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Decoding Coffee 2: What Does Coffee Taste Like?


A few months ago, there was a post on James Hoffmann’s blog about the words we use on coffee packaging descriptions. He asked whether the coffee industry is being informative in a way that is useful to consumers who might read the label on a bag of coffee they buy. He conducted an experiment where customers were invited taste 4 brewed coffees, then match them to their labels. You can find the very interesting results in this subsequent post, suffice to say that they (being Square Mile Coffee Roasters in London) learned something about the kinds of words that resonate with the ‘average punter’, as well as those that don’t.

But that got me thinking. On the one had, we could take from this that we need to ‘reign-in’ the language we use in describing coffee to make sure that the greatest number of consumers understand the same thing by reading the description. On the other hand, since the above will either prove impossible or else yield incredibly boring, over-simplified descriptions, should we allow roasters to embrace their creativity? After all, everyone tastes things differently, don’t they?

Before proceeding, I’m going to unpack the notion of describing coffee a bit more.

Describing coffee is a creative process; like all creative processes, it involves translating your perception of a set of stimuli into some other form such that others can appreciate it. While I’m sure that some lucky humans have a slight cognitive advantage over the average punter (ie. their tongues are more sensitive), I am certain that their main skill is their ability to accurately and consistently render tongue sensations into English (or another language). In other words, much of their skill is linguistic rather than organoleptic. What this implies is that anyone can learn to evaluate the taste of coffee (to mis-quote Chef Gusteau from Ratatouille!).

My impression of the general attitude towards descriptions on wine bottles is that their flowery, pretentious word are something that most people can only aspire to relate to – perhaps one descriptor in ten might resonate with us mere mortals. What may be closer to the truth is that the language used to describe wine is one which wine buffs learn how to interpret in negotiation with the sensations the wine provides them with.

I suspect that the average level of connoisseurship amongst coffee drinkers is not as high as amongst wine drinkers, yet even still there must be a growing collective vocabulary.

Prior to becoming heavily involved in all things coffee, I would still have recognised flavours in my coffee that I could describe as “chocolatey” or “nutty”. Are these the kinds of ‘real’ descriptors we should limit ourselves to? Should we define canonical flavour descriptors as those which 60% of novice tasters can identify, for example? But then, what is a ‘novice’, and do we really want them telling us what our coffee tastes like? (Apologies to the novice.)

On the other hand, neither do we want our favourite brews to be lyricised and set to music by the Legion of the Left-Handed. (Again, apologies; too much coffee can make me surly.) Of course, if you read my cupping notes, you’ll see that I am just as guilty as anyone of straying from “insightful, useful comparative description” into “wildly prosaic, fanciful concoctions”. As a lover of language, it is all too easy for me to stray into creating wildly unhelpful descriptions of coffee.

No, a cupper’s skill is not measured by their verbosity; the best writing is almost always the most economic. Furthermore, a writer who pays no heed to their audience is helping no one. And so we come back to using language that people will understand.

I’m afraid I have no real conclusions to draw from this yet. I’m afraid it’s going to be one of those “balance” type situations – coffee consumers will educate themselves as the specialty coffee industry continues to judiciously provide them with information about, and descriptions of their coffees.

Our roastery is under construction right now, but when we’re up and running I’ll be sure to take JH’s challenge and test our coffee descriptions with some volunteers.

I’m also planning on conducting some sort of content analysis on coffee descriptions. Might be a bit project, but expect to hear back from me.



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