The following post is written by guest author and friend. He is an international bartender, fantastic painter, and a lover, not a fighter.
He writes about tasting coffee, but his views are equally applicable to cheese. Please welcome our guest author, Jonathan Gaige.
by Jonathan Gaige
I’m a New Yorker currently in Australia and have noticed that Australians are into coffee in a big way. I’ve been a self-proclaimed coffee connoisseur for 12 years and this came as a surprise to me. They have their own signature cultural drinks such as the Flat White. The Flat White is similar to a latte but with thinner foam on top and a ratio of milk to espresso that makes it much stronger in coffee flavor. Every cappuccino I’ve seen here is topped with cocoa powder, which, in my opinion as a gastronomic purest, is not natural but an enjoyable foible in this foreign land. I would like to make clear, in case I come off as preachy (which I’m sure I will) that this is simply my opinion and my perception of why and how we taste.
Twelve years ago, I took my first job as a barista and I have been exploring the world of coffee ever since. I continue to refine my taste through revisiting drinks I’ve had before and expanding my palate trying new beverages. I’ve sampled and tasted coffee varieties from all over the world – Vietnamese Iced, Turkish/Greek, Espresso beverages, good ol’ American Drip, Japanese pour over and have dreamed of starting a cafe that could brew any kind of coffee that you want because all of these styles of drinking the bean tea are unique and admirable.
So, it took me by surprise that just about all of the Australian natives I’ve met in my journey throughout the country say that there is no good coffee in America (speaking about NYC predominantly). I would like to get out of the way that there are some world class establishments in New York to seek out if you’re hard core about your coffee. As a country that takes their coffee seriously, this mindset is truly befuddling to me. First off, the espresso drinks here taste pretty much the same as back home to me, and second, and I’m not trying to go tit for tat with the Aussies, but I’ve gotten some pretty random interpretations of a Flat White, some indistinguishable from a latte.
I‘m not making a point that there is no good coffee in Australia, but it has made me start thinking about the interpretation of taste and how taste is perceived. Since I cannot put my finger on exactly why Australians feel there is no good coffee in America, I turned my thoughts inward and began to analyze my own methods of taste.
I realized quickly that over the years, I have developed my own personal standards to evaluate what I am tasting. Whether it’s for coffee, wine, chocolate, or cheese, when I try something new and am evaluating the craft by which something was made, the first thing I look for is “some quality”.
Quality and Blandness
“Some quality” to me is anything I can identify as a quality. I may not like the particular quality but as a taster I’m trying to identify if it’s got something distinct for someone to appreciate. I don’t take my own taste buds as gospel. Any wine merchant will tell you at a tasting that there are no wrong answers. The first thing I think about while evaluating any digestible is basically “Is this bland?”
Factors within Quality – Is this I something I enjoy eating?
This search obviously and inevitably leads to a variety of other questions about exactly what those qualities are: what notes on a flavor wheel could be identified, if there is balance struck with those flavors, mouthfeel, aroma, texture, etc. One could, after that, bring other factors under evaluation – like cost – which if you happened to be in a place that only has civet digested coffee, could effectively bring a person to the conclusion that, practically, it is not accessible and therefore there isn’t any good coffee in the place. At the end of the day I’ll draw the conclusion as to whether or not this thing is a thing I like and would enjoy eating.
Cultural Relativity and Location
I thoroughly believe too, that cultural relativity would comes into play. If I hear about balut, for example, can’t just go find a fertilized egg and say I’ve had it. In other words, when in Rome, do as the Romans. The first time I had balut was in Cambodia at a market stall on the street with all the accouterments. Without that perspective, I don’t think I could say that I’ve really had it. Nor would I know its better with vinegar. If I know that I’m the type of person who doesn’t like cilantro, as in for many people cilantro tastes like soap, I would hope I’m not the type of person to say there’s no good food in Mexico. I think this often happens when people come into contact with American Drip style coffee. If I gabbed a coffee at a bodega I’m not going to value it in the same way I would a single origin, small batch roasted coffee at an independent cafe. At a bodega I would add a bit of cream and maybe a dash of sugar. It’s a totally different beast because of the utilitarian aspect than the fine wine of a single origin drip. That drip would have totally different qualities if you grind it finer and use it in a latte.
Try it, You Might Like It – Practice, Practice, Practice
The last thing which I might consider, if I don’t understand or like the thing I’m starting to taste, is the acquired taste aspect. Sometimes you have to smoke several pipes to understand the subtleties of tobacco. I wasn’t a huge fan of Armagnac when I first tried it but after my fifth time trying it it grew on me. There’s a lot of scientific evidence to suggest that we can and will learn to like things of we only try, weather it’s with cigars, brandy, or spiciness of chili peppers. So, there’s a lot of relativity to trying new things. The only way to truly understand if there is “good” food or drink in a culture is to humble yourself, keep an open mind, and try different samples for comparison. The Buddhist have a practice of meditation when they eat. Leave the rest of your mind and meditate on your next meal with each bite and sip.
Like many things we appreciate in life, I feel that tasting comes with patience, awareness, and knowledge. The ability to leave our comfort zone to partake in and appreciate others’ cultural traditions and subtleties and to keep an open mind that what we are about to experience may be our next favorite thing or, if not at that grand of a scale, definitely makes our scale of evaluation standards a little more robust for our next tasting.
I’d like to invite all of you to apply this method of thinking to when you eat cheese. So many people eat cheese and simply think “This is good. It tastes like cheese.” I challenge you to recall to the last cheese you ate and compare what you’re eating to that previous one – and remember the cheese you’re eating now to apply to comparison to future cheeses you will eat. Like different styles or methods of preparing coffee, cheese is the same. Approach with an open mind and you world can and will open up.