Video 4 – Great steak & milk foam

22 Comments

  1. Good questions James,

    As a marketer, I usually want to lean toward using the language of the consumer. A classic example from when I ran an advertising agency was getting clients to think about benefits instead of features. (eg. ‘this brewer heats to 200˚F’ (feature) vs ‘this brewer achieves proper extraction and ultimately brews better tasting coffee’ (benefit)). Most companies that sell products — especially if they are in any way based on technology — tend to be fixated on features and don’t understand why it’s better for them to frame their selling messages as benefits.

    I think in this case, it’s a little different. Of course we’re not talking about simply a different way to frame the same idea, but rather a different way to think and evaluate what’s going on in your mouth and brain when you’re tasting coffee.

    I think we in the specialty coffee industry have to walk a fine line here. In order to really succeed, we need to educate and ultimately change a lot of people’s perceptions of what coffee is and can be. But, if we’re not careful to approach potential new consumers on common ground, using language that is comfortable and easily understood, we run the risk of coming across as terribly condescending.

    So here’s to walking the tightrope!

  2. Just had this conversation with a person I’m training. The question was posed whether we are going over our customers heads with flavor descriptors. I wanted to write his thoughts off as ‘underestimating our customers’. The idea was posed that we should create a language that meets our customers on a more basic, maybe less intimidating, level.
    I think it would be wise for many of us to incorporate certain language and vocabulary into our coffee rhetoric, but I also think it very important for us to talk the way we do. While we can use certain buzz words to sound more approachable, a professional using taste descriptors can also be a tool used for setting us apart from the commodity coffee realm. To me, it’s a way for us to try to elevate ourselves from a commodity market to more of a professional and culinary one. At the same time, if we can use both flavor and texture, then it’s only a further evolution of our craft and professionalism.

  3. I had a few interesting thought after watching this video –

    Firstly, I’m not sure if I agree that the “texture” words deployed in the marketing of supermarket coffee really are texture words. Here’s my attempt at understanding the typical interpretation of normal commercial coffee descriptors in the mind of the sort of consumer that buys said coffees:

    Round – “This will give me a complete feeling of satisfaction”

    Smooth – “I won’t find anything unpleasant about this coffee”

    There may be more but this will suffice – the point I’d like to make is that I suspect these words are not interpreted as texture words but rather as descriptors of the expected emotional response to the sensory experience.

    That said, I think your point is still quite valid. I’m no psychologist, but I wonder if generally speaking people respond on an emotional level most readily to sweetness and “good texture” (positive response) or bitterness, sourness and “bad” texture (negative response). The emotions that are triggered by flavour or acidity experiences are far less intense. Perhaps one could liken these two degrees of emotional response to the very different pleasures derived from a) massages and b) the completion of crossword puzzles. Tasting strawberries in coffee is fun and exciting, but it doesn’t give me the same feeling as “molten butter” espresso.

    I guess my point is that texture words are not generally interpreted as such in the industry right now, but they probably are easiest terms to “sell” coffee with. This is partly due to the emotional connection with texture, but also due to the intimidation factor you spoke of.

    For my second thought, here’s a theory on why texture is far less intimidating than flavour to a great many potential coffee customers –

    As people develop experience with tasting from the very beginning, they develop an understanding that texture is quality of a thing that is not strictly a unique quality of that thing. There are a great many things that can be described as “smooth” or “rough”.

    On the contrary, I think a very normal unconscious human understanding of how the universe is ordered includes an assumption that the only thing that can possibly taste like strawberries is a strawberry. The same goes for toffee and toast and everything else that has a smell of flavour. When we start talking about strawberries in coffee around people who have little experience with “tasting”, maybe we’re actually challenging their very understanding of nature – at least subconsciously. How’s that for intimidating?!

    To explore that argument a little further, how many times have you had someone immediately respond to a basic description of the typical Harrar by inquiring: “So you mean they put blueberries in the coffee??”

    I agree with the use of texture words in communicating the benefits of coffee to ‘ordinary folk’: “Ma’am, this cappuccino will coat your tongue like warm clotted cream. Oh, and there’s an empty crossword puzzle on the bar if you’re interested.”

  4. A little off topic – just wanna say, digging the position of the mountain goat trophy on the back shelf :) Didn’t they send u a more “appropriate” trophy?

    On the steak analogy – that one’s a bit hard for me to stretch (lol) when it comes to milk, but I see where you’re coming from. But like you said, the grocery store descriptors bug the crap out of me.

    When I speak to restaurateurs, I use the soup can analogy; when chatting with fine dining / near fine dining establishments, I ask them if they use Campbells’ condensed soups to make their stocks, their bases, etc; they usually chaff at the question. Then I equate their preground sacks, their pods and capsule espressos with the Campbells. They kind of get it.

  5. I agree with both previous comments. I think that in this case, we can not afford to put ourselves in one camp or the other. Describing coffee in terms of mouth feel alone is too simplistic. I know first hand how difficult people find it when asked to describe the flavours that they encounter in coffee. At one tasting I did recently, I brewed the Esmeralda for the group, and passed around both the ground coffee, and gave everyone a taste of the brewed coffee. The freshly ground coffee was hugely aromatic, grapefruit, the typical jasmine, some blueberry… the bottom line was that the aromatics, for me, were overwhelming, and complex. When I queried the group on what they were smelling, I got blank stares for the most part and a common response of “coffee”. Truthfully, I was shocked, as for me, the aromas were unmistakable. This simply goes to show, how the general public, even those interested enough in coffee to pay for a course on coffee, find it very difficult to follow our flavour descriptors. So finding a common language with our customer base is definitely important. The WSET systematic approach to wine perhaps is a good place to start, where we evaluate the physical characteristics about a wine, and then start to describe flavours. So body, acidity, tannins, all of this comes first, and then flavours. So all of this to say that I think both are critically important. We need to talk in ways our customers understand about coffee, but we also have to gently challenge them as well, so that they begin to understand that there is more to coffee than just brown hot water. At the end of the day it is all about raising the level of our customer’s understanding, bit by bit.

  6. I wasn’t trying to propose an either/or thing when it comes to describing coffee.

    My point was that with most foods – be it steak or a cappuccino – people primarily engage with it on a texture level.

    I wondered whether we could use texture descriptors more effectively to engage people on the cusp of getting into great coffee.

    I think I just worded it badly!

  7. Please finish steaming my milk, scoop the crema off the shot in my takeaway cup (if you must) and let me get on with the rest of my day. I love my coffee everyday but my friend Joe prefers a cigarette and a can of coke to start his day. I can’t force him to come along to church every Sunday even if I think the organisation of church could really help him!

    I keep my passion for coffee close to my heart and only my heart and the hearts of others that I’m connected.

  8. I look forward to these videos everyday now… I love the ones that really stir the pot. Hopefully this is going to make people rethink the way coffee works…

  9. James,

    First of all, thank you so much for doing these videos. I very much appreciate your (apparent) urge to place issues in coffee within a theoretical framework. Some commenters have reacted negatively to the distinctions you set up (crema good vs. crema bad, product vs. process, texture vs. flavor, etc.) because they feel that a reductionist us-vs.-them, choose-a-side mentality among coffee pros hampers the project of educating the masses about the tremendous value of a good cup. They probably have a point, but I feel (I hope!) that they miss yours. Here is how I “read” you: You are (among many other things) a coffee theorist. As such, you pursue general principles that abstract from and idealize the messy, chaotic reality of coffee culture and economics. The value of your theories is not that all of the Truths of Coffee can be deduced from them, but rather that they provide coffee-heads with a common point of reference for initiating high-level discussions of issues in coffee. Judging by the fascinating comments on your first four videos, I’d say you’re succeeding.

    On another topic: You suggest in this video that texture is the most salient and most salable feature of foods, including coffee. I take your point with respect to caps and other milk drinks, but I wonder how it translates to brewed coffee. (Perhaps you don’t mean it to translate, but you have expressed a desire to move the high-end coffee market towards single-cup brewed coffee, at least in the UK.) Despite vague supermarket advertising buzzwords, I don’t think that most people’s first reaction to a cup of (black) coffee is a texture reaction. Furthermore—and here I speak from personal experience as a customer who only started to get serious about coffee in the last few years—it can be difficult to learn to pick up on body and other textural features of a brew (let alone to verbalize what one senses). I’m not convinced that talking about coffee’s texture will make the special features of the coffee more accessible to your customers.

  10. I think the point is being missed here. Food is described mainly by textures because food is mainly 1-dimensional, i.e. you know what it should taste like because of the ingredients in it.

    Coffee is easily more comparable to wine, where it is made from basically 1 ingredient, but it is so multi-dimensional depending on the type of grade and processes used etc.

    Wine is always described in terms of texture, taste and nose, and I think coffee should be too. Cheap wine and cheap coffee are marketed with simplistic terms, often because the target consumer is not overly concerned about it – they just want a bottle of wine or a bag of coffee. The consumers who care about the quality of the product (and hence pay for it) want the wine maker’s or roaster’s full description to help them make a more informed choice. I think this is the point.

    Whilst wine has the added complexity that it’s textures, aromas and taste vary greatly over a long period of time, coffee has the added complexity that the brewing process can dramatically alter its qualities.

    Keep up the video blogging and great coffee!

  11. I’ve been doing a little reading on the use of flavour descriptors – more has been written in the wine world than the coffee world (thanks to Francis for the articles!) – and I think one advantage of texture is that people are much better at recalling texture than they are flavour.

    The use of specific flavour descriptors is only a relatively recent thing in wine, and I guess even more so with coffee. In fact does anyone know when we started using flavour descriptors to sell coffee? (Sorry gotten off track – this could be a post for next week!)

    All good points – and I now really want you to make me a capp!

  12. I get your point on brewed coffee, but I think people still tend to use a lot of texture words with it. If you make someone an underextracted, an overextracted and a correctly brewed filter coffee and ask them to describe each they will probably end up using a lot of texture words like thin, rough, heavy, smooth, round as well as taste words like bitter, sour and sweet.

    I think you are right about describing and communicating specific texture’s very accurately. At Counter Culture Coffee’s public cupping they tend to encourage people to talk about the body and mouthfeel in terms of milk – skim, 2% and whole. This is a fairly familiar reference point for most people and therefore a great communication tool.

  13. Not a problem to be obssessed, passion is what IS lacking in most industries today, keep up the honest opinions!

  14. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that one is a solid and the other is a liquid.

  15. Hi James,

    I was thinking about this post over the weekend when I picked up a new beer at the supermarket. It was an IPA, which I like, from a brewery which I like. I wondered what made this beer different from their other IPA and what I might expect in the bottle. On the side of the six-pack package, there was a rather lengthy piece of text, some 400 words or so. I started reading expecting to see flavor notes, brewing techniques, something that would tell me what was in the bottle. As you might have guessed by now, there was nothing until the very last sentence which had a single word about flavor. Instead the copy was a story describing the high desert country where the beer was brewed. It was evocative and certainly made me want to go visit, but it literally had nothing to do with the beer. And it’s not even like the hops or malt were grown in the high desert, it is a desert after all. And yet nearly the whole marketing effort (from a descriptive standpoint) was trying to sell me on an experience or evocative image instead of on the beer itself.

    Of course this isn’t a texture versus flavor interpretation as you’ve elaborated on here, but it struck me as perhaps even more relevant for the coffee industry as both are selling liquids and therefore have fewer texture descriptors to work with.

    By the way the beer was quite malty, a little less hoppy than most IPAs, and very tasty.

  16. My broadband’s just crap enough to make watching your video a gently disturbing experience. Every few seconds it paused on a great gurn/frown/grimace allowing me to contemplate your last point whilst staring at a surreal still of you…for just a little too long for comfort. I wish I could have captured them.

    Thanks, I’m guaranteed a wierd nights sleep. Again.

  17. Thanks, James, for these pearls of wisdom / streams of consciousness. Very interesting.

    A lot of what you say makes intuitive sense – and not just in terms of understanding what it is that new-to-coffee consumers percieve in the cup, but (perhaps even more importantly) what turns them on to good coffee in the first place.

    I think I remember you (apologies if i’m misquoting / misattributing someone else’s opinion to you) pointing out that, to the ‘good’ coffee industry, it’s a much larger gain to ‘convert’ one instant-coffee-drinker than it is to fight over those customers who already ‘get it’. Additionally, since there are so many instant-coffee-drinkers out there, you only need convert a tiny % to really grow the market for good coffee. Whereas a fixed pool of well-informed customers get a better experience if the main players cooperate to some degree.

    Anyway – this highlights the importance of understanding what someone new-to-good-coffee thinks – and from what I’ve seen, it’s mostly texture, not flavours, that pull people in. (There’s a good reason I’d offer someone who “doesn’t like coffee” a single shot capp rather than an espresso – it’s approachable, and up-front delicious).

    You’ve even made me re-evaluate what attracted me to good coffee in the first place. And as soon as I do, I realize – it was primarily texture, not taste, that did it. A good capp, with nondescript coffee, but good milk technique, was what started me searching and learning about good coffee. And I certainly remember the texture, far better than the taste of the coffee.

    Since then, I’ve come to appreciate the beans. So I’d agree that a french press in every home, for good brewed (black) coffee, is an excellent goal – but perhaps texture in general, and milk drinks (with good texture, not 20oz pails of scalded cow juice) in particular can have a role to play in popularizing good coffee?

  18. I like selling coffee that is enjoyable to drink. I value the experience itself far more than the ability to describe that experience. Nobody hearing a description of an experience can come close to having it, unless if it motivates them to see for themselves. Sometimes I wish I could just say, “Try this one; you’ll really like it.” And I think i can justifiably do so because of our shop’s proven track record of satisfying customers with tasty and tactilely pleasant coffee.

  19. Very timely video. We just started selling whole bean and french press brew at our local farmers market – this is the type of market people go to in order to find very affordable produce and foods, not the type upper class folks go to buy organic and earthy products.

    On our first week we sold both a Kenyan and a Guatemalan coffee. What was remarkable is how much quicker and easier it was to sell the Guatemalan coffee. We used words like round, smooth, balanced, nutty, and chocolate to sell it. With the Kenyan, we used bright, snappy, exciting, acidic, winey. Before I usually had time to say anything else, people would say, “Oh, the Guatemala!”

    Smooth and balanced seem to be buzz words with anything, including coffee.

  20. So hard not to get caught up in the visual. Green coke, a blue banana, probably bad examples but there is a fair amount of expectation in visual like it or not.

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