coffee Association of America (SCAA) Symposium, traced coffee consumption back to Ethiopian coffee ceremonies. An important part of the experience was to exchange information and connect over the beverage.

But in the twentieth century, industrialisation changed the expectation of coffee.

“With the industrialisation of everything else, coffee got industrialised, and got fit into the coffee break,” ​he said. “It became the fuel for the working class, as opposed to a time of connection and luxury.”

But in the 1960s the idea of coffee as a speciality beverage that could be enjoyed and appreciated began to re-emerge.  

The taste and flavour of coffee as it is drunk is important – but it’s not the only way quality is realised, he said.

“As a barista – people come to us in the morning, and we learn not to talk to these people. No talkie before coffee, as they say,” ​said Giuliano.

“But on the second cup, people are prepared to learn more about what coffee is and what coffee can be. Where coffee comes from, how it got there, how it tastes the way it does. That’s where we can really add value to the experience of consuming coffee.”

Who creates value?

The person at the beginning of the chain is the coffee producer. “They establish the first chapter in the coffee story,” ​said Giuliano.  “And that helps us – those of us in the front line [baristas, for example] – preparing coffee. They create the first chapter of that coffee scenario, and that adds value.”

Next is the ‘cupper’ – the person who tastes coffee and identifies and assigns its quality. The language they use is important – “once spoken, it influences the way people perceive the coffee,”​ he said.

The roaster then contributes roasting characteristics and other attributes to the coffee.

coffee latte coffee swirl cropped
'An aesthetic flourish' from the barista

And finally the barista is the steward of the coffee’s quality. “They add an aesthetic flourish, present it in a beautiful and crafted way,” ​said Giuliano. “This of course adds value to the coffee and creates a sense of anticipation when the consumer is about to have it. Studies show people like coffee a lot more when presented in a beautiful way. This is something baristas know intuitively.”

Where do we create value?

Melissa Caldwell, professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, followed on with the next step in the coffee experience. An anthropologist with a specialism in food and drink, she explained the place of consumption contributes to the overall experience.

“When we think about spaces of consumption, what are the qualities associated with those spaces?” ​she asked. “We’re coming at quality from a very different perspective.”

“There’s several different ways to think about quality. What is this space in physical terms – the lighting, temperature, sounds, aroma, too hot, too cold, are the chairs comfortable, are they so uncomfortable you only want to stay there for 10 minutes?

“What about the social environment? Quality is often to do with the social relations between people – do they know each other, are they friends, strangers, how do they interact with one another?

“Is the coffee the right temperature, sweetness, bitterness?

“And emotions. How do people experience spaces – fondly, peacefully, aggressively, anxiously – what are the emotional dimensions?”

Morality and coffee

The idea of morality and coffee links to the standards and expectations of a society, said Caldwell – “coffee morals and ethics are part of a larger set of cultural values around rightness and propriety.”

Morality and ethics have long been an intrinsic part of the experience – such as considerations of ethical labour, fair trade, sustainability, or genetic modification.

The settings in which we enjoy coffee are profoundly cultural spaces, Caldwell added, explaining the socio-cultural context of coffee spaces varies greatly from one country to another.

This, in term, affects the overall coffee experience.

She gave the example of Turkey: men often drink coffee in public spaces while conducting business. However, women’s consumption tends to take place among close friends at home. 

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