2011

The View

Does anyone still remember “The Third Wave”, not the current trendy coffee version, but the paradigm-changing book by Alvin Toffler published in the late 1970’s? After attending a discussion group moderated by Tim Castle at the Roaster’s Guild Retreat this month, I was struck by an idea that led me toward revisiting this, and the rest of the suite of books written by Toffler at about the same time.

The discussion was about the language of coffee. I have some passions about the subject so that was the clear choice for me. The pressing question for the group was the evolution of a usable descriptor language for coffee. It quickly became clear that as an industry, we operate with 3 sets of quality descriptors.

The first is the language of the “Q”. Designed to form a standardized language for evaluating quality in a formalized cupping environment, the coffee is given descriptors based upon the profile of a cup of coffee with almost no relationship to anything anyone would actually drink! (It is brown) This language is meaningful to growers, export/importers, and green coffee buyers.

The second is the marketing language used by roasters and retailers to describe roasted coffee presented to consumers. (Tangerine brightness with a refreshing hint of lilac??)

Consumers developed the third, and most ignored language. That is the language of ordering at the counter. The often complex and pretentious recipes requested by customers. And here is where Alvin Toffler comes in.

In the “Third Wave” Toffler speculated that (in the ‘70’s) America and ultimately the world, was moving past a mass manufacturing society, the ‘Second Wave’ and into an era of “de-massification.” Prior to the internet, prior to PC’s, prior to Starbuck’s, he envisioned a quantum shift in buying behaviors where consumers would look for ways to create completely personal product experiences. Customers will demand the ability to be able to design and buy precisely what they want, whether it is automobiles, clothing, airplanes, music, housing, food, and surprisingly…coffee.

Starbuck’s and Seattle’s Best Coffee, whether they intended to or not, provided a accessible platform for consumers to express their individuality through the various descriptors of the beverages they ordered. This ‘new language’ of ordering coffee set people apart as individuals rising above the masses. It was elemental toward establishing specialty coffee houses as elitist temples through which one could express prestige, ‘smart-ness’, and individuality. In the 90’s, walking down Park Avenue with a Starbuck’s cup in you hand was considered very cool and trendy.

Even though some in our industry now ridicule the ‘Valley girl coffee-like beverage recipes’ recited in cafes across the country, and some cafes have even banned that kind of ordering, the essential idea still has not changed. The new trends toward customized pour-over, and other single cup brewing methods are a backlash against milk based coffee beverages, yet they are still part of the same trend. Small batch specialty roasting and single cup brewing methods are a new generation’s attempt to rise above the masses and reject conformity. With these new methods comes a broadening of the coffee language for consumers, but not an entirely new trend. ‘Third wave’ coffee is really not anything new, it is a continuation of fundamental societal shifts that are changing the way products are made and presented.

What seems common place today – picking the individual songs we want to own instead of having to purchase a whole album, customizing the components in our PC’s, going to a website to pick the exact options we want on our cars, micro-managing travel arrangements, and of course, individualized micro-lot varietal blending for a single cup pour-over – was revolutionary thinking 30 years ago.

So, any discussion of coffee language must, in my opinion focus on the evolving language of the consumer. I do not think it is possible to create a unified language that describes coffee from the farm to the consumer’s cup. In many ways, the very effort to standardize is “way last century.” Embracing the marketing/consumer jargon, regardless of how weird it can sometimes get, is essential. What we as an industry need to do is use that consumer language to establish some identifier signposts to help customers build confidence and find consistency while enhancing individuality.

The “Flavor Wheel” is, at best, a means of industrial calibration for the agricultural side of the coffee world. And since it is not properly trained to in certified cupping classes, generally, it has become more of a pretty wall decoration than a usable tool. Every cupping lab has one, but how many professional cuppers can describe its function?

The roaster’s cupping table is the nexus of transition for coffee. This is where the coffee moves from an agricultural product to a manufactured and marketed product. Training to that transition is essential if our industry is to develop a form of language that continues to be inclusive and sustainable for our enthusiastic consumers. The place to facilitate this training is through the Roaster’s Guild. Roasters need to be trained to the ‘Flavor Wheel’ and be encouraged to develop, as a group, a usable and sensible common marketing language to simplify, and at the same time expand, the consumer experience.

Ad hoc languages seem to spring up everyday as society becomes “de-massified” at an accelerating speed – texting acronyms, tweets, hipster affectations, gaming ‘nom de’guerres’, the ways we communicate through fashion, even the way we communicate using our car’s turn signals. Recognizing the linguistic theories behind the development of new languages, if the coffee world hopes to form a seemingly standardized language for describing coffee for consumers then first it must provide leadership and guidance to consumers that is consistent. New languages cannot be imposed, that is like giving your self a nickname, it will never happen. New languages are mentored. Spend a minute watching how eight year olds learn the current “cool” language. They hear it, they mimic it, and then a peer that they trust gently corrects them or high-fives them. If we hope to have consumers engaging in ‘coffee-speak’ then we have to lead and mentor them.

As an idea, I think that the SCAA and Roaster’s Guild might consider including in the roaster certification curriculum a mandatory class in teaching and mentoring retailers and consumers in the nuance of coffee. By effectively building these skills in roasters, we can begin building this new language and bridging the chasm between our cupping language and a marketing language that is meaningful, non-threatening, and helpful to consumers.

Cheers,
Miles & Kerri

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