This Coffee Sucks

This Coffee Sucks

This coffee sucks! When was the last you said these words or when was the last time you were on the receiving end?
This coffee sucks, your coffee sucks, this coffee stinks! Three little words that can shatter dreams, confidence, and sometimes even a business. Incredibly tough to hear, equally tough to say, but is it sometimes necessary to say them? 

Over the years (presumably I’m not alone here), I’ve often found it challenging to give or receive feedback on a cup of coffee. Whether it’s me or somebody else brewing, many times I’ve found myself walking out of a café, meeting or cupping session not having been truly honest about what I thought, and far too many times I’ve been guilty or privy to disingenuous praise on coffee that just wasn’t good.
So why do we find ourselves concealing the truth and why is it so hard to be honest about what we really think? How can we remove these hurdles and biases that prevent us from being transparent?

In my early days of working in specialty coffee, I often found myself in situations where my peers would love a coffee and I couldn’t understand why, but I reluctantly just went with the flow and agreed with them. Over the years, I’ve identified three reasons why I couldn’t express my unpopular or polarised opinion:

  • I couldn’t articulate what I was experiencing, nor could I identify the sensory attributes that I disliked – I didn’t speak the “coffee jargon”
  • I didn’t trust my ability to taste and thought that if I didn’t like that coffee it was because my palate wasn’t good enough – I felt peer pressured into liking a coffee
  • I didn’t want to upset the person who brewed the coffee, the roaster or producer. My inability to identify if a negative attribute of the cup was due to brewing, roasting, processing or green coffee made it challenging to provide constructive feedback – l lacked general coffee knowledge


My own learning curve

A few years ago, I was backstage at a coffee competition and one of the competitors asked me to taste their coffee and give feedback. Barely a few sips in, I immediately noticed an overly intense acetic acidity (vinegar-like), the coffee was boozy/alcoholic, and had a really rough astringent texture.

The coffee was obviously defective and I couldn’t drink more than a few sips. Reluctantly, I told the competitor that his coffee wasn’t great for the reasons I mentioned above. The entire room of competitors and coaches turned to me with shock. The competitor walked away without saying a word, his face marked by despair as he was about to go out on stage.  I quickly realised that my actions were inappropriate and I felt terrible, but a part of me wondered why nobody had told him this before?

After this awkward experience, I knew I had to dial down my tone and figure out a more constructive, methodical approach. While I had good intentions, the manner in which I gave the feedback was not helpful. 

A few months ago, I was coaching Rasmus Madsen (Danish Brewer’s Cup Champion) for the upcoming World Brewer’s Cup Championship and as he’d only very recently arrived in Australia, we had very limited time to prepare together. We knew we needed to be direct, efficient, and cut to the chase when it came to dialling-in his recipe.

During our preparations, I was really impressed by Ramsus’ ability to be honest yet constructive while providing feedback and he did this in a very clever way.

He kept it factual. For example, if there was something off about a coffee we just brewed, rather than blaming the coffee or brew method, he would address the attributes in the cup and how they would affect the scoresheet. This created a safe environment to try different things that we may have otherwise disregarded. It allowed us to work towards a common goal: to achieve the best possible expression of a coffee.


The café conundrum 

For the last three years, a large part of my job has been to help café owners and operators get the most out of their coffee and equipment by providing training and creating solutions to their problems. In a typical week, I would visit dozens of cafes and drink copious amounts of coffees – some of which weren’t great.

As some of the cafes I visit are actual customers of mine, giving truthful feedback can sometimes be a little sensitive. For instance, I don’t want to upset them or hurt their feelings and I definitely don’t want to compromise a healthy relationship. I’ve observed a common reluctancy from other coffee roasters to provide truthful feedback to their customers, simply in fear of losing them.

But is this the right approach? While it may be the easy way out, you can actually cause more harm than good by not being truthful. If their customers aren’t enjoying the coffee, then soon there won’t be any customers. Having been in this situation on numerous occasions, below are my best practices to make difficult feedback positive.


Giving feedback

  • Don’t make it personal
  • Criticise to the cup, not the brewer: “I think the acidity is unbalanced and I find the texture to be rough (…)”
  • Aim for a balance of positive and corrective feedback: “(…) however, the cup has distinct, delicious red fruit notes”
  • Stay factual and base your feedback on a diagnosis
  • Make recommendations to improve the cup: “I find the cup astringent and overly intense, I’d suggest to try brewing at a lower temperature to mitigate that”
  • Put things into their context: “this cup is low in acidity but it makes sense considering this is a pulped natural Brazil”
  • Make it a habit: get used to giving feedback for everything in life, not just coffee!
  • Acknowledge changes made based on feedback: “I noticed that the coffees you served me today had a more balanced acidity than yesterday, I find them more enjoyable!”


Receiving Feedback

Take from your own experiences. Keep in mind that most feedback (even if delivered poorly) is not an attack on you. Chances are, the person giving the feedback is not very good at it, so try not to take it personally. Giving and receiving feedback is a skill that requires daily practice and attention, not just in the coffee world but in every day life. By implementing some of these changes gradually, I’ve found myself to be more honest and truthful while making my feedback and messages more powerful and better received.

Article by Simon Gautherin

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