Tasting Coffee

An Inquiry into Objectivity

By Kenneth Liberman

Subjects: Philosophy, Sociology, Communication, Anthropology Of Work, Social And Cultural History
Hardcover : 9781438488974, 510 pages, June 2022
Paperback : 9781438488967, 510 pages, December 2022

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Table of contents



Part I: The Story of Coffee Purveying

1. A Brief History of Coffee

2. Coffee's Chain of Production

Part II: Objectivity and Its Labors

3. Historical and Epistemological Bases of Objectivity

4. Making Contact with the Object

5. The Dynamic Nature of Coffee

Part III: Tasting and Its Labors

6. Common Practices of Tasting

7. Down on the Fincas and with the Exporters: Harvesting, Processing, Blending

8. A Palette for the Palate: Using Taste Descriptors to Find Flavor

9. Professional Tasting

10. Tasting for Excellence

11. Importers, Roasters, Myths, and Marketers

12. Some Discovered Practices of Lay Coffee Drinkers
(with Giolo Fele)

Part IV: Science and Its Labors

13. Science and Objective Practices

14. A Scientific Critique of Scientific Practices

Appendix: Sample Tasting Schedules

Authors Index
Subject Index

Draws upon the situated work of professional coffee tasters in over a dozen countries to shed light on the methods we use to convert subjective experience into objective knowledge.


Winner of the 2023 Distinguished Book Award presented by the Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis section of the American Sociological Association

At once ethnographic and phenomenological, Tasting Coffee investigates the global chain of coffee production "from seed to cup," stopping at every stage along the way to describe the tasting practices of each stakeholder purveying coffee. The ethnomethodological care of these descriptions derives from an attunement to just how these stakeholders discover and describe the flavors of coffee and how they convert subjective experience into objective knowledge. The methods and protocols of sensory science are also examined and assessed in their lived details, making this study also a contribution to the sociology of science. Based upon a decade of research in fourteen countries, author Kenneth Liberman provides a nonessentialist ontology of coffee, its history, and its production. The world of coffee becomes a microcosm in which many realities of postmodern humanity are exposed and clarified—with the thoughts of Edmund Husserl, Alfred Schutz, Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jacques Derrida, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Aron Gurwitsch, and Harold Garfinkel—even as these naturally occurring case studies provide fresh specifications for these thinkers' ideas.

Kenneth Liberman is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Oregon. His many books include More Studies in Ethnomethodology, also published by SUNY Press.


"…Lieberman's book is full of precise and wonderfully crafted formulations … The book's scope is remarkably wide considering the empirical topic in focus: coffee and how it tastes." — Symbolic Interaction

"Throughout this text, Liberman demonstrates how the complexity of the flavor of coffee mirrors nature's complexity, stressing the challenges of identifying coffee's qualities objectively given the number of variables involved. Those interested in the social aspects of science, perhaps especially food science—and of course, the natural and social science of coffee—can gain valuable insights." — CHOICE

"Combining philosophy, ethnomethodology, history, and specific expertise about coffee, Liberman offers a unique blend of serious theoretical reflection and an incredible number of surprising examples. This is an original, profound, and indispensable book for all those who are interested in reflecting on taste." — Nicola Perullo, author of Taste as Experience: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Food

"Liberman's review of objective thinking in the coffee industry sorts out the objectivity/ subjectivity contradiction that has oriented food science and sensory analysis for a century. Deconstructing the sense and values of the tools professionals use, Liberman brings fresh air to entrapped discussions about norms, quality standards, grading systems, flavor descriptors, etc." — Manuel Diaz, anthropologist and Senior Taster, Coffee Quality Institute

"Kenneth Liberman uses 'the taste of an interesting cup of coffee' as the focal point for an ethnography of coffee tasting informed by an inquiry into the objectification of sensory experience. His book places Continental philosophy and cultural studies of science in a dialogue with professional tasters' communicative practices for aligning judgments about the value of specialty coffee varieties." — Michael E. Lynch, former President of the Society for Social Studies of Science

"This is an exceptional narrative of how actual objectivity is achieved in an area of research. There are clear links to other areas which have been investigated by this author, but Tasting Coffee takes his enthnomethodological approach into an activity that is more likely to be dismissed as inherently subjective. This coffee drinker's experience has been enriched, and Liberman's focus on how phenomena are constituted is reinforced." — Lenore Langsdorf, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale

"Tasting Coffee is both an outstanding contribution to ethnomethodological studies and the phenomenology of social phenomena as well as a unique contribution to the sociology of everyday life. Written in a graceful and easy-reading style, this book may be read and enjoyed by several audiences ranging from scholars, to coffee industry insiders, to any lay person who is interested in coffee or simply enjoys a cup of coffee." — Carlos Belvedere, University of Buenos Aires