Coffee Descriptors – Good or Bad?

A bit of a debate kicked off last week about descriptors and whether they’re the best way (or even a good way) to help sell coffee. First we had this thread started over in Coffee Forums (UK) and then a post by James Hoffmann touched on it too.

The main problem with descriptors is that they don’t always match what we actually taste. This is for two reasons:

  1. Taste is very personal. We all perceive tastes differently; it’s down to our genes: which is why we like some foods which other people dislike. We also describe tastes differently, based on our experience. Tastes and smells trigger memories and memories are very different in each of us. For example a keen gardener may relate tastes to smells around their garden.
  2. There are several different variables when brewing coffee that affect taste, such as: the chosen brew method, age of the coffee, degree of roast, water to grinds ratio, coarseness of the grinder, water makeup, water temperature, brewing time etc.


Another difficulty with descriptors is how they’re perceived. They can act as a ‘barrier to entry’ for those new to speciality coffee: a bewildering secret code that only those already in the club understand; or worse come across as just down right pretentious (think the recent Gordon’s Gin advert with Philip Glenister)! It’s also open to interpretation as to what exactly they stand for. Personally, I see the descriptors for a certain coffee simply as a guideline. These flavours are something to look out for, not necessarily to expect, and there maybe other flavours not listed. But other people see them as a promise and if these descriptors aren’t detected then this damages the reputation of those who stated them i.e. the roaster or coffee shop owner.

How can you choose a coffee without descriptors?

There’s no doubt in my mind that descriptors are an imperfect way to sell coffee. But without them how else can we make an informed choice about which coffee to buy? Sure individual regions and varietals can display certain traits, but these aren’t hard and fast rules. Two Guatemalan or two bourbon coffees can taste completely different. So without descriptors we’re guessing how the coffee will taste and therefore are effectively choosing blind. The only way I see to get around this would be to sample each coffee before buying, but this is neither practical, nor cost effective.

I’m in favour of descriptors, as without them we’re asking customers to take a gamble with their hard earned cash and buy a coffee that they might not like. But I think descriptors should be used with careful consideration. Any type of marketing should be used in congruence to its target market and selling environment, so descriptors should be treated the same.

Hard or Soft Descriptors

Descriptors can be quite general, what I’ll refer to as ‘soft’: i.e. sweet, floral, fruity; and they can also be very specific, what I’ll refer to as ‘hard’: i.e. butterscotch, cherry blossom, strawberry. Whether someone uses hard or soft descriptors should be dependent on how much choice their customer has and how long they have to make that decision. In a coffee shop, where there are maybe only 3-4 coffees to choose from soft descriptors are probably most appropriate. With only a limited choice you don’t need to use very specific descriptors to differentiate between the coffees you’re offering. Also you don’t want to overwhelm the customer with long descriptors when they’re either pressed for time, or feel the pressure from standing in a queue to make a quick choice – I’m sure we’ve all felt eyeballs burning through the back of our heads when we’ve been a little too pedantic in a queue.

On the other hand, if you’re a coffee roaster selling a larger number of different coffees through the internet then hard descriptors are probably more appropriate. With several different coffees, there are only so many times you can repeat the same general descriptors. There needs to be more detail to differentiate it from the next coffee. Also an internet shopper will usually have more time to browse than a customer in a coffee shop so are less likely to feel overwhelmed reading long descriptors. But if you use hard descriptors I think you need to be explicit about what the descriptors mean. Make it clear that these are not promises of what you will taste merely suggestions.

Of course this is just my opinion and as an insider (working in the coffee industry) looking out, my view is probably quite blinkered. I’ve not conducted any market research into this so my views should be taken with a pinch of salt. It would be interesting though to hear from you guys at home, what do you think about descriptors?