Why you should care
Whether or not you want poetry and narrative with your cappuccino, you may not be able to avoid it.
Biding their time in line at Blue Bottle Coffee, customers can peruse descriptions like this one, of a Peruvian coffee:
Upon reaching the barista, the customer might ask, “Who the hell comes up with this stuff?”
“And then,” says Byard Duncan, the company’s communications specialist, “I get to tell them it’s me.” (That is, when Duncan is behind them in line. He’s not a stalker.) “Everybody’s a little bashful then, because they think they’ve been mean, but I feel like if they’re laughing and chuckling and feeling like it’s a little crazy — that’s a success.”
With a juicy body rounding out notes of cedar, dried fig and tropical fruit, it holds its own with the best of the Centrals. And though its reputation may say otherwise, this coffee holds some very intriguing acidity. It is, in other words, a sleeper — the chubby kid who shows up at the courts, rec specs in one hand, inhaler in the other, and promptly dunks in your sorry face. Plus some cherry sweetness to boot.
Coffee talk is having a more than a moment. As the bean completes its journey from commodity to object of desire, “good to the last drop” no longer cuts it. Nowadays, coffee needs metaphors, narratives, imagery, lyricism. Professional scribes, too: When he’s not writing menu blurbs that liken your latte to a playground phenom, Duncan writes for glossies like GQ and Rolling Stone.
Descriptors of note include dirty, wild, quick, structured, band-aid, animal hide, compost and, uh, potato defect.
If not through pretty phrases, how else can we justify siphon coffee machines priced in the five figures? Or, for that matter, the huge Americans spend on fancy coffee? That was nearly $16 billion in 2012, according to the Specialty Coffee Association of America, more than Americans spent going to the movies, and about half the total for coffee overall. The coffee retail market is almost as big as the wine market.
Indeed, coffee chronicler Oliver Strand compares the changes in coffee talk now to those that characterized the wine business from the 1940s to the 1970s. Haute coffee terminology echoes that used for wine, down to an obsession with terroir and process. Counter Culture, a roaster and educator based in Durham, N.C., publishes a flavor wheel for tasters at a loss for words. Descriptors of note include dirty, wild, quick, structured, band-aid, animal hide, compost and, uh, potato defect.
It might seem baroque, especially if you consider coffee primarily a caffeine-delivery vehicle (like we do). But those in the business say what’s happening to coffee language is actually a reaction against something even fussier. “I’ve seen a shift away from esoteric, alienating flavor descriptors toward more approachable and concise language,” said Nathan Brown, head of Counter Culture’s marketing department, in an email.
Too much information — about things like elevation, farming practices and location — intimidates customers in the same way wine talk can, says Steve Holt, of coffee producer Ninety Plus Coffee.
They’re meant to be a bit playful and lighthearted — to counteract the self-serious tendencies of fetishists that often veer very close to bullshit.
His company’s remedy is the Ninety Plus “taste profile,” which consists of a name and a 100- to 300-word vignette that might invoke the production process, memories and various cultural references. The taste profile of a coffee called Lotus SK, for instance, draws parallels between the aquatic perennial and the way these beans are dried, and points to the Radiohead song ”Lotus Flower”: “The song speaks for transcendance, self-effacement and the magic of losing yourself in music and senses. … Watch the video.”
The taste profiles take a while to get right. “It’s really like writing a song,” says Holt. “You go through the process of trashing a lot of it, and then you find something that finally works.”
Both Holt and Duncan, of Blue Bottle, say their descriptions are meant to be a bit playful and lighthearted — to counteract the self-serious tendencies of fetishists that often veer very close to bullshit, and also to “riff on the impossibility of equating words to a sensory experience,” says Duncan. And yet, they’re true to subjective experience, he says. “If you open yourself up to all the sorts of experiences you can have, then your mind will go in some crazy directions.”
Not, we hope, in the direction of compost or animal hide.