As long as I have worked in the coffee industry, I have been surrounded by various forms of tasting notes, from vague to conceptual to extremely specific. In my early years, it was common for me to see words like "bole" and "smooth" used to describe the coffees I was selling. More recently, I often hear descriptors like "bubblegum", "home-made cherry cola", or "gooseberry" emblazoned on retail bags and websites.
These tasting notes originated out of the need to inform coffee drinkers that not all coffees are created equal. Once coffee was being sold by country of origin or roast level and no longer as a ubiquitous canned good, these descriptive words were needed to help communicate that coffee didn't just taste like 'coffee'. There were nuances and flavors that varied by region, process and roast profile, and roasters and baristas wanted customers to know that.
As all good marketers do, the collective industry began getting more creative with these words to help distinguish coffees and make them sound more appealing and more unique. Unfortunately, I believe that we have fallen into a habit of using excessively descriptive words that do an excellent job as marketing tools to sell our products, but often fail to deliver on the expectations they set. The result is unsatisfied or under-satisfied customers wanting the coffee to taste more like it was sold to taste. 
While many of the tasting notes are somewhat accurate to experienced coffee tasters, we have forgotten that these aren't our only or even the majority of our customers. If we are describing our coffees to help communicated labor expectations tour paying customers, then shouldn't we use vocabulary that they can identify with?
As coffee professionals who are passionate about sharing great coffee with more people, our goal should be to make customers happy by really understanding what they want and delivering on that expectation.
Know who your audience is and tailor it to them. If you want to reach a wider audience, then it is crucial to make tasting notes accessible and approachable. Will everyone be able to identify this flavor? Will someone using a blade grinder, tap water and Mr. Coffee maker taste that note?
This approach will cause you to take a step back and be more generic, but it will also cause you to be better at what you do. Anyone can repeat an obscure tasting note, but it takes real skill to be able to listen to a customer, understand the type of coffees they prefer and then deliver a coffee with tasting notes that they will be able to identify and enjoy.
Consider a hypothetical customer who wants "bold flavored coffee" . Sure, we know that "bold" doesn't really mean anything from a flavor standpoint, but the languages tells you multiple things about this particular customer. First, that they are an inexperienced taster and notes like "lychee" or "starfruit" might not resonate with them. Secondly, that they really want a more full bodied, intense, and perhaps darker coffee. The true skill of service comes in being able to translate what our customers are looking for and make them feel confident in their preferences. This will help us to create more loyal, interested customers and move past the unfortunately true stereotype of pretension that permeates our industry.
Lets start moving away from presenting coffees as lifestyle products and lets start moving towards creating accessible flavor expectations and delivering on those expectations, day in and day out.
-Seth

Comments

tea mug:

Thanks for sharing the useful information with us. Coffee bloggers must read this article.

Nov 17, 2016

Doug Lycett:

Seth,
Great points! To play off your customer loyalty point, if you are able to deliver what the customer wants their FIRST TIME, they are more likely to come back and become a loyal customer. Once your customer starts to feel more comfortable in your shop you can start to get to know them and assess when a good time would be to introduce them to something new and exciting like a natural ethiopian or whatever it is.

The goal is to introduce the customer to better and more interesting coffee but you have to do it slowly or you will just piss them off =)

Oct 26, 2015

Grant Reimer:

Love this discusssion!
I can’t help but draw comparison to my personal journey in coffee, where I have gone through many of these ‘consumer experiences’ and still do.
The biggest difference is that when you have accepted coffee as a variable and complex medium, you are willing to chalk up a lot of these inconsistencies to roast date, brew method, grind, etc. and take the blame away from yourself, and see it as part of the experimental process that each cup brings.
I believe it isn’t so much that the language is wrong, but more that the issue lies more in the service side, like you are saying Seth. It is simply not possible to go from your vanilla-latte-morning-constitutional to tasting the ‘wild gooseberry and tonic water’ of a single origin Kenyan, and actually appreciate it. No matter what the exquisitely designed tasting notes claim on our bags.
I believe this is where the service side comes in. People need EXPOSURE to what we’re offering, and then the appreciation comes with it. They have to have side-by-side flavor comparisons (this is where things changed for me) and a knowledge of brew methods and what they change with the cup.
If we can offer coffee tastings regularly, different brew methods (french press for someone who wants ‘’dark, full and bold’‘) and gradually step up the knowledge, we will create customers who can really taste the difference between a 3 hour old vacuum pot and a freshly brewed one.
This is such a great topic because it REALLY applies to what I’m thinking about up here in Northern Sweden. The preferred brew method is ‘kokkaffe’ which we refer to in America as cowboy or camp coffee, with the grounds boiled over a fire. If I try to sell someone a box of ‘’äpelsin korsbär och mjölkchoklad’’ they look at me sideways and say ‘’Jag vill ha en vanlig kopkaffe, tack’. Stark och svart’ – they want it normal, strong, and black.
If I adjust the brew ratio of our specialty coffee, put it in a french press, and serve it to that same person, their eyes will immediate light up as they taste the difference. But it’s important to meet them in the middle without imposing my ideals of good and bad.
Ah okay, whew, thanks for sharing.

Sep 30, 2015

Seth:

Hey Greg,

Thanks for reading and commenting!

I agree with you on a lot of those points. There certainly is a gap and they are often let down by the whole experience believing that they did something wrong or don’t know what they like. Either way the customer is not empowered by their tasting/brewing ability, but rather disappointed and frustrated at their own perceived insufficiencies.

I think my response would be, why do we use tasting notes in the first place? Most customers obviously don’t know how origin, roast level, processing, etc… all will play into how the coffee will taste and so they look for tasting notes as a way to likely select and buy a coffee they are likely to enjoy. The key is creating effective tasting notes that are easy to understand and accurate to the drinker.

I don’t think going back 100% to “dark, rich, hearty” is the answer and I definitely don’t think we should do away with tasting notes altogether. You are right that customers need to develop a basic vocabulary, but defining what that means is the tricky part.

From my experience, delivering coffees to experienced tasting professionals all the way to the very entry level consumer, I have found that we just need to serve our customers needs better. And maybe the answer isn’t one size fits all.

With the casual consumer, they are often confused by even the most basic vocabulary. I think it’s important to be better at what we do and know how to translate their “hearty, rich, dark roast” into what coffees we have available to offer. We need to work hard to develop rapport and establish trust and help them fine tune what coffees they like and what they don’t like. Over time you will help them develop that vocabulary.

Regardless, I think we can both agree that “wild hibiscus after a summer’s rain” isn’t really helping anyone.

Aug 30, 2015

greg:

There is a cognitive gap between what professional tasters — and effectively professional writers of prose — experience in a given coffee versus what most consumers will experience with it. While these descriptors might elicit excited anticipation in the consumer’s mind, they often leave consumers puzzled and wanting when they actually taste test their results with it. Naturally, they will think they did something wrong. That’s always an underwhelming customer experience no matter what.

The challenge is I’m not sure there are easy ways around that. One option is to stuck with a more primitive vocabulary — e.g., less of the “wild hibiscus after a summer’s rain” and more “tea-like floral”. But that’s a vague line to draw. Worse, going even more to the basics, we have the infamous “dark, rich, hearty roast”. If you’ve never seen Malcolm Gladwell’s bit on that, or even if you have, it’s worth a rewatch:
https://youtu.be/iIiAAhUeR6Y?t=10m26s

Truth is that most consumers prefer “milky, weak coffee” but will never call it that. Which almost makes me believe that you have to toss out the idea of using flavor descriptors entirely — given that consumers can be wholly untruthful to themselves when it comes to their preferences.

Does that lead us to “if you like x, maybe you’ll prefer y”? I’m not so sure that works either, as trying to apply more consumer-familiar terminology in beverages such as wine or tea typically fail at coffee, IMO.

In the end, I think we’re stuck until the basic consumer can at least develop a primitive vocabulary about coffee that they can share with professionals. It’s impossible to hold a conversation without knowing a few common basic terms or words we can agree upon as a foundation.

Aug 30, 2015

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