Sometimes it just tastes good Felix

By Razib Khan | July 6, 2010 12:26 am

The more you know, the better it tastes:

People like LaForge don’t want altitude information on their coffee because they prefer 1700m coffee to 1400m coffee. Instead, Intelligentsia is supplying something much more important and valuable: a unique narrative. It’s the same thing that’s going on in the wine world….

I agree that the “story” or our understanding of something (e.g., whether it’s $100 or $10) can affect our perception of the hedonic experience. But sometimes coffee just tastes better. So the first time I had a Stumptown roast I was blown away, without knowing anything of the roaster’s history or reputation (it has a good reputation). I wasn’t even much of a coffee snob then (and really, I’m not much now). Though I think that the narrative of civet coffee might make me avoid it, even I if accept that objectively it has a better taste.

Note: Naturally Felix takes wine as an analog. But I think the ‘narrative’ is a much bigger deal in that case because people have far less objective discernment when it comes to wine.

MORE ABOUT: Hedonism, Taste

Comments (7)

  1. dan

    it tastes better to *you* based on your particular genome;)…and cultural upbringing – which can send an action potential to a zone of pleasure rather than one of disgust no matter how foul the drink.
    question: do wine lovers and foodies understand how their brain works? i’d guess not or else they’d romanticize both a lot less….i always tell foodies that my car really has a “preference” for mid-grade but not from Chevron…*only* from Shell. maybe foodies just don’t care

  2. it tastes better to *you* based on your particular genome;)…and cultural upbringing – which can send an action potential to a zone of pleasure rather than one of disgust no matter how foul the drink.

    constraints differ by taste. though when it comes to beer, wine, coffee, etc., probably kids think they all taste like crap.

  3. Sandgroper

    I disagree with Felix, but in doing so I realize I’m setting myself apart from a lot of people.

    I tasted coffee for the first time when I was 10 years old and thought it tasted wonderful. I still think beer tastes like crap, which in Australia amounts to treason punishable by firing squad.

    My sure-fire way of selecting a good bottle of wine is by the price – if it tastes good, it costs more. Give me a combination of the region, the variety and the price, and I’ll pick a good bottle of wine every time that most people will really like, without being told anything about it. It doesn’t need to be hugely expensive – but a difference between $15 and $25 for a bottle can make a big difference in taste. I don’t need all that bullshit about undernotes of castor oil or whatever. I much prefer Bordeaux to Burgundy – I really don’t care that the chateau is run by a corporation (or an absentee owner – but I thought the whole point about absentee owners is that they don’t run anything, by definition).

    Pretty much the same with coffee – all I need to know is where and what and I’m confident of buying beans for myself that I’ll like. But generally people are much more discerning about coffee than wine in terms of knowing what they like and don’t like. I would have no hope of choosing a coffee for someone else and being confident they will like it. I agree, people are much more objectively discerning with coffee than with wine, but maybe that’s because coffee snobbery has not yet hit the heights of wine snobbery.

    Chinese tea is an interesting one. I have a very clear preference for the variety of Chinese tea that I like, but I doubt most westerners would, or that they would even be offered a choice.

    I wouldn’t drink civet coffee, apart from the obvious reasons (and remembering that SARS came from civets) because one of the things I love about coffee is its bitterness and, reportedly, soaking up civet gastro-intestinal juices (urraaauurrrrgghh!) removes the bitterness from the beans.

    A tip – if you ever go to Phuket in southern Thailand and go up into the mountains, and you want a good cup of coffee, go to a Muslim village, not a Buddhist village (you can tell which is which because the Muslim villages have no stray dogs hanging around) – Muslims make good coffee and Buddhists don’t. On the other hand, the Buddhists will give you bacon for breakfast, but then you get pestered by the dogs, so it’s a difficult choice.

  4. bioIgnoramus

    “I still think beer tastes like crap, which in Australia …” is absurd, because all mass-market Aussie beer tastes like piss. Except Cooper’s Ale from Adelaide, which is a perfectly palatable drink. ( I accept that things may have changed since I lived there. But I wouldn’t bet on it.)

  5. Sandgroper

    bio – I acknowledge the absurdity. But you still get shot at dawn for not drinking piss. No, nothing has changed. Cooper’s is still the only palatable drink in the country, despite the profliferation of ’boutique’ breweries with all of the usual bullshit. We now have beer snobbery on a par with wine snobbery – well, not quite, but approaching.

    When I was moonlighting at night as a professional musician in a céilidh band, while also working as an engineer during the day, Cooper’s stout was the only drink I would drink. It kept me going through the exhaustion and lack of sleep, that and Wimpy’s sausage and tomato burgers.

  6. miko

    I’m really interested in the question of how different tastes are aesthetically valued, I think it is a very complex question of innate olfactory/gustatory features plus a lot of cultural loading. Lobster used to be to food of the poor, etc. But take things like durian, blue cheese, cilantro–people tend to LOVE them or HATE them to a degree that seems to imply real biological variation, but in many cases these tastes can change. I used to hate olives with a passion, now the stronger and weirder the better–this happened in my 30s. Anyway, if I got to tell people what to research, I would tell biological psychologists to work on this. (Disclaimer: I’m not even bothering to do a Pubmed search to see what research is already out there, so “really interested” might have been a stretch.)

  7. Ah, taste. It’s all up to those specialized receptors. Do the origins of the taste molecules make a difference? Not to some people …


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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