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Flavor Descriptors for Coffee

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Flavor Descriptors for Coffee

Paul Haworth

It isn't totally clear where the 'tasting note' epidemic started but we're fairly confident that the wine industry is to blame. It's hilarious to see that now even pints of premium ice cream are including them. Does anyone really need to be told what chocolate chip cookie dough and vanilla taste like? 

Admittedly, coffee is a little different. People see the differences on the label and want to know what those differences mean. The simple thing is always telling people what they'll taste. But the important thing is figuring out how to communicate the 'why.' Often, this isn't really accomplished by descriptors. Worse yet, some descriptors get ridiculously recondite and alienating.

Roasters seem to have two different reasons behind the publishing of tasting notes. First, there's a genuine desire to help interpret something of value. These roasters are really trying to emphasize how quality can relate to things like terroir, processing, and coffee variety. This should be applauded and encouraged, by all means. The second motive is less noble—an insecurity of value. This can lead to an attempt to 'dress up' a product with the obscure.

At Coffee Bureau, we believe tasting notes have worth when properly developed and humbly used. Specialty coffee, for now, needs to be described through analogy, because it's still an unlocked mystery and can be a little unapproachable. A true master of interpretation will realize that something unapproachable should be described by analogy with something more tangible. To describe a coffee with esoteric examples of even less tangible flavors is symbolic of an industry going in the wrong direction. Will anyone understand when a coffee is described as having subtle lychee in the finish? What we desperately need is to make the experience more simple and more real. 

So, as a rule of thumb, beware of overly complex and exotic verbiage in the way a purveyor describes their product. You might be perpetuating insecurity by supporting this practice.

Coffee is best experienced not in analogy but on its own, without words. Analogy is a helpful tool to get a person closer to the pure experience of tasting, but it should never become the experience. The greatest moment is not when you identify a particular verbal nuance, but when your experience transcends description and therefore does not even need it. The best cup of coffee is not one you can describe. It is one that becomes its own description. 

Everyone who loves coffee can relate to a time when they were dumbfounded by the 'goodness' in a cup. Let this be the real goal. Let us start to see describing and note taking as a poor replacement for actual experience. Put the pencil down and pick up the cup.