Coffee descriptors

Back in September of last year I was thinking a bit about the words we use when we describe coffee.  Out of interest I went to a few US roaster’s websites and copied all their coffee descriptions into a text document and ran it through wordle.

I then went to Starbucks website and did the same thing with all their descriptions.  The results are interesting, I think and you can click to enbiggen:



Now don’t take these too seriously – this is hardly the most incisive bit of research.  I’d like to ask if the same thing stands out to you as it does to me – but then I have to ruin the question by giving my own answer.

Speciality  1 likes to use nouns.  Solid, statement-of-fact nouns:  This coffee tastes like blackberry.

Starbucks surprised me, not only by their consistent use of acidity which confuses me on a couple of different accounts, because they don’t use as many nouns.  Lots more descriptive words, more adjectives and adverbs.  Are they harder to argue or disagree with?  Perhaps a more accessible way to describe coffee to their customers?

Is there something in the way they do this we can learn from.  I’m not suggesting we spruce up our descriptions with meaningless words, and I will admit that I am uncomfortable with labels when flavour descriptors start verbing, but would describing those factual flavour nouns in our labels a little more be beneficial?

  1. how uncomfortable I am with this term  ↩︎

277 thoughts on “Coffee descriptors

  1. What I find a lot weirder is how the specialty-descriptions are much closer to classic, old-fashioned constructions of how coffee should taste… the three biggest: chocolate? caramel? sweet? – and Starbucks on the other hand uses what I’d much more associate with specialty coffee: acidity, citrus, juicy… at first I thought you had maybe confused the two images when uploading?!

  2. This is a very interesting post. I’m not exactly sure how “shirts” got on the specialty side, but it made me laugh. I think we (specialty coffee) are still doing a pretty bad job with our flavor descriptions. I think part of this is the fact that most baristas are trained to taste for the “notes” first and foremost. While it feels fantastic to be able to confidently hand a cup to a customer and tell them that it tastes like strawberries and rhubarb, it is also not an accessible way to describe coffee to the vast majority of customers. I’m continually surprised that even in a city with a pretty advanced coffee culture, we still have many customers who come up to the counter with a bag of coffee looking bewildered, and sincerely ask why we put flavoring in our coffee. Of course, it’s hard to not sound condescending with the answer, no matter how diplomatic you are, because the customer made an easy mistake, and now they feel stupid. I think some well thought out, and truthful nouns could only help our cause, because the more honest and on point we are with what a customer will experience in a cup, the more likely they are to trust us in the future.

  3. I’m willing to bet that the word cloud from small specialty roasters is mostly the product of staff cupping notes, whereas the Starbucks website is mostly the product of professional copywriters.  Descriptors like “bold” and “smoothness” are probably the product of Starbucks consumer research, and words like “remarkable” and “distinctive” sound like marketing cliches.

    Very interesting to see “acidity” and “juicy” in the top 3 words for Starbucks.  A google query ( reveals that “acidity” is nearly always used with a modifier.  Much to my surprise, the modifier often expresses bright or high acidity.

    Here are the high-ranking occurrences of “acidity” on, modifiers included:

    tangerine-like acidity
    gentle acidity
    Meyer lemon acidity
    black tea acidity
    crisp acidity
    assertive acidity
    medium acidity
    soft acidity
    mellow acidity
    delicate acidity
    bright acidity

    Does this mean that Starbucks’ self-image is that of a high-acidity roaster, or at least one that markets coffee across the acidity spectrum?  Perhaps the coffee descriptions are coming from the cupping notes of green buyers who are assessing the coffees at a much lighter roast degree than the production roasts?  Or perhaps Starbucks roastmasters and QC cuppers have over time calibrated their palates to perceive ample acidity and “juiciness” even within a range that most of our palates would consider muted and roasty.

    Fun and thought-provoking; thanks Jim and welcome back to blogland.

  4. Thank you for this wonderful comment – so interesting! The use of acidity by Starbucks confused me because:
    a). They roast so dark that I would struggle to perceive, let alone describe, much acidity in their coffee.
    b). I always treated acidity as a consumer unfriendly word. It isn’t a word most people want to associate with coffee, and often has very negative connotations.

    On a side note – I need to put “assertive acidity” on a label soon, so ridiculous….

    I know people from Starbucks sometimes read this blog – but I doubt I could coax anyone out to talk about their copy writing procedures for new coffees.

  5. I’ll throw myself out there…I”m a 9 year Starbucks employee, now in corporate but spent 4 years as a barista in the beginning of my career.

    While I can’t comment explicitly on our copy writing for new coffee (because quite frankly I don’t know our thought process behind how we generate this) I did also find it quite interesting just HOW BIG that word acidity was/how much it came up. It does seem to me that it comes up a bit more than maybe we would have intended it to. Perhaps it’s become a bad habit…an overused strength if you will.

    I would speculate as to why it might come up so much…we focus on a few core things in our “culture” around “how” we taste coffee. Aroma, acidity, body, and flavor. These are the four key things we think about and discuss as we taste and describe coffee.  We obsess a lot over “locating the coffee on your tongue” and thereby identifying the relative acidity.

    As someone who has tasted a lot of (way too much probably) sbux coffee over time, I would say that there is actually a big distinction across our line…maybe it’s just taken me time to calibrate and identify it all. What surprised me most though about how much acidity comes up, is that I see us use this word mostly to describe our latins and africans especially, and we in fact talk about the LACK of acitidy in our indonesians/asia pacifics. So maybe the dual use of that, acidity and LACK of acidity, brings this word into the equation two-fold.

    All of that is to say though…I think we could probably do with a few more nouns in our descriptions. And maybe a little more focus on FLAVORS and other characteristics to bring those out. I’m going to play around with this at my next coffee tastings, and start a quiet little observation about how much we obsess over this word acidity… :)

  6. I generally like the descriptors by the likes of Square Mile, HasBean and Intelli.

    The only thing I’d change is the very occasional leap into pretentiousness.

    Starbucks descriptors are fine as well but bear no relation to what you get in the cup.

  7. I’m going to throw myself out there and say that I’ve always found it really hard to taste chocolate in coffee. I have a reasonably good palette, and I get the cocoa sort of finish sometimes, and I can taste that a lot of the same flavors in chocolate are also in coffee. To be honest though, the only time I’ve ever genuinely felt like I was tasting chocolate was from some square mile espresso that was past it’s use-by date… I guess I’ll never be a professional cupper.

    A lot of the Starbucks flavour descriptors aren’t actually flavour descriptors – Columbian, left, testament, mistaken, erupts, shirts… However, Starbucks does do an awesome job of making coffee feel accessible. I touched on this briefly in a blog I wrote ages ago, about giving customers the right vocabulary to taste coffee with. I agree with you that “acidity” is a word most customers react negatively to, but “citrus”, “bright” and “fruity” are a little easier to sell. I think we have to accept that a majority of our customers aren’t interested in becoming coffee tasters. They aren’t going to develop their palettes because they just want a cup of coffee.

  8. As I mentioned in my comment on the last post, I am now recording taste descriptors for all the coffees I drink this year…using Wordle is a cool way to look at the results. Along the way, I’m also putting together a collection of the most obtuse, funny, or downright strange terms roasters use to describe coffees. I may already have enough for a top ten list.

  9. I think this is really interessting, because the flavour-descriptors “we” use really irk me. The ironic thing is that it started getting to me after watching the DirtyCup-video interview with you! You had some very good points about trust, and how long you can get with trust, I think why so few buy the grinders, buy the scales, buy the more expensive coffee, is because we promise too much. 

    Maybe someone will have a grinder, but not a perfect one, brew nicely but not nicely “enough” (we have to stop fucking around, sorry, but brewing the “perfect cup” isn’t as easy as we try to tell, but that is a different topic), anyway, they brew the coffee they bought for, as they see it, a premium price. Then they look at the bag, and there are desciptors, flavour all over the place. grapefruit, blackcurrant, bourbon vanilla and bright acidity like pakistani mango with a finnish og png 64% organic chocolate. They will taste coffee, slightly acidic, with a chocolate-y finnish. Period. They will feel stupid, inadeqate or annoyed. Coffee-descriptors are all over the place, and are even farer out than wine or whisky. I think Square Mile do a VERY good job with theirs, keeping it understandable and fun and non-pretentious, alot of roasters seem to be a tad too nose-in-the-air about it all, and that tickles the fancy of a few, but alienates so many. 

    Specialty coffee has to take a choice, who do you want to serve? The especially interested, who will take time to learn, cup and learn some more, or do you want the wider audience? If it’s the latter, then swallow some pride, and learn some communication-skills from starbucks, because you can say what you want about their roast-profiles or whatnot, but they do a pretty amazing job at marketing.

  10. Descriptors, like anything else worth reading, should serve to inform, entertain, and perhaps intrigue the audience they are intended for. Words like “bold”, “sweet”, or “acidity” have no meaning without context. They give the coffee drinker nothing to look for, nothing to discover. 

    For me descriptors, flowery language and all, are a both a guide and a reminder. They serve as a simple road map for the tasting journey, and they remind the customer that each coffee should, and will taste different.

    I think honesty in describing the coffees work best with whomever your customers are. What did you taste? How do you want to communicate that? Did you taste BOLD? Or did you taste tobacco and black tea? Did you taste SWEET? Or did you taste honey, or molasses, or cane-sugar, or maple or …

    Everyone has their own tasting vocabulary. Write what you taste.

  11. This is something I struggled with a year ago and took action on. Our company cups coffees together very often. All five of us around a table, no one talks until afterwards and all the coffees are blind. Slowly but surely after I decided not to say the name of a fruit everyone in the room start having much better conversations about each coffee. We talked more about how the coffee made us feel. Was it inspiring like when we first started in coffee? Was the coffee easy to understand or difficult? Was it accessible to a new customer? Also taking the fruit names out of conversation lead us to focusing more on the roast and finding positives and negatives in the roast while not trying to make the coffee do something with roasting. “I think it could be more cardamomy” will inevitably lead to a waste of time.  I think this kind of thinking has made our coffees better and our customers happier.

  12. there is nothing wrong with “Chocolate, caramel, sweet” if that’s what you get from the coffee. there is the urge to get more romantic about these same flavor groups and say things like. “bakers chocolate, dutch cocoa, toffee, sticky toffee, sugar cane”…but we are saying the same things

  13. Could Starbucks be using the word acidity in the wrong way? I would definitely associate bitterness with their coffee but not acidity.  I also wonder if the way they are drawing things out of their coffee that can be seen as acidity could be how they are extracting it? In the specialty side of the industry we roast and adjust brew ratios to bring out different notes, could they be using different brew ratios to do the same?

  14. Im right there with you when it comes to the difficulty in tasting ‘chocolate’ in coffee.  I read a blog a while ago that referred to taste notes not always being actual flavors that are detectable in coffee, but as reminders of those notes.  I was cupping with some Stumptown trainers a couple weeks ago, and they were getting macadamia in the cup, not necessarily as an actual taste note, but the coffee gave the creamy rich mouthfeel of macadamia.
    No idea if that helps or makes sense. 

  15. Nice to know I’m not the only one. I’ve cupped quite a bit, and chocolate seems to be the only one I ever have trouble with. I think my problem is that chocolate for me has really strong textural associations, which might be why I found it in espresso.

  16. Eek…certainly not one of our finest moments. I’m even a bit embarrassed at that. I promise we usually do a better job, that’s just a horrible, horrible example, and I’m actually a bit amazed we were willing to publish it. Major really is a wealth of knowledge…this is NOT a good example of such!

  17. Things are best described by how the relate to other things. It’s the shared tastes and experiences that inform our new ones, no matter the vehicle. Coffee, thus, is no exception. Given that, I find specific nouns more useful. Rather than say a coffee is acidic, I think it’s more instructive to say it feels like orange juice on the tongue. The customer is more likely to be enticed by noting a familiar taste, rather than an abstract one.

  18. My personal thoughts on descriptors that might go too far? Why not? If I’m buyinga premium product like specialty coffee, I really want to know the producer thought about their product. To think that it must be “dumbed down” so I won’t feel stupid when I can’t taste “slightly over-ripened cherries” and :”baker’s chocolate melted on a drying bed” is also an insult.

    I think it serves as a great connection and vessel for communication between the customer and barista/roaster/ whoever.

  19. I’ve taken to asking customers what a coffee tastes like before telling them what I (we) think, then using that to describe it to other customers.  Things I’ve noticed:

    ‘Laymen’ still describe coffee with nouns – chocolate, lemon etc – albeit only one.  Instead of always trying to push past the most pervasive note to discern anything subtler, they jump all over the big hitter and stop there.  Fair enough!

    Not one customer has ever used the words ‘acidity’ or ‘juicy’.  They will describe it as sour or sweet, which makes perfect sense.

    On a more general and location specific note; not sure if it is just the collective palate of my area of work, but the average customer:

    Still loves ‘typical’ coffee characteristics – chocolate, hazelnut etc.  They’re OK with a red-berry Sidamo or El Salvadorian, but that’s still relatively easily accessible.

    There also seems to be an association in people’s minds between ‘coffee’ taste and those particular flavours – choc, nuts etc.  I’ll ask somebody what a not-very-chocolatey coffee tastes like and they’ll throw chocolate back at me because it tastes like coffee.  I smile whenever I ask somebody what a coffee tastes like to them and they say “Coffee.” :)

  20. I think there are a set of flavours which are alike to the generic ‘coffee flavour’. I can taste it in some Costa Ricans and Columbians, a subtle PN Brazil or even some espresso blends when brewed as a pour over or press. What the generic coffee flavour entails is, of course, entirely subjective, but I have attributed it to some coffees in the past.

  21. No doubt, what I’m saying is, due to both a predominance of what I would call ‘safe’ Brazilians etc over the past 20 yrs, and perhaps the ability of those particular flavours to stand out despite poor extraction, people have developed an association between the flavour of ANY coffee and those characteristics.  Heston Blumenthal participated in an experiment whereby the administer gave him a generic sweet substance to taste and a banana flavour simultaneously, then later administered the sweetener alone and Blumenthal still tasted banana; something along those lines if I’m not making myself clear, which usually I’m not ;)

  22. Far be it from me to defend Starbucks and their roasting principles, but I do think people are too quick to judge.  Starbucks has been buying and roasting arabica coffee longer than most posters here have been alive.  I think it might be possible that in those 40 plus years they have learned a thing or two, not just about marketing (and yes, if you are in the coffee business you are in the marketing business, otherwise you will find yourself out of the coffe business rather quickly) but about coffee.  The founders of Starbucks learned their craft from one of the specialty movements founders and that culture (though it may be watered down now) is deeply embedded in the corporate fiber.
    I think that the descriptors used on the Sbux website are indicative of both their coffee experience and their marketing experience.  They know, that while acidity may be a touchy word with customers, that it is something to be desired in coffee and they don’t shy away from it.  And they now from a marketing perspective that tamarind may be a bit to abstract for most coffee drinkers.

    As a coffee professional (and obsessive) I appreciate this generations desire to get deeper and deeper into the intricacies and nuances of a cup’s profile.  But having been around for a minute now, I would feel totally comfortable saying that as often as not, a lot of what people come up with in their tasting notes has little to no relevance to what is in the cup.  It sort of reminds me of the latte art thing.  sometimes people spend too much time finding a way to make a subpar product (themselves or the coffee?) better through gorgeous presentation, rather than focusing on making the product itself better. 

    just another little interesting note, the term aroma or aromatics seems to be relatively infrequent in the specialty image.  Considering what an important role aromatic gases play in our perception of flavor I would assume this to be more relevant in our specialty community.

  23. In regards to noticing chocolate in a cup, I have a suggestion that may help. Instead of tasting different “chocolately” coffees to figure it out, start at the source and do tastings of actual chocolates; milk, bittersweet, Semisweet ect. By recording your thoughts and making mental notes would possibly make it easier for you to notice chocolate in coffees in the future. I live in Philly and I make a regular habit of going to Reading Terminal Market to visit spice shops, confectionary shops, produce stands to just build up my memory banks with smells, tastes, and sensations. Coffee is tough to taste, by making stronger connections with the actual item we are referencing while cupping makes the process just a bit easier. But thats just me, I hope this helped

  24. We did a piece of research on this a few years ago, looking a consumer descriptions vs expert in coffee – there’s a huge void there between the two and also some really interesting outcomes in terms of how experts use vocabulary. The latter seemed unable to consistently characterise acidity and used subjective terms predominantly – we were also interested in how this could impact in the reliable use of vocabs, e.g. SCAA / CofE on cupping forms and questionned the reductive nature of these to the “scores on the doors” given the lack of coherent agreement on terms common in this vocabs (that and the fact that they mix hedonic, objective and subjective on the forms!).

  25. While i very much enjoy reading how roasters decribe their beans I also find it a bit misleading at times. Very recently i bought some beans from Has Bean and their tasting said soemething like “think of cherry cola at the gym”. While the beans tasted great (one of the best espressos I ever had and very nice in the chemex as well) I could not find any traces of cherry cola.  Overpromising is never a good idea….or maybe I should drink more cherry cola to get a better feel for the taste  :-)

  26. I was just talking about this with my partner – Smell and taste can trigger memories, but memory can also trigger smell and taste, if that makes sense. Your brain gets used to connecting certain stimuli with certain words or concepts, and eventually you start to find them even when they aren’t there.

    I would be interested in reading that study, if you have a link handy.

  27. It’s hard to come by educated people on this subject, however, you sound like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks

  28. Having read this I believed it was rather enlightening. I appreciate you finding the time and effort to put this short article together. I once again find myself spending a lot of time both reading and leaving comments. But so what, it was still worth it!

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