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Tasting Notes

The most valuable experience I gained from the time I spent working in a coffee shop was learning how to conduct a tasting. In a sense, because it involves learning so much about coffee – the difference between arabica and robusta beans, where coffee grows and the nature of terroir (in the sense of “the taste of the place”), various processing methods, roasting styles and finally blends – it’s an involved and intricate process. In another sense, because it is, after all, simply the use of three things almost every human being has – a sense of taste, smell, and the ability to describe – it is a profoundly simple and accessible experience.

I must admit that I was very intimidated by the whole thing the first time I participated in a tasting. I was offered two samples of coffee which I could only describe as “Tastes like coffee” and “Also, tastes like coffee”. I was disturbed at the fluid yet alien descriptions of my fellow tasters and I kept sipping and sniffing trying to find the “mossy notes” and “ample tones of blackberry” and “subtle hints of cocoa layered with complex earthy aromas”. To be honest, I thought they were simply making these things up as they went. I almost felt like a daytripper touring Bedlam – “Pleased to meet you, Jesus and Ceasar. I’m Natalia Henceforth, illegitmate grandprogeny of Queen Victoria, late ruler of the Brittanic realms. Lovely weather we’re having, eh? Yes, this coffee does taste like moss. Delicious!”

That is, until I had my own tasting epiphany. I was given a sample of the rare Ethiopia Harrar and some blueberries. I dutifully inhaled the aroma of the coffee, took a small sip allowing the coffee to sweep across my tongue, swallowed and contemplated. Then I had a little of the blueberries and a lightbulb flickered on above my head – aha! I could actually taste something like blueberries in the coffee. It wasn’t something vivid enough to jump out and announce itself as an obvious flavor, yet it was undeniably there if I applied a sort of mindful savoring and sought it out.

I grew to love participating in, conducting and teaching others the art of tasting. I waxed eloquent and fanciful in my own descriptions. Whenever a customer inquired of the difference between the Arabia Mocha Java and the Arabian Mocca Sanani, my assistant manager would wave me over to repeat the contrasting description I’d concocted – Arabian Mocha Java is like Rock Hudson – woodsy, comfortable, casual yet hearty and warm, exactly the kind of coffee one could enjoy while camping in the great outdoors on a bracing early autumn’s evening. Arabian Mocca Sanani is like Cary Grant – complex, sophisticated with a suprising amount of depth, exactly the sort of thing best appreciated within a well-appointed Manhattan library curled up on a plush couch near a cheerful little fire in a grate.

Of course asking a writer to please describe is akin to “Hey, kitty, how ‘bout some catnip?” It simply doesn’t take much coaxing. Yet what I loved most about participating in this process wasn’t just the frequent opportunity to display my own verbosity – it wasn’t the acquisition of new comparison tools or the expansion of my own powers of description. What I loved most about tasting was the constant rediscovery of mindful savoring.

It’s an experience I’m reminded of every time the topic of commentary or criticism is readdressed here at Lit. It’s an experience I’ve struggled to put into words because I see similarities in the art of tasting and the task of criticism.

The most immediate similarity is that they both require moving beyond the most instinctive responses – “This is good” or “This tastes like coffee” or “I’ve had better”.

There is also a frequent protest which is attached to both experiences – “Eep! I’m not qualified to make critical comments” or “I’m not smart enough to learn tasting terms” or “Isn’t that just something for snobby people with too much time on their hands?”

Nope. See, the first rule of any tasting is that there are no wrong descriptions – just some better, more apt ones. The process of learning to form better descriptions is one which takes time and practice. It can be helpful to have a wider vocabulary just as it can help an artist to have a wide variety of hues from which to choose – but it’s not strictly necessary, as Picasso’s Blue Phase or Mark Twain’s plain speech can handily prove.

I believe the best gift a reader can give to a writer is not praise or encouragement, nor is it unsparing criticism. The best gift a reader can give to a writer is mindful attention, the contemplation of detail, underscored by an honesty which is both generous and pliant, selfless and openly subjective.

Pretensions, I believe, are what ruin good descriptions – whether biased toward the rarified or the common, the exotic or the familiar, the inherent blindness attached to pre-formed preferences is what impedes the kind of assessments which lead to valuable insight. It is humility, the deliberate mindset that every offering has some value which can be discovered through slow and careful absorption, which leads to continuous enrichment for any and every participant of these practices.

I’ve noticed that the most common response to discussions of criticism or commentary at Lit tends along the lines of “I tried to provide good criticism for a while but I didn’t get very good responses so I just stopped trying.” The irony of this statement is that I’ve only rarely seen writers at this site explicitly convey a disinterest in criticism. Rather, what seems to happen is that commentators become frustrated by a perceived lack of response – their comments may have little visible impact or provoke little notable reactions from the writer whom they have addressed. Yet, is it reasonable to expect that one very well written comment will change the whole of the state of poetry or literature in the idle space of a mouse click?

I’ve taken two realizations from these protests and my own experiences. For one, I’ve grown to value the worth of questions as useful tools in the application of criticism. After all, unlike a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, you can actually ask a writer what impact they are attempting to place on their audience. For another, I’ve learned to view my own criticism as simply taking place within a wider, highly engaging and endless conversation, rather than as continuous exerpts from my personal manifesto of What Life Should Be.

I’ve learned, overall, that I do not need any kind of perceivable response in order to find value in the work of criticism. If I can find nuance in the supple mouthfeel of a cup of Sulawesi, or reverence in the gaudy haze of a heartwrenching sunset, or simple perfection in the altering of one intransitive verb in an otherwise flawless haiku, then I have returned, again, to mindful savoring – a state of graceful contemplation which fulfills it’s own reward.

"All the darkness in the world
cannot put out the light
of one candle"

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The following comments are for "Tasting Notes"
by hazelfaern

I agree
I think that, perhaps, there should be some sort of mini-rubric provided, different for each type of submission, for the critic to fillout which will be represented as a bar graph when the comments are validated; these comments should be as closely related to the selections on the rubric as possible.

For those who don't know what a rubric is, it's a chart for different attributes with levels going from bad to great, usually five levels, and each level per attribute has a certain description of why one would check that box, for example:

"Clarity of Writing: 3 (fair) - Writer has cogent sentences but does not seem focused on the stated topic."

I have a mind to scan the Pennsylvania Writing Rubric (that's not exactly what it's called, but there is one) for Crowe so he can implement some form of this in order to improve the critique aspect of Lit.Org.

This was an excellent treatment of a situation that does deserve attention here.


( Posted by: the alienist [Member] On: November 22, 2004 )

Creativity, Numbers and Notes
Actually, I was hoping to present something of an option for a rating system. You see, if Lit draws a wide variety of authors with various levels of experience in the field of writing, the same goes for commenters. And I think it can be difficult to use the same rating system for a wide variety of different styles of writing, even when grading published, well known authors: imagine trying to apply numerical values to Spenser's Faerie Queen, Whitman's Song of Myself, Dickinson's Letter to the World, Frost's The Mending Wall, Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Ginsburg's Howl, Plath's Ariel, Atwood's The Circle Game, etc...

While I worked at the coffee shop I noticed a familiar trend with new employees. Initially their reactions began with: Columbia is good, Sumatra is bad. Then they moved to: I love the mild, nutty notes of Columbia, while I'm not overly fond of the deep, earthy characteristics of Sumatra. Then: Columbia pairs very well with an almond croissant, while Sumatra makes an excellent accompaniment to a mushroom omelette. In other words, the more familiar they became with tasting and exploring coffee, the less personal and judgemental their comments became.

As a writer I may begin with the notion that I love Plath, hate Spenser, think Dickinson is meh -- ok. I may judge all writing based on these personal preferences. Yet, I think as I progress as a writer I learn to better understand and place my preferences into context.

I loved the way the experience of a tasting could really open people up to more than just the exploration of coffee. Learning how to take time with something new, explore the nuances, makes every exploration richer.

I wanted to bring some of this to interested readers here at Lit. It's simply another way to view the process of reading, commenting or critiquing, which I think can be valuable no matter what one's background may be.

( Posted by: hazelfaern [Member] On: November 22, 2004 )

It doesn't have to be complex.
It can just be a very simple, optional rating system to help concretize critique for both parties, and help to make things clearer in regard to the intent of the critic.

It doesn't have to be the kind of in-depth rubric a school district would have, by any means. I'm sure Crowe and Jessica will iron out a simple and serviceable rating system that will help those who desire to utilize it.

( Posted by: The Alienist [Member] On: November 22, 2004 )

Hazelfaern's Coffee
Very smooth and pensive for such a robust topic! Pairs well with a morning at the office!

Having said that: I agree with Claire that the majority of the authors on this site are testing their legs, regardless of their aspirations. I think quite a few are hobby writers who would love to hear "you should try to get this published!"

I don't think it really matters if a rating system is used. The comments are all I care about. So if it changes and you may or may not choose to use the numbers, okay... This site is providing a "pride in ownership" for lay-poets world-wide. That's cool!

( Posted by: GibsonGirl [Member] On: November 22, 2004 )

I rarely try to step on someone's toes artistically. I'm more of a grammatical critique guy than style, because style is so personal and hard to judge. I'll offer suggestions on rhetoric devices, use of anaphora, metaphor, etc, because those have specific use and can really enhance or detract from a piece based on their use.

The piece is well written. Has a strong point to make, and uses crisp language that flows together nicely to make it.

As for a new rating system:

If the perfectly fine existing system HAS to be replaced, I'd prefer to see it as a rating system based on a writer's request. You can request the depth of your critique on a scale from say, 0-10, where 0 is "just for fun!" up to 10 which is "I'm Dickens incarnate, let me have it!"

That way the readers can know just how receptive to critique the writer is, and spend an appropriate amount of time and energy on it.

( Posted by: capulet [Member] On: November 22, 2004 )

Rubrics and Claire
I use rubrics a lot at my work, and I like them. But I agree that if we use one it should be optional and have a comment feature as well.

Other than that, I'm with Claire. I argued basically the same sort of thing a couple of weeks ago, and I'm glad we see eye to eye on this!

( Posted by: Viper9 [Member] On: November 22, 2004 )

New Interest
Thanks for this piece! I have been buying different wines to enjoy because I was keenly interested in tasting...I am awful at it, for exactly the reason you stated, it tasted like, well just like wine! I am going to buy something new for thanksgiving and apply myself. By the way, I loved your description of the coffee, I want to go camping in the fall and drinks some of that Arabian Mocha Java!

( Posted by: Scryer [Member] On: November 22, 2004 )

ratings and critique
I wrote a poem titled " Re: charmrs proposal" a while back.(Shameless plug) I cannot tell you how important critique is. There are some very educated folk on this site. It takes a while to sort out whom(who) you want to criticize your work. Maybe set up a board of critics assembled from the members and avoid a new rating system altogether. Place a check box beside your name if you want critique on any or all pieces. Let the board flame away if you want. The faster the education. the more critics on the board. Just an idea.


( Posted by: williamhill [Member] On: November 22, 2004 )

Capulet's Thoughts, Alienist, All
Just for the record, I love your idea Capulet. I know AndyHavens and IvorDavies have added feedback symbols to their avatars to connotate a desire for criticism, but I like the notion of making it a little more specific. Might help with the problem Jess mentioned above.

"I'm Dickens incarnate -- let me have it" made me giggle. (Oh!)

Alienist, I must say I'm still in shock that we've found another thing to fully agree upon. I think this calls for a glass of wine, nowish.

Thanks all for the thoughts and feedback.

( Posted by: hazelfaern [Member] On: November 23, 2004 )

Artists be artists
I have to agree with Claire on this issue. We should simply let artists be and I have to say Jen that was very well written!!!.

The one thing that would sort this all out is if a new section was added called 'critique'. A home for those people who wish to have their work reviewed and critiqued to improve. All that would be offered would be blunt critique to the piece on everything from grammar to iambic pentameter. Williamhill said it true!!

The rating system at this moment in time bodes well for what this site is mostly used for, an open forum for all level of writers who enjoy the community and the sharing if their work.

It wouldn't be difficult for a new section to be added where people post their work to improve. A more detailed rating system is going to prove problematic in that everyone will interpret it on an individual basis as they do now, nothing can change that without the use of archaic legal terminology for the ranks 1-10. Therefore restricting the artist and their impression of others works.

If anybody wants critique then they can actually ask for it. They just better make sure that they accept the critique in good grace! :-P

Alex xx

( Posted by: londongrey [Member] On: November 23, 2004 )

This is beautiful. So knowing, and precise, and lovely. Like philosophy set to music.

( Posted by: chanda [Member] On: November 24, 2004 )

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