The topic of whether you should choose a coffee or a roaster first has come up quite a bit on the web including a comment that I saw recently “Choose a coffee not a brand”. My thought? Let taste experiences form your brand impressions which effect your buying decisions. Continually question these perceptions and try to approach each cup critically with your biases in mind. Let me tell you two stories that lead me to these thoughts.
Two stories around Brand
A friend from work recently went to Montreal and was staying close to Cafe Myriade. I asked him to pick up some coffee for me. Which coffee? I left the choice up to the owner, Anthony. Essentially, I trust his brand to deliver quality coffee selection. The result was a bag of Kenyan Ngunguru Peaberry by 49th Parallel Roasters, another brand which has delivered great tasting coffees to me over the last year. When I went to taste this coffee through the Aerporess, I approached it critically with a positive bias, and the coffee delivered. A pronounced dark chocolate aroma with floral and light raisin hints introduced this well balanced cup. The main cup had apricot sweetness featuring dark chocolate contrasted by light lemon and orange acidity leaving a dry cocoa finish intermingling with raisins. I enjoyed this coffee quite a bit, as did some of my friends who I shared it with. It was not a mind blowing coffee, but certainly very pleasing and meeting expectations.
The other day, I dropped by Crema in Toronto which normally serves and stocks 49th Parallel Roasters coffee. For quite a while, Crema has been putting its own brand on the bags of Epic Espresso it sells, although they clearly acknowledge that it’s 49th Parallel coffee in the bag. Despite the Crema brand on the bag, I always assumed that no matter the coffee, it was always 49th Parallel in the bag. So I picked up a bag of drip Top Lot ECX Yirgacheffe coffee from Crema. Again I went for the Aeropress with a positive bias, but this time I was a little disappointed with the cup. It lacked the usual big aroma that I am used as it appeared flat, the cup had nice sweetness and balance, and the long finish was a bit chocolately, but then turned a bit woody and ashy. This was below what I have come to expect. I emailed Geoff from Crema to see if it was 49th Parallel. He replied that it was not (my guess was Detour) which prompted me to ask why the roaster was not on the bag. He replied that …
no reason in particular. I just don’t think it really matters. what matters is that it’s a great coffee roasted exceptionally well. I buy lots of coffee from different roasters, and choose what I think are the best ones for our customers. to say it’s from one roaster or another tends to cause prejudice and I don’t think that’s really fair to anyone.
I do agree that all information on a package influences taste perceptions. However, I am not as much of a pessimist that customer palates are not smart enough to be objective enough to taste coffees. To me, it is a little insulting to tell me that I can’t taste objectively enough, so I will pick and choose which information to filter. Maybe origin should also be left out? Great coffee is the result of many consecutive steps. Labeling is perhaps the most straight forward way to recognize each member of that chain allowing taste associations to be formed about each of them based on taste experience.
Furthermore, I am not certain that this choice was made purely to help roaster impartiality. From a business perspective, landed wholesale costs of coffee between 49th Parallel Coffee and Detour Coffee are different. Given the hefty $16 price tag per 12 oz for the Yirgacheffe, I would anticipate differing margins as well.
Having opinionated a lot, the bottom line is that the coffee on which the Crema brand was on, did not taste as good as I expected. I had always equated the Crema brand with the 49th Parallel brand. When I tasted something below expectation, I started questioning both brands, but investigation led me to delink these brands and create a separate brand for Crema in my mind. How do I view this brand? In terms of coffee quality based on taste, not something I trust anymore. What if the coffee had tasted great and it was a Detour Coffee? I would have probably continued to think that it was 49th Parallel and continued to link the brands which also would have not been fair.
I usually buy coffees from roasters that have delivered good coffees, and I try to taste objectively being aware of incoming dispositions. I sometimes try and retry roasters based on curiosity and what is recommended to me by trusted professionals. I am biased towards certain roasters because they have delivered great tasting coffees, but I believe my palate is strong enough to overcome biases, both positive and negative.