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Talking about flavour

January 9, 2011

I was reminded that I haven’t blogged anything in a while. So here’s one that I’ve been mulling over for nearly a year now – ever since In My Mug 68 actually.

This In My Mug episode was filmed at a small coffee shop in Norwich – The Window – and features the owner, Hayley, along with the inimitable Steve Leighton. At 12minutes in, Steve and Hayley are discussing the two coffees for that week – have a watch, and listen to the descriptors they use.

What’s really interesting to me is how they use different types of words to describe the coffees. Steve uses flavour names (lychee, grape, thick mouthfeel, etc), whereas Hayley uses emotive descriptors (summer, sitting by the fire, etc.).

Flavour is an emotive thing as much as a sensory thing – Steve points out in a recent Audioboo on tasting that he isn’t just associating a coffee flavour with an abstract notion of another flavour, but a specific, personal sense of that flavour.

I’m from a fairly scientific background, so it’s not surprising I find it easiest to describe coffee in flavour language – but that can allow me to overlook the emotional framing of the language I use. When I say a coffee is bright, I don’t just mean it has an acidic taste – I’m also talking about an emotional response of being refreshed.

At the same time, the language we use impacts our tasting experience. If Steve describes a coffee as like caramel, a particular caramel jumps to my mind – that used for “caramel cup” chocolates actually. When I taste the coffee, that’s what I look for (not always consciously of course). I might find it, I might not, or I might find something else – toffee, or a different “caramel”, or burnt sugar. But the language gives me cues that can point me in a particular direction before I’ve even smelt the coffee, let alone tasted it.

So I’ve been mulling this over, and it’s been very interesting, so now I’ll see if I can convert this into something practical. My focus when I’m next tasting coffees will be trying out emotive descriptors. This should have two uses – to help expand my tasting experience and ability, and also to improve how I can communicate my enthusiasm for coffee to others.

  1. A great post roland and I agree there a whole heap of feeling in any tasting, nicely put together post pal.

    Hope the new jobs going well, going to have to pop down for a coffee soon, let me know when your on duty.

  2. Some great food for thought there Roland

    When cupping on my own I will associate tastes to historic references but when cupping with others will try and associate these to descriptors from a taste wheel

    In this way others can have a point of reference to relate the taste to.

    There are often tastes that I cannot pinpoint to the wheel though, but when someone mentions a product name or relates an experience based term then it clicks and we can agree on what the closest descriptor is

    My wife uses childhood references when tasting. She mentioned licorice in a recent cupping, a taste I didn’t get, but when she mentioned the childhood sweet she related the taste to (made by the same company that produced a popular licorice) it came together.

    Will be interested to see how others describe their tastes

    • It’s interesting you mention about discussing the tasting – I haven’t often done tasting with other people, so I’ve mostly been posting (and I suppose therefore trying to focus on being concise with descriptors). I should be doing some cuppings with other people in the future and I’m really looking forward to the chance to have a conversation about the flavours and see how this impacts my perception and taste experience 🙂

      Oh, and thanks for mentioning a taste wheel – definitely something I should look at a bit more!

  3. Hi Roland.

    The thing with descriptors is, that if you want to share them with others you have to agree on a common definition of terms (taste, aroma, anything). You are right, that sometimes isn’t the most emotional type of description and the consumer might be a litle overwhelmed from time to time.

    Even to the customer I prefer giving out non-emotional descriptors. Why? If you have a look at when emotions are used in communication most of the time the products don’t have a real usp. Instead some kind of emotional branding is put onto them to make them look different.

    • Hi Wolfram – Thanks for commenting 🙂
      I agree that we need to be careful about the language we use, and most especially to customers. If we talk to customers about a coffee, I think we usually try to chose easily accessible and definable descriptors – ones we’re confident that the customers will be able to really connect to. The prompt to use more emotional language is really for myself rather than others, and is also really for my use when cupping at home rather than when talking to customers. If I can use emotive descriptors in my cupping, and also be more self-aware about the personal/emotive context of the relatively non-emotional descriptors I use, I think that I should be better able to chose the best language for talking to customers. It’ll be interesting to see if this works 🙂

  4. Never thought i had done the emotional descriptors but your example of ‘Bright’ proves me wrong. I use emotion much more than I realised

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