Describing Descriptions Part II

Part I in this series explained the concept of TRUE descriptions, which stand for: Trustworthy, Realistic, Understandable, and Enticing. Part II outlines aroma and taste descriptors.
By Spencer Turer

Aroma and taste descriptors are most easily understood when primary flavours are referenced for the perceived attribute. When attributes are categorized into groups it becomes difficult to understand their meaning without additional training or explanations. Confusion is created when conclusions are used for flavour descriptions or when adjectives or verbs are used in place of nouns when presenting descriptions. The use of primary food terminology adheres to the tenants of TRUE descriptions. A primary food word is one that has a tangible reference found in nature, at a grocery store, or within a set of calibration standards. Familiarity with basic taste terms is developed through sensory training using calibration samples for aroma and taste and aligning with other cupper and tasters for the appropriate use of the terms.

When there is confusion, additional discussions are required to identify the actual taste or aroma character being perceived. This becomes inefficient for an operation and may result in inappropriate or incorrect descriptions being used for coffee. These additional discussions are challenging when cuppers/tasters are working to understand each description across language, regional or cultural differences. Examples of conclusion or category words that are to be avoided when communicating coffee descriptions:

  • Green – describes coffee that is early-crop harvest, under-ripe, recently milled, or has not has enough time to rest before analysis. Specific tastes that could be identified individually include: grassy, green pepper, green bean, onion, and broccoli, among others.
  • Aged – a measurement of time not taste, used as a conclusion when coffee presents tastes and aroma of paper, malt, cereal, cardboard, oats, peanut shells, and rice.
  • Past crop – a measurement of time not taste, used as a conclusion when coffee presents tastes and aroma of paper, malt, cereal, cardboard, oats, peanut shells, and rice.
  • Old – a measurement of time not taste, used as a conclusion when coffee presents tastes and aroma of paper, malt, cereal, cardboard, oats, peanut shells, and rice.
  • Tired – a measurement of time not taste, used as a conclusion when coffee presents tastes and aroma of paper, malt, cereal, cardboard, oats, peanut shells, and rice.
  • Processed – often used to describe decaffeinated coffee and thought to indicate over-processing to remove caffeine or the character of the water used in decaffeinated coffee processing. Specific tastes that could be identified individually include: hay, straw, paper, cereal, malt, cardboard, peanut shells, nut skins, and rice.
  • Low-grown character – often used to describe coffee that lacks intensity of flavour, mild acidity, thin body, and may also include grassy, dirty or earthy undertones.
  • Roasty – used to describe the effects of roasting instead of the character of the coffee, for example the taste of burnt sugar, earthy, dirty, smoky or ashy characters found in dark roasted coffees or coffees exposed to exhaust smoke.
  • Edgy – used to describe coffee that is not clean and/or not sweet.
  • Harsh – also used to describe coffee that is not clean and/or not sweet.
  • Off-cup – used to indicate a coffee cup that lacks uniformity with other cups, or has an unidentified taint or fault.
  • Bright, Crisp & Sharp – terms used to describe organic acids that are astringent, tart or lack sweetness.
  • Sound – A term used to indicate when coffee is free of defects.

To avoid confusion when creating reviewing coffee sensory descriptions, it is most efficient and effective to use primary food words, which have a single item that can be used for calibration, either from a grocery store, or a flavour training kit.

Training and sensory acuity may affect the words used in creating coffee descriptions. Also, the quality of the coffee is a key contributing factor to the degree of generalization or specificity of the descriptive words used. Eg, a coffee may be described as having fruity, spicy, and nutty characters. By this description it is unknown if the cupper is a novice and has not been fully trained in identify and describing taste, or if the quality of the coffee does not allow for more specific taste characters to be perceived and listed.

Fruity is a category descriptor that obviously includes all fruits. This category can be divided into citric and berry, thus diverging on the fruit identity and increasing the level of specificity. Further detail perceptions would be to identify the actual citric fruits perceived or berries perceived. Many specialty coffee descriptions identify the individual variety of lemon or lime. This level of great details requires a highly trained cupper who is calibrated to lemon and lime standards and a high-quality coffee that has the inherent taste characteristics. Without one or even both to occur, a description that may include Kaffir Limes, Key Limes, Limequates, Meyer Lemons, Rangpur Limes, Tahiti Limes and Eureka or Lisbon lemons, will lack both credibility and believability.

Coffee Product Descriptions

Merchandising is the promoting of items for sale. Any action that stimulates the buyer’s interest and entices consideration for purchase intent is merchandising, including advertising, packaging, price, and promotion. It is most effective when the buyer understands the information which is presented in a clear and concise manner. When descriptions create too many questions, or present incomplete or include technical jargon, merchandising will adversely affect the buyer’s purchase decision.

Industry jargon and abbreviations are appropriate only when the seller and potential buyers are both familiar with the terms and a communication short-hand is appropriate. However, armatures, home-roasters and consumers may be confused by our verbal short-hand.

When offering products to consumers, additional explanations and more detailed descriptions are required, specifically answering why the information presented is important and how it will affect the quality of the coffee. Consumers expect TRUE descriptions. Information that is obvious to professionals may be unknown to consumers, thus it is always recommended to identify the information being presented to avoid confusion. Green coffee descriptions are commonly used to merchandise roasted coffee products, illustrating the relationship and importance of describing descriptions accurately and appropriately.

Each company should adopt a standard format for coffee description, which over time, will become familiar to returning customers. An important note: regular customers will gradually gain knowledge and sophistication, so before changing the format of coffee descriptions carefully consider how those changes will affect new and novice consumers. What benefits one consumer group may alienate another. Detailed explanations for coffee descriptions may be presented on the company’s web page, within the foodservice menu or retail display, and are not always feasible to include on the coffee packaging. In the foodservice environment, TRUE product descriptions and detailed explanations should always be part of employee training and available to any employee who needs to answer a consumer’s question.

Green Coffee Descriptions

Commonly used to establish provenance, promote the sourcing practices, or explain the quality of the coffee, green coffee descriptions are obviously a critical component to merchandising green coffee products and are not more common when merchandising roasted coffee products. Often a point of differentiation from one product or company to another, green coffee descriptions establish the expectations for quality, value and sensory experience.

Green coffee descriptions may require explanation relevant to quality, sensory profile, and price:

  • Regional Identification – What is a Yirgacheffe or Huehuetenango?
  • Varietal/Cultivar – Why is Bourbon or Geisha important to state?
  • Altitude/Density & Other Identifiers – What is meant by PW, EP, HB, SHB, HG, MCM, SHG?
  • Processing Types – How are the different methods significant?
  • Certification – Why is it significant and what does it mean?

Recently, a colleague visited a local coffeehouse that offers specialty quality coffees in their pour-over station. The featured coffee was Panama Pacamara and the price was USD $9 for a 12-ounce cup. When compared to usual prices for pour-over, French press and vacuum pot preparation in the US, this drink is about two to three times more expensive. The merchandising and description for this expensive handcrafted beverage, Panama Pacamara, was grossly incomplete, and was further exacerbated when the barista was asked about the coffee provenance and roast development. The barista’s only response was Pacamara coffee from Panama. This exchange and poor description is tantamount to merchandising a bottle or can of craft beer as ale from Colorado and selling it for two to three times the usual price.

Both are examples of descriptions that are not TRUE.

Roasted Coffee Descriptions

The message of hospitality is to never give the customer a reason to shop elsewhere. Confusing and incomplete merchandising may force buyers to look elsewhere for coffee. When buyers are unable to connect with the product through the description there is low confidence of purchase or repeat purchases.

As professionals, we know our industry has many differences of opinions and company-specific terminology regarding quality identifications for coffee. TRUE descriptions are not vague and are aligned with the industry as whole. Examining roast level’s descriptions, the roast development spectrum may be divided into categories, there has been limited industry alignment on the use of light, medium, and dark description. Recognized roast terms used in merchandising, such as: American, cinnamon, city roast, full city roast, Vienna roast, continental roast, French roast, Italian roast, etc, are not standardized and often create confusion for the consumer. When comparing several packaged coffees that all use the same roast level identification, there will surely be several different levels of roast development or coffee colour, often with a wide range from light to dark. Consumers are further confused when seeing company-specific references. Eg, a light roast from a company that specializes in dark roasted coffees may be darker than a dark roasted coffee from a company that specializes in light roasted coffees. Standardization or a universality of roast development language or roast colour identification would contribute to greater understanding by consumers.

Descriptions are not TRUE when confusion is created and consumer expectations are not met. Flavour descriptions, roast description, coffee quality, origin information, etc, must always follow the TRUE model or a point if disconnection will occur between the seller and the buyer, or between the professional and the consumer.

Knowing the details of the contents within a coffee package or of a coffee beverage through the use of TRUE descriptions will help prevent disappointment and purchases of coffee that will not suit the preferences of the consumer.

Spencer Turer is VP of Coffee Enterprises in Hinesburg, Vermont. He is a founding member of the Roasters Guild, a licensed Q grader, and received the SCAA Outstanding Contribution to the Association Award. Turer is an active volunteer for the Specialty Coffee Association and the National Coffee Association of the USA.

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