There is no questions the massive subjectivity that lies in our ability to taste. This is something that has always fascinated me, as I believe it shows an inherent flaw in our language. Not just in the language we use to describe flavors, but language in general. Some postulate that the difficulties we encounter when attempting to communicate anything, even the simplest things, arise purely because our language itself is subjective, created around the notion of shared experiences, but still differing for each individual because we all have our own unique paths to walk. For example, imagine a tree in your mind. Start with the root structure, build a trunk, grow the branches and look at the leaves. Now, what kind of tree is it? Pine, Oak, Maple? And of those, which of the 1000’s of cultivars? We are now talking about two completely different trees. Is it now a failure of communication if you have a Japanese Maple in your mind when I have a Red Oak?
In order to make that judgement call, we have to understand the initial motivation and desire behind the communication. Was it simply attempting to convey broad notions of trees, bark, leaves, birds singing…or something more specific. Am I trying to make you feel something or am I trying to make you understand what I feel? As a coffee professional, it is my hope that the former is what most of us are after. The consumer needn’t be concerned with my emotions or feelings towards a particular good, but as the one who provides that good I should be concerned with how they feel about it. I should be adjusting my language to that end.
Accuracy and Appropriateness. These are the first two things that I concern myself with when attempting to describe flavors that I am perceiving to someone else. The first is rather obvious, we should be spot on when describing how a coffee tastes. If we say blueberries, then it should be blueberries, and if we say chocolate, it should be chocolate. In the consumer goods world there exists a very basic principle:
Expectation + Perception = Satisfaction
An accurate description will hit that mark, but if you say apples when what’s really there are blueberries…well, there is no satisfaction. The second notion is a little trickier, as it requires not our ability to taste and make great coffee, but our ability to read consumers and know people. It is not about how attentive we are when interacting with coffee, but more about how comfortable and attentive we are when interacting with people.
I’ve never tasted a persimmon. Not by choice, I haven’t avoided them for any particular reason, but I just haven’t had the opportunity. If you tell me that something will taste like a persimmon, that description is completely meaningless to me. If you tell someone it tastes like a Fuji apple, or a Mission Fig, and they haven’t experienced that flavor then again, there is no satisfaction. If they’ve never had a fruit forward coffee, as their only exposure has been to darker mid 1990’s style Seattle roasts, then again, there is no satisfaction. That person has never tasted Fuji Apple in a coffee before, or maybe never been exposed to the idea of that flavor existing in coffee.
Crafting flavor descriptors for coffee, and I’m sure wine, beer, and everything else, is an extraordinarily difficult task. Taste is subjective, but printed words on a bag cannot be retooled for every consumer. Often, we use similes, it tastes LIKE blueberries, or metaphors such as smooth, rich, and bold, to describe our perception of flavors. James Hoffman had an interesting post where he looked at flavor descriptors of Starbucks and specialty coffee. What I noticed from that is our tendency to use similes, and their tendency to use metaphors. Why is a question that’s been bugging me for a while. And it’s for a great reason, metaphors are amorphous and can be reshaped to mean something completely different to every person who reads that label while still conveying meaning. Blue Bottle takes this to an extreme by crafting William Carlos Williams style flavor descriptors. “This coffee tastes like a red wheelbarrow in the rain.”
Now, I’m not advocating for that type of language or completely dismissing it, as I’m sure an equal amount of people feel it to be very useful and very annoying. I tend to use colors when describing coffees, red, yellow, purple, but I do have a touch of synesthesia. I do think it important to begin contemplating how we are using our language to help consumers understand their perception of flavors. There is a constant call for a “more educated” consumer, like the craft beer and wine world enjoy, and I honestly believe that this is the place to make it happen.
We all love latte art, and anyone who says they don’t has absolutely no aesthetic sensibility. Of course, the drinks should taste great, but it’s undeniable that a great drink is made even better when it looks as good as it tastes. That being said, there is a lot of $h!t That Annoys Me About Latte Art, or more specifically, what baristas do with it. Below is a list of what I consider to be all too common latte art sins.
1.Etching.Stop poking my drink, and serve it to me. Please. It’s 7 am, I just want my coffee.
2. Holding the Cup by the Bottom. Ceramic cups, most of them at least, have this glorious little device that we refer to in English as “the Handle”, because that is where you hand goes! Stop manhandling my cups, stop rubbing your grubby barista fingers all over what should have been beautifully clean ceramic. Also, it is inefficient. If you grab the cup by the bottom, you have to switch hands to set it down, but if you only hold it by the handle, then it is easy to put it straight down with no switch-a-roo needed.
3.Design Off Center.Latte art is plating in the cup. Ideally, my handle should be served to my right, spoon placed on the left, and the latte art design facing me. Stop serving me designs that are upside down and not at right angles to the handle.
4. Severe Lack of Foam. Sure, the thicker the foam the tougher it is to pour a sweet rosetta. I get that. But when i order a cappuccino, i want more than a wisp of froth on top. I’m looking for a specific TEXTURE when I drink a cappuccino, and that is why we foam the milk in the first place - to enhance the texture. Stop serving me wet caps with intricate designs and start serving me tasty drinks. Stop sacrificing taste for visual appearance. Please.
5. Lack of Customer Attention. Yes, you do need to focus to pour latte art, but not to the detriment of the person who is drinking it. Stop spending three minutes focused on the the pour, with your face two inches from the cup, and look at the one who paid for it. Maybe, you could even engage them in a conversation beyond, “Latte to go”, that is, if they are up for it. You are a craftsmen, and we do recognize that, but it doesn’t mean you only focus on your craft. Check the ego and make some eye contact, maybe even with a thank you.
6. Banging the Pitcher. Yes, gently tapping the pitcher will pop some larger bubbles, but if they don’t pop in two or three taps, guess what, your milk sucks. You have probably incorporated air into the milk when the milk temperature was in excess of 100 F. Those bubbles aren’t going away, so stop knocking the pitcher on the counter. It’s loud, distracting, and completely unnecessary if you had steamed your milk correctly in the first place.
7.Poorly Executed Latte Art.I have seen too many milk drinks with what looks more like an agave plant or an old feather that has been trampled on than a rosetta. Cut it out. Latte art is plating in a cup, the idea is to create a drink that is as visually stimulating as it is in gustation. If the latte art fails to achieve that simple task…well then, it has failed. Start pouring latte art by working on the simpler designs and perfecting your basic techniques, the Monk’s Head and the Heart. These designs will give you a solid foundation upon which you can build and begin to pour more intricate designs. In the meantime, stop pouring shitty rosettas.
8.Apologizing.I often receive a drink from a barista accompanied by an explanation of why it didn’t happen the way it was supposed to. Please stop drawing attention to the defects that I may or may not notice and just let me drink. It creates an uncomfortable environment wherein I am am now supposed to make you feel better about something you didn’t execute perfectly. Don’t put the customer in that position.
9.Short Cups.I’m pretty sure this one is so annoying, Randy Newman even wrote a song about it. I ordered a six ounce cappuccino, and I expect you to be able to execute your recipe to exacting standards in the appropriate cup. If you want to serve a 8, 10, or 12 oz drink, then have the correct cup and fill it up. What would you do if you received a pint of beer with 2 inches missing from it?
10.Blaming the Milk.Nonfat and Soy milks are more difficult to steam and pour beautiful designs due to the changes in fats and proteins, but guess what? If you do a great job steaming and texturing, you can still make a pretty drink. Don’t blame the milk when it’s really your fault.
As an industry, let’s agree that we can do better, and stop doing these. As customers, let’s agree that we should expect better.
I was fortunate enough to attend the Barista Guild of America’s first ever East Coast Camp Pull-a-Shot. So many wonderful instructors, students, and all around amazing people were there sharing everything they possibly could with each other. The conversations focused mainly around coffee (go figure), but as all too often we forget, we are more than just coffee people. We are whole people, we have passions and thoughts and desires and interests that lie far outside the realms of espresso and milk. (but this is for another post)
Deputy Executive Director of the SCAA, Tracy Ging, reminded me of just that. She was at camp to help educate, and like so many others there, she made it amazing. Unfortunately, and fortunately, I was in the Manual Brewing room helping baristas with new brewing devices and answering questions to the best of my ability while Tracy was leading a round table discussion on sustainability. From what I’ve heard, it was a very lively discussion. However, I did have the opportunity to corner Tracy and pick her brain along with a few baristas from Nashville, Oklahoma, and one from Florida. Kind of a “Son of the Sustainability Round Table” (only click through if you are willing to read for a bit…this one is a little long)
In spite of the fact that most coffee shops go through almost as much milk as they do coffee, it doesn’t seem that milk is something that we as an industry have paid a lot of attention to. This is unfortunate. There exists a huge opportunity to increase our awareness and knowledge to then increase the quality of the products walking out of our door.
So this is a topic near and dear to my heart. Living in the South, one comes to appreciate things that keep us comfortable in the unbearable summer time from March to October. Recently, a small Twitter debate erupted sparked by Counter Culture Coffee’s Peter Giuliano. Peter brought up some great points that you can read here, some of which I’ll go into further down the page, but the best part about it was simply that it got me thinking. And as one can deduce from the Tweet-plosion that followed, it got a few others thinking as well.
After years of engaging people across the intentionally limiting platform that is Twitter, I am making the leap to a medium that will allow for more precisely and intricately laid arguments, postulations, and ramblings. I’m not promising anything life changing or paradigm shifting, but if you already know me then more than likely you were not expecting that. What you can expect is to hear, or as is more likely read, random thoughts pertaining mostly to coffee, beer, cocktails, food, maybe a little about wine, and service. I will attempt to keep this somewhat professional, but again, if you already know me then you were not expecting that, either.
In any event, this is up and I am here. Where this will go, lord only knows.