Are you your coffee?

What can coffee tell us about us? David Berman, a retired professor of philosophy at Trinity College, Dublin, who has since turned his attention to the critical study of coffee tasting, says there are three types of coffee drinker. Berman himself identifies as a bitterist. A bitterist, according to Berman's self-published work,The Philosophy of Coffee-Tasting, is someone who prefers a robust, dark-roasted flavour "just shy of turning burnt or smokey" that coffee snobs would consider an "unsophisticated 'French roast'".

As a bitterist, Berman lets himself off lightly. The sourist, on the other hand, likes light roasted beans and more complex flavours; has a nuanced palate and "a taste for social justice, and a fat wallet” (writes Berman, quoting John Hartmann's excellent Starbucks and the Third Wave). Meanwhile, the Americano is someone who, neither too bitter nor sour, likes an indistinct, "generic" coffee flavour and is the one "probably most subject to fashion" - the coffee fads dictated by the market.  If that's you, you're not alone at least. Berman refers to this third taste type as coffee's "silent majority”; the no-fussers who just want a plain, generic (or balanced) brew that taps into the essential coffee-ness of the world's most popular beverage (outside of water).

The various taste types relate to movements in coffee consumption and production over the decades. Caffeine literally fueled the human engine of industrialization in the nineteenth century when its popularity exploded in the U.S. and Western Europe. This First Wave of coffee was ruled by the cheap and the fast and the rise to prominence of household brands like Folgers and Maxwell House. Berman lists the First Wave flavour as light roasted, sour and "(at its best) aromatic". The eventual backlash against this so-called "bad coffee" culminated in the Second Wave movement, beginning in the 1960s, and is most closely associated with the popularity of destination java giants like Starbucks, who favoured a bitter, dark roast - perhaps because it was more unique for the market at the time, provided consistency of flavour (masking variations in bean quality and other fluctuations) and also paired well with the milk-based specialty drinks found in Italian coffee-bar culture, which Starbucks sought to emulate and automate en masse. The Third Wave is where we find ourselves now, a flourishing artisanal landscape that began in the 1990s as a reaction to large-scale and mass-market products, suppliers and marketing, which emphasizes individuality, craft and a more transparent relationship between producers, roasters and consumers. The taste produced by the lighter roasts favoured by the Third Wave accentuate the aromatic, sour and acidic.

An observational survey of 1,000 coffee drinkers, conducted by clinical psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula several years ago, proffers a more accessible window into coffee drinkers’ personalities. According to her survey, people who preferred their coffee black with no additives were likewise straightforward and no-nonsense. Latte drinkers were tagged as people-helping people pleasers who tended to soften the bitterness of life in the same way they muted their espressos. And those who liked their coffee sweet corresponded to a more childlike, spontaneous personality that didn't always make healthy choices. Whereas coffee drinkers who placed very specific orders (the decaf, soy folks) tended toward healthy choices but controlling behaviour. And so on.

The upshot: no matter how expressed we may feel by our choice in coffee, “we are no more defined by our coffee orders than we are by our astrological signs," says Dr. Durvasula. But varying our routine, she says, is good for mental health and improves resilience to change. So if you usually order multi-adjective caffeine cocktails, try a pared-down drip coffee now and then.

Note: To explore David Berman's fascinating work in the field of coffee-tasting and philosophy, follow his blog 'The Independent Review of Coffee-Tasting' here. His research, in part, looks at the "direct experience" of tasting coffee which he (and others) argues is confused by (among other things) the disconnect between the lavish language used to describe it and the actual taste of the beverage itself. Berman recommends holding your nose and sipping to compare for yourself.

News just in (October 14, 2015): Yet another coffee personality study. This one links a bitter preference with "troubling" personality traits. Black, unsweetened coffee - according to this study from the University of Innsbruck, Austria - implies a greater propensity for "Machiavellianism, psychopathy, narcissism [and] everyday sadism". These findings echo those of older studies that found sweet appetites were more positively associated with agreeable behaviour.


Lisa Peryman
Lisa Peryman


Lisa Peryman has worked with Greenpeace Australia and The Wilderness Society (Australia). She studied journalism in New Zealand and book and magazine publishing in Canada. Her background includes reporting and editing for daily newspapers and trade magazines, as well as creative copywriting for broadcast. Lisa is continuing her studies in Canada and currently works with Probe International as an editor and writer. Earnings from Green Beanery operations support the work of Probe International, a Canadian charity that works with citizens' groups around the world to protect their lands and their livelihoods. Probe International is a Canadian trust.