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What’s in a name?

June 5, 2011

Once upon a time, I was a philosophy student. It’s one of those subjects that gets under the skin – once a philosopher, always a philosopher. Because philosophy isn’t about what you think about, it’d about how you think about things.

If there is one philosophical lesson I learnt it’s this – most disagreements turn around two people having different definitions of the same word/concept. This is a lesson that I wish more of the coffee world would learn. I think this problem is common throughout the coffee world, but lets start with one that everyone will have come across – what is a cappucino?

This debate can be seen across the internet and in countless cafes, but I’m not interested in taking part. I’m not interested in why your recipe is right – whether it be the history, or the romance, or just tastiness – what I’m interested in is why do so few people have a recipe?

If you can’t define what your version of a cappuccino is, then you can’t discuss it in comparisons to other people’s. How can a customer know whether they’ll like your version of a cappuccino if you can’t tell them what it is? What makes it different to your other drinks?

I asked one of my favorite shops (North Tea Power in Manchester) about what constituted their Cappuccino, and got a great answer – there was a clear definition of the espresso (beans, dose, shot weight, time, flavour description, etc.), a cup size, a microfoam thickness (relative to their latte), presentation info (no chocolate sprinkles, appropriate latte art) and also descriptors it should invoke (velvety, delicious looking, etc.).

You might well think that sounds simple – I always assumed that any serious coffee shop would do this – but my experience is that a surprising number of places and people don’t. How many coffee shops will tell you they use the rule of thirds for cappuccinos? A lot. How many of those serve 6oz cups, with 2oz shots and milk that is stretched to a 50/50 foam/milk? None I’ve ever come across. I’m not saying whether that recipe would be good or not, or even whether the so called rule of thirds is useful for customers or not – but it’s certainly not an accurate recipe to what these shops serve.

Now the point of this post was that this is just one obvious example of a common problem. There are plenty more out there; what constitutes “a shot”? how much water do you put in to make it an Americano? what is your “Medium” roast? We have disagreements, debates… customers feel disappointed, mislead, mis-sold… and we could fix it by just spending a few seconds to think about what we actually mean before we say something. So my request for everyone – consider all these words you use within your coffee making and think “how would I explain it to someone else?”

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