Why so sour?

November 7, 2017

Speciality coffee. Why so sour? Photo by The Roasting Shed

Electronic cigarettes, shop after shop of plastic wrapped food, people running past with big, heavy backpacks. After stepping off the train in London, it only took a five minute walk down Liverpool Street to come to this conclusion: London is a city for trends. It was not just one person, or five, or ten people who smoked those electronic cigarettes, but EVERYONE. And those brightly lit shops that offer all sorts of flavour and aromas (which remind me of the smell of a spoiled hookah) were EVERYWHERE.


Urbanity as I know it praises individualism. At least for the sake of appearance. But I guess in London this concept is no longer “cool”. In London it’s trendy to be part of a trend. Which trend? Any trend. The undergrounds black mirrors reflect swarms of working class people, their grey, tired faces blankly stare at advertisements for pills to avoid tiredness. In the supermarkets the shelves are lined with fruits and vegetables all wrapped up in their own little plastic package. On the corner of every block there’s a sign for a new “Healthy Fast Food” chain - another trend of its own - and the sign reads: EAT. Full stop. Eat. Don’t forget to eat. Don’t fight with your food. Just eat. Period. It seems the “Jamie Oliver Effect” has created a hybrid OCD creature obsessing over “healthy local food” without really knowing what that means. I kid you not, the long label stuck on the plastic wrap of each individual broccoli has a little note on how to cook and serve it, as if it were a ready made meal produced in a factory, not a vegetable that came out of the soil.


 Eat. Full stop. Photo by Michal Levit


The Contra Trend


But as it happens with any other negative trend, also this scenario was a fertile ground for an opposed culture that tries to compete with it. It seems that alongside all the trends above, that indicates an attempt of cultural products like tobacco, sport and food, to suit themselves for the workers-prisoners lifestyle of London, there’s also a different trend that signifies a deep and more substantial change in the British consumptions habits, and maybe even worldwide.


 Bright roasting, photo by Michal Levit


I meet Neil Coyle from The Roasting Shed, who talks about the noticeable change.“There is a clear shift of taste. The human palate used to prefer sweet things, and now people like sourness more than ever”. Coyle is a young Coffee roaster from East London, and I got to his roastery, that sits inside a big shed that is located near the railroad tracks, with the recommendation of my friend, Chef Oded Oren. A night earlier we had a heated discussion in which I have found out that EVERYONE in London are drinking sour coffee. Oren, an advocate of the classic European dark roasting, does not understand all the fuss and myself, that without knowing of any trend just shifted my own taste towards the sour coffee - got curious.


The Roasting Shed are a part of something known as "Third Wave Coffee" or "Speciality Coffee".  It is a shift in coffee trend that started in Australia, New Zealand, West Coast US (Portland/Seattle) probably between 2005 and 2010 and has now spread globally״. The coffee importers, roasters and baristas that are a part of the Third Wave are bringing to the front of the cup values of quality, transparency and appreciation to the different methods and processes evolving in coffee making. “Relationships between farmers, traders, roasters and coffee shops are quite strong and are often more important than the corporate/social/environmental responsibility accreditation that is required to monitor bad practices in coffee production at the other end of the market”. And indeed, in almost every coffee shop around London the baristas will be able to tell you all there is to know about the origins of the served coffee, the processes, the altitude where it was grown and generally about the differences of the offered types of coffee for sell.


So why is the coffee sour?


“The way speciality coffee is roasted is generally different to traditional 'European' coffee. Roasting speciality coffee is to recognise that what you are dealing with is an organic agricultural product. When organic compounds are heated they go through various chemical reactions/changes and what you ultimately end up with is the breakdown of compounds and the formation of carbon. This is noticeable in traditional Italian, French and Spanish dark roasts where the carbon flavours is a very strong - ashy, burnt notes along with other negative flavours that may develop. In the worst cases, petrol and even fish”.


The main difference between the classic roasting and the new wave is that in the latter there is much more attention to the terroir and the raw material, as in wine. The Third Wave of coffee roasters knows exactly where the coffee came from and how to treat it. “Imagine you cook two tomatoes. One super juicy and flavoursome and the other bland and tasteless. Then put them both in the oven at 240 degrees for 5 hours. Both come out as charcoal and there was no point in buying the good tomato in the first place”.


 So basically - all classic roasting are actually trying to cover up the defects which are inherent to a poor raw material?


People nowadays accustomed to dark roasted, robusta based blend of 10 or 20 coffees found in supermarkets and coffee shops around the world. They will tell you that their ‘favourite coffee has always been (insert a multinational mass produced coffee brand)’.  Because, like everything else, coffee is also about expectations and marketing”.


We are tasting one Coyle’s coffee together. It has fruity notes, cherry acidity, with a bittersweet-herbal after taste that fills the mouth after swallowing. ״As an organic product which is the seed (not bean) of a fruit - a crispy, tart, bitter, sweet cherry - there is no reason why fruitiness shouldn't be a flavour detected when drinking coffee. When trying to describe ‘fruitiness’ two words you might use are acidic and sweet. A balance of the two. Along with a bitterness that is also prominent in coffee, these three qualities are what speciality roasters try to balance.  And I think that is the key word. BALANCE between acidity, sweetness and bitterness is what is trying to be achieved".


So is sour coffee necessarily better?


Light/medium roasted speciality coffee to someone used to drinking dark roasted coffee will almost certainly seem more acidic. And they are correct in that fewer of the natural acidic compounds that have developed during the roast have then been burnt away and broken down by high temperatures or longer roasting times. The challenge of Third Wave Coffee producers is to inform/educate/change/please the drinker's palette through the balance this acidity with sweetness, bitterness to make a complex, rich, full bodied, oily textured, aromatic drink with no negative charred burnt flavours present. I don't believe acidity is the main goal of the speciality coffee roaster but it should be a factor when trying to achieve this complex balance of flavours.  And of course there are many flavours which can be found in coffees. Ranging from fruits, nuts, chocolate, spices, teas, florals, and sugars. A tool we often use to describe these is a Flavour Wheel”.  



But looks like the “sour rush” goes way beyond coffee. The hottest trends in the world put the sourness in the center of things - sourdough bread, kefir, homemade fermentations like kimchi - all have high acidity in them. Lately, alongside the IPA’s, which became staple to Londoners in the past years, the sour beers have established their position in London’s pub. And talking about wind of changes within people’s taste, it will be a sin not to mention the natural wine movement, and the seek of young sommeliers for funky flavors, which are less sugary and more diverse and thus many times will become more acidic with maturation. The change in our taste is spreading as we speak.


Craft beer. Sour beer. Photo by Michal Levit 


And the craze for sour does not remain within the borders of the “consciousness changing” beverages. I sit with Adam Vanni from Jarr Kombucha. “People are drinking less and therefore seeking much more interesting and complex alternatives to alcohol. Kombucha sits perfectly in this space and also happens to be a craft produced product”. Kombucha is fermented drink produced by a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast. It is well known for its probiotic characteristics, its nutrients and antioxidants and generally considered as a healthy product. This old-new product has not yet penetrated into the Israeli market, but with an estimation of a of a global market that will reach USD 2457.0 billion by 2022, it is no longer considered to be a niche product. “In a discerning city like London”, Vanni continues, “I think it’s becoming more and more important for people to know where their coffee is roasted, where their veggies are grown, what farm their eggs come from and where their beer (or kombucha) is brewed. The story behind the product is almost as important as the product itself”. Seems like the sourness is just a by product of a good process. The taste is just the result then, and so is it possible that people just want to eat better things?

Kombucha. A giant tea cup. Photo by Jarr Kombucha 


“‘Sour’ and ‘acidic’ are often used interchangeably but some negative connotations may be applied to either of them, depending on the drinker”, Coyle continues, “As such, there may be lots of other words that can be used to give a more detailed description of what you are perceiving  - crisp, tart, tangy, zingy, zesty, citrusy, bright, lively. A green apple can have a zingy acidity but probably wouldn't be described as sour as this would have negative connotations. A citrusy sourness to a lemon is what is considered a positive attribute to a lemon. There wouldn't be much use to a lemon without its sourness”.


Whether it is directly connected or not, it seems that the while the consumption of sugary soft drinks goes down, the seek for an alternative products for sweets is raising. Moreover, the data shows that there is a growing interest in Speciality Coffee. Approximately 180 speciality coffee roasters now operate in the UK. 61% of roasters interviewed for the study have been roasting for two years or less. The estimation is that there are 1,400 independent speciality coffee venues in the UK, rising to 2,500 by 2020, a year-on-year growth rate of 12%. 65% of speciality coffee venue owners plan to open new stores in the next three years.


Coyle, do you think that the fact there is a growing interest in the UK for sugar levy has to do with the growing demand for sour flavors?


I personally think the people in the UK have always enjoyed acidic foods, particularly in fruits and desserts, but they probably don't think about it - granny smith apples, natural yogurts, blackcurrant and rhubarb crumbles, gooseberries etc. It may also be true that there is a wider acceptance of more acidity in food and drink as a whole as people explore ancient fermentation processes and acidic foods from around the world that are new to them.  Sourdough bread seems to be booming although this may have been just a long forgotten practice. Sour beers from Belgium, the rise of soft drinks like kombucha from Asia via the US, pickled ginger served with sushi, kimchi with Korean food etc”.


There seems to be strong evidence of a growing interest in the more complex flavours (and higher acidity) found in speciality coffee. How it is happening is up for debate. Are changing consumer patterns driving more roasters to roast lighter or are roasters changing what is perceived as an enjoyable level of acidity? Probably both. Either way, growth in the market for light/medium roasted speciality coffee seems to be outstripping growth in commercial grade traditionally roasted coffee”.


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