This blog was originally published on Dec 17, 2013. It later became the basis for a chapter in The Little Coffee Know-It-All.
We advocate that the best way to buy coffee is based on what it tastes like. Makes sense, right? Packaging is nice but it’s what inside that counts. If you don’t get to try the coffee first, though, you have to rely on what is written on the package (or the website).
Yet, most of us have had the experience of buying wine or coffee that are well labeled with descriptors, only to drink the stuff and not taste a single one! We can’t help but wonder what the tasters and writers were thinking. Were they just inventing interesting, romantic terms to stick on the label or is there perhaps something more going on? Well, if they were just making stuff up, then this blog post wouldn’t exist…
There are actually a bunch of reasons why what the consumer tastes could be different from what the expert, purveyor, or advertiser tastes. The business of translating an experience from us to you is tricky and difficult and it is certainly never perfect. Moreover, it is quite possible that the list of things we taste and the list that you taste are entirely different and yet both entirely correct!
To help make sense of it all, here are the major reasons why descriptive labels can be simultaneously accurate and completely wrong.
- Experts are, well, experts. When a person spends a lifetime studying and practicing something, they get good at it. People who taste for a living learn to pay attention to subtle flavors and they learn to verbalize an enormous range of experiences. Sometimes, they detect flavors that the average person cannot detect or verbalize. Unfortunately, they can’t always tell what is easy to detect and what isn’t. So, they can end up listing descriptors that other people can miss.
- Not all tasters are good at their job. We want to believe that the person getting paid to taste and write descriptions is very good. This isn’t always the case. They may be putting the wrong word to an experience or have a limited vocabulary which hinders the precision of their word choice. (Of course, we like to believe we don’t fit in this category!)
- Humans are lousy instruments. People are heavily influenced by culture, history, experience, emotion, psychology, physiology and their immediate environment. It makes humans fascinating creatures but terrible at identifying and describing organoleptic experiences: A taster may detect a flavor one day but not another; they may not have tasted the spice or fruit that could be used to describe the coffee; they may value a flavor differently than someone else and thus report it differently; they may just be physically unable to taste that flavor; they may be sick, they may have just had a spicy meal… On top of all this, both the taster and the consumer suffer from being a human!
- Analytical assessment is different than drinking coffee normally. Professional coffee tasters create environments that help them be more accurate in their evaluation. If their precision is too high, the person drinking at home, using different brewing parameters, under different conditions may not have the same advantage of precision as the professional.
- Coffee is dynamic. Most professional tasters evaluate the coffee within a day or two of roasting. Most consumers get it days, if not weeks, after that. In all that time, coffee is changing (e.g., anything you smell in coffee is something you’re not drinking). It may simply be that the flavors listed on a package are no longer there!
- Verbalizing organoleptic experiences is hard. Sometimes, tasters use words that represent feelings, colors, places, ideas and experiences. These aren’t always helpful to the consumer, even other professionals. However, if a person gains a wealth of experience drinking coffee, they are likely to understand why a particular descriptor was used, even if they don’t agree with it or would never use it themselves.
So, with all these complications, can we ever trust the descriptors? Certainly! Everyone may, in fact, detect some or all of the descriptors. In cases where the consumer may not detect any of the flavors used, it can certainly give them an idea of the coffee’s potential; those descriptors can also help guide the consumer. Knowing those flavors are there will often help consumers taste them. Sure, it can just be bias but sometimes it is just giving the person a word to match the experience.
Since we know our descriptors can be odd and far-fetched, we are going to keep a glossary of the ones we think are particularly peculiar or funky. You are always welcome to reference it to help you understand what we’re trying to convey. Of course, you can always just ask us what we mean, too. We’re always eager to discuss coffee!