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.