Pucker Up Espresso Lovers

When creating the overall tone in an article, a few key points are generally worth repeating. Put together, these can either weave a fabric of opinion or a shroud of negativity. On occasion I am not really sure which it is – for example this recent piece in The Observer, titled Hot Shot: the story behind the great global coffee revolution, by Jay Rayner, which begins:

Coffee shops have taken over our high streets, supported by a never ending supply of connoisseur addicts. Jay Rayner meets some of the major players taking the revered bean to even greater heights, and asks whether they are ruining his favourite espresso

Early in the piece Rayner describes a beautiful looking espresso, which tastes a little, let’s say, less than perfect:

The taste, however, is wrong. Very wrong. It’s fiercely acidic, a sour hit that makes my lips pucker up like a cat’s bum

That initial impression was London in 2012, with the article published in June this year. It would appear many sour espresso’s have been consumed by the author between then and what is sitting squarely in front of him now. Further, we hear how the burgeoning speciality coffee industry with it’s lighter roasting profiles is (perhaps forever) changing the way our beloved beverages taste across the board.

I don’t believe this is unique to London, given the changes I have seen across Brisbane’s cafés in the past 12–18 months. Although, within a two block radius of my CBD office, there are 3 such cafés, whereas 5–6 times as many (at least) serving “traditionally” roasted espresso. Those serving more traditional style espresso are not going away as far as I can tell (and good for them), and you only need look at the ongoing patronage of the bigger name chains to see that. You may wish to avoid the throngs queueing at these newer cafés, walk right up to the counter at one of the others and order (though possibly a little harsh, message intended in that sentence).

I’m a little curious as to why the author paints a picture of ‘espresso ruined’ across virtually an entire city. I would have thought a city the size of London perhaps may have a few cafés to choose from, many of which would serve espresso with a more “traditional taste”. Perhaps I am wrong on this point.

As far as this ‘new taste’ is concerned? Personally, I enjoy it, along with the variety of espresso now offered not only between different establishments, but also within the same café – often weekly. The more ‘typical’ darker roasted espresso? I enjoy that too – mostly. If espresso can be too acidic, there is just as much (if not more) being served that is more bitter than I care to describe. The continuum works both ways. I can however, see the author’s point of view, as there have been times where I have found the amount of acidity present in some espresso to be perhaps be a little high for my taste. Ironically, the most striking example of this came from one of my own roast batches, which you can read about in my most recent What’s Brewing post.

When it comes down to personal taste, as with anything – food, drink, art, comedy… all a matter of opinion is it not? Why does all scotch not taste the same? I assume it’s because there are those who enjoy flavours of smoke and peat, others sweetness and honey. Or am I missing the point? Are sweetness and honey flavours ruining my favourite scotch? Oh, that’s right, I just buy the one I like. Great to have choices.

Although Rayner makes a valid observation, I question whether the overwhelming negativity and gloom ensure it comes across as too much of a whine to really be of value.

~ PD.

Cafes, Bloggers and Reviews

Whether or not you agree with ratings and crowd sourced or blogger reviews, there is no denying their influence. Enough to make or break a business? Maybe, maybe not, though in an increasingly connected world, where we are all constantly encouraged to “rate” our purchases or experiences, a large amount of data is available for those who wish to look.

Reviews, Ratings and Blogs

Often being on the lookout for quality coffee, one site and app I often consult is Beanhunter, which was created to fulfill this exact need.

James Crawford, Co-founder of Beanhunter in Beanscene magazine:

Beanhunter is about engaging coffee enthusiasts with great coffee shops. It’s a platform for people to know where great coffee is located and expose coffee shops, that’s why it started.

Which then brings us to blogs. Yes, point taken – look at the blogger judging the bloggers! From the same article:

If Catherine has a “mediocre experience”, she says she won’t hesitate to share it with her followers. “Why should I not write about it just because it’s negative? I think of it as a warning to others to keep in mind what they can expect to happen, whether it be bad food or bad service,” she says. “I guess [reviews] do have the potential to hurt a business, but if there are so many negative reviews about a particular venue, then they must be doing something wrong.

Fair enough, however why should I “expect” a negative experience to happen? Or will I simply not go at all, relying on someone else’s opinion (who I know nothing about) that a particular place of business is not worthy of even a second look or the benefit of the doubt. That perhaps they were visited on a day when the senior barista was away at a competition, the boss was off with the flu, and the remaining staff were doing everything in their power just to keep the doors open.

So, much-needed guidance or more confusion? That is for readers to decide, however many a blog with a strong following and sound reader engagement will wield a good deal of influence on consumer behaviour. The downside? In all of the writer and reader interaction, the one left out in the cold is often the proprietor of the establishment being critiqued. The scenario mentioned above? Perhaps enough to warrant a low star review and scathing few words, when a simple word to staff or management may have resolved any particular issue with product or service on the day.

Sometimes it’s a little too easy to judge, and judge in front of a large audience at that.

On a blog or well patronised crowd sourced review site, the particular review in question may sit at the top of the posts for a little or a long time, allowing a great many potential customers to view it. Will they necessarily realise this is an aberration in the generally stellar performance of a particular establishment. Maybe, maybe not. Such a scenario may be where the numbers and the average review rating saves the day.

Of course let’s not forget there are those cases with consistently poor service of an inferior product, which is another matter entirely, and neither numbers nor words will save you here.

Penny Wolff, of Brisbane’s Dandelion and Driftwood on reviews:

“This form of communication can be detrimental because business owners can’t control people’s opinions. In most cases, they don’t have the opportunity to rectify the issue or respond to the review and that’s just frustrating for the business owner.”

Even if the business owner reaches out to the person who was supposedly wronged with an explanation and attempted clarification of a situation (as was the case on Twitter recently by a very well-respected establishment on the Brisbane coffee scene), it can be met with a meaningless response “ok thanks, I’ll be sure to mention that to your competition down the road”.

One expert or a hundred reviewers

At the end of the day, isn’t it all about personal opinion anyway? And if so, should we trust one expert reviewer (however that may be defined) or listen to the collective voice of hundreds of our peers? In many ways this is indeed a double-edged sword, and perhaps the answer lies in whether consumers really understand what they are going to get for their hard-earned cash.

Beyond the fact that the collective voice of our peers can be tainted by personal prejudice which sometimes descends into unruly nonsense, we also must acknowledge we have different levels of experience, tastes and preferences.

Perhaps this is where a specialised review site such as Beanhunter has an advantage over more generalised sites, in being a little more limited to those specifically seeking out a positive coffee experience rather than stretching across the entire restaurant, cafe and bar scene. On the other side of the coin, does this then skew ratings towards the specialist end of the cafe scene? I don’t necessarily think so, as even within a defined review ecosystem such as Beanhunter, tastes and experience do cross a reasonably sized spectrum.

The point here? There will always be differences in knowledge, experience, and preferences of groups at either end of the expert-novice spectrum, as this article on beer tasting from Business Insider demonstrates.

It’s your opinion not mine

The final word? Make up your own mind, because at the end of the day, surely the benefit of the doubt should go to those who have just done their best to serve you, with the resources they have, on the particular day you visit.