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War of the Words: Coffee's Most Misused Terms

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War of the Words: Coffee's Most Misused Terms

Paul Haworth

There are a lot of words used in coffee that are either misleading, misused, or completely without meaning. Some of these simply need clarification while others may be best to be retired from use altogether. Here is a sample of some for your enjoyment.

"Acidity"

In coffee tasting, a lot of attention is given to a particular characteristic called 'acidity.' Because it has such a negative connotation, this sounds like something you don't want in your coffee. However, the tasters using this term are not describing pH level. They aren't analyzing whether a coffee will upset your stomach or not. No, these folks are using the term to help explain the coffee's fruit-like quality on the tongue.

A good coffee will often be said to have a pleasant 'acidity' making it distinct—in the same way that a good piece of fruit will. Think of the difference between a cherry, an apple, and an orange. These fruits have very different flavors resulting mostly from their peculiar combinations of 'acidities' (i.e. citric or malic). A coffee's acidity will therefore generally be described with a fruit analogy, like 'bright orange' or 'stone fruit.'

"Natural," "Washed," and "Honey"

Another set of misleading terms are found in naming how coffees are processed. Even the term 'processing' is a little misleading as it doesn't really express what is happening at all. In case you don't know, this generic word refers to how fruit is removed from the original coffee cherry, leaving the seed or 'bean'. Let's talk about these three specifically: natural, washed, and honey.

  • 'Natural processing' sounds like it is an opposite of some kind of soulless process, however, there is no such thing as an 'unnatural' way to remove coffee cherry fruit.
  • 'Washed' coffee makes it sound like all other methods skip some step and are somehow 'less clean.'
  • 'Honey' processing doesn't actually involve using honey, but simply names a portion of the fruit left to dry on the seed the 'miel.' Miel is Spanish for honey.

Processing is a bit too complex for this post, but suffice it to say that the terms used to define the different methods are intended as a sort of abbreviation, not an accurate description.

"Bold"

This may be the worst word in coffee. It means absolutely nothing to the purveyor but can mean just about anything to the consumer. If you are fortunate enough to have grown up watching Saturday morning cartoons, think about the word 'smurf' and how it was used as a sort of linguistic Swiss Army knife in the Smurf Village. Let's just agree to stop using this term in relation to either bean or beverage.

"Strong"

Not quite as bad as 'bold', but often just as misused, the term 'strong' is pretty close to being without any kind of real definition in coffee. It is often used interchangeably to refer to the concentration of dissolved coffee solids in a cup, caffeine content, intensity of flavor, or even roast style. If you find yourself saying that you like 'strong' coffee, take a minute to ponder which of these more precise qualities you may be after.

Why Words Matter

Words are our second most important contact point with our coffee. (Obviously, the first is actual physical contact in either craft or consumption.) Words are also a critical point of contact we have with each other. Being able to communicate with confidence and precision is important if we want those connections to bear consistent fruit.

Learning to know what we prefer takes one set of skills and learning to communicate those preferences takes another. Words are alive and constantly changing like we are, but it is exciting to stop, take a sip, and use words to experience and contribute to coffee's 'common tongue' from time to time.