Tiffin Project

Supertasters vs. Bitters

by Colter Jones on February 8, 2013

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What do people like? It’s a question that most coffee retailers should probably ask themselves more. Specialty roasters tend to pursue a taste and style of coffee that is based on personal preference and a heightened knowledge of what quality coffee tastes like, but does the average customer share these ideals? Perhaps not.

Taste is dependant upon the number of fungiform papillae (taste recptors) that we have on our tongues as determined by genetics. Those with the dominant gene for taste (TAS2R28) are classified into a group called supertasters, who account for approximately 25% of the population. The rest of the world is divided into medium- tasters and non- tasters, which certainly makes sense in terms of the Yelp reviews that I’ve seen. So excellent tasting is nature over nurture? Yes. Women are more likely to be supertasters with 35% of all women belonging to the group. Men only account for 15% of the supertaster group, and a much larger percentage of the non- tasters.

Supertasters have a heightened sense of bitter, which means that they are prone to dislike bitter foods such as green vegetables and coffee. I certainly don’t think that this means coffee professionals are not supertasters because they enjoy coffee, quite the opposite. Statistically supertasters are more likely to hold skillful jobs in the service industry. In the same way that wine tasters have sensitivity towards tannins, coffee professionals have sensitivity to the bitter tastes that coffee can produce inspiring them to create a cleaner, balanced brew.

Caffeine is often attributed as the culprit that causes coffee to be bitter but in fact it only accounts for about 15% of coffee’s bitterness. In my experience the average customer prefers their coffee to be roasted a bit darker, which we know produces more bitterness than a light or medium roast. At higher roast levels the antioxidants that cause bitterness in coffee (Chlorogenic Acid Lactones) are broken down into Phenylindanes, which have a much more bitter and lingering quality to the palate. Naturally we can draw the conclusion that the dark roast’s popularity amongst the population is most likely for those 75% who have less sensitivity towards bitterness.

There is a significant gap in the perception of quality coffee between the public and those who work in specialty coffee. Perhaps there is a lack of understanding on both sides because we fail to look at taste as a subjective experience. For that reason specialty coffee will always be pigeonholed into catering to a very specific section of the population that enjoy their coffee a certain way. Everyone tastes in a different way and I’m starting to become quite okay with that. Darker roasts may not be “correct” because they create a bitter brew, but perhaps we should appreciate and understand that many people can still enjoy it.


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

paulkamon February 8, 2013 at 11:23 am

Great article, Colter. Fascinating topic, especially considering the business angle trying to find a balance between sales and quality. I prefer a medium roast and find it hard to drink dark roast now as I prefer the sweeter notes and more subtle notes.

I don’t mind bitter (especially in beer), but I really don’t like the astringent quality it tends to leave in the mouth.

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