What's the best way to talk about coffee? Probably not by annesplaining
But I probably will annesplain anyway, and I'm sorry in advance. Or am I? I'm just trying to share some #nylanderwisdom.
This post is dedicated in part to the editors at sprudge.com. I’ve shared some good times with Zachary and Jordan over the years, although they’re still so much cooler than me that I’ll never understand why they let me hang out with them. While they cover the newest and trendiest beats in coffee, I tend to stick with old favorites, pushing basic ideas like “better quality” and “improving service” for my clients.
It can get boring. I can sometimes feel like I repeat myself a lot. I get ranty sometimes. This is part of the reason why I’m starting to write these things down - I think it will save me later therapy bills. Also, anyone that knows me, knows that my style can come off as blunt, sharp, and bracingly honest. Other, less kind words are also sometimes used to describe it.
When I started this project, I reached out the Zachary and Jordan for advice. Zachary and I brainstormed for an afternoon, and came up with “Anne, Now What?”
I already had #nylanderwisdom from an old boss (thanks Chelsey!), but yesterday, Jordan shared the real winner: annesplaining (...Get it?! Like mansplaining! Ha.). From now on, I’ll be happy to preface ranty posts with an annesplaining warning, and you are welcome to tell me if I am annesplaining you. I am hoping to share wisdom, in a common language, that we can all use to get better at what we do. I just, sometimes… get carried away.
The following chat about coffee and its sublanguages is a perfect example. Thank you for this gift, team sprudge!
One truly unfortunate challenge in the coffee industry is that while coffee professionals are getting better at it, we still don’t have a truly uniform “right” and “wrong” approach to making coffee better or to making better coffee. We don’t even really have a right or wrong way to talk about how to make coffee better. More often than not, the conversation turns into whether or not something is measurably good, or even more terrifyingly “good enough” (uh-oh), or “the best” (run for the hills!).
As they say, there is no accounting for taste. This makes these types of conversations especially difficult, because the foundation of trust that needs to exist among professionals to have a productive conversation is sort of mind-boggling. More often than not, it also turns them into a kind of duel, where each person squints skeptically at the other, sharing pseudo-science, until one person concedes and the other person is pronounced “the best”. The best part of all: rarely is the person that is pronounced “the best” also “the customer”. Usually the result from an “engineering” team is some sort of wacky contraption, made from bits and bobs, that does not make good coffee, or at least, coffee that customers say they enjoy. And I often physically wince when I walked into a café and the barista tells me, “You have to try my espresso today. It’s the best!”
Why do I cringe? Anyone speaking in that much hyperbole is likely about to make me something that tastes terrible. Genuinely delicious espresso service usually comes with a wide-eyed and silent reverence – the barista is shocked and delighted about how very well the coffee is turning out that day. Usually, espresso comes out decently, but not amazingly deliciously.
So how do I share feedback? By using common ‘best practices’ and ‘constructive criticisms’ among industry peers. As an industry, we share languages that provide information to each other, that also express our culture and attitudes towards the industry we live and work in.
Our language has several specific dialects, such as the Q-Grader System (designed to promote objective dialogue between producer and buyer to improve coffee quality), The World Barista Championship (for specific dialogue about espresso flavor and barista professionalism, with an innovative spin), and the SCAA Pathways programs (for a fundamental shared language that leads to specific skill building on a range of coffee topics).
Each, in turn, contains positive and negative language attributes, much in the same way that English only has one word for “love.” We English speakers all know that love is experienced an infinite number of ways and we have the damnedest time figuring out how to express what we really feel. So it is with these three languages of coffee as well. It’s also worth noting that almost every coffee company also uses an internal language, with varying degrees of connection to the industry “standards”.
I consider myself proficient at Q (passed all the cupping tests, was too lazy to retake green grading, time passed… I don’t buy coffee but it’s nice to know how to cup and talk about it with producers.). I’m comfortable with WBC after 5 years judging and 2 years before that judging USBC. The 3-day exams I passed boosted my confidence that I did know what I was doing. I continued to improve through countless hours receiving solid feedback from great Head Judges and strong competitors about by own work.
One of the things I’m most grateful for from learning both the Q and WBC languages as a sensory professional: you often don’t know why the coffee tastes the way it does. You could have a theory – say, that the espresso shot ran too long or that the coffee sat in a warehouse for five years before you tasted it. But you do not know if that is the case. So, in both languages, professionals are trained to leave their theory out of the feedback. This is because it’s actually not helpful in any way – if a barista thinks their coffee is perfectly extracted, and you write “Tastes overextracted, probably because their shot went too long.”, you are not providing any helpful feedback. But! If you write, “body was thin, flavor was woody and watery.” A barista may go back to the drawing board. Hm, maybe thin woody and watery was not what I was going for. How can I make this coffee better?
I use this tool as an instructor all the time. For a beginning barista, even the word “overextracted” can be incredibly intimidating. So why use it? And why say if their shot is good or bad? When you are in your first barista training, the majority of your first shots will invariably taste bad. Just like your first drawings in art class will look pretty shabby after drawing even for a few days or weeks. Rather than answer if a student’s coffee tastes “right” or “wrong”, I focus on their ability to edit themselves through tasting and self-awareness. “Is this a ‘good’ shot, Anne?” They’ll ask, and I’ll reply, “Tell me 3 things you taste about it, and where you think those tastes come from.” That’s when the magic happens: as baristas connect the skills and definitions they’ve memorized with the flavors they’re experiencing. That’s what builds the foundation of a professional barista – the artists’ equivalent of moving from drawing stick figures to exploring shadows. It comes from a trust in oneself and the confidence to connect between these two crucial tools – skill and taste.
Why pathways? Essentially, it’s because I love watching the spark take place the moment students can clearly articulate their non-verbal experiences. Most people, and even most coffee professionals except for those truly studious about coffee, experience coffee like this: This coffee tastes “good” or “bad”; my way is the “best” or; “this is how we’ve always done it.” Often they stereotype coffees without tasting it at all, citing how different coffees are all clearly not as good as their own products. However! Put an assortment of people in a room, sit them down and say, why don’t we share some tools on how we can use our words to describe our experiences, and it’s magical. These classes help people overcome their fears, challenge expectations and norms, and set everyone on an exciting path of discovery.
There are tools for technical skills, like how to pull a shot of espresso, how to engage in service interactions, and finally, how taste and describe the coffee itself. Give them the tools, let students feel safe, and then connect the similarities. As students stumble over their first utterances about why they truly love coffee, and the classroom gets sublime. The interactions, especially at the beginner level, need to be collaborative and constructive, measuring only that a student is aware of the skill they’ve learned. They will need confidence and persistence to build on what they’ve learned, which is true, of course, for any area of study.
Of course, “right” and “wrong” are much easier, and much faster, to teach. This is also why people are told at a young age that they “can’t” learn certain skills (like art, or math). Those instructors are teaching to the test. They ultimately create dubious and shaky foundations for coffee knowledge as professionals proceed. Sadly, this is also still how most coffee professionals are taught, and how many of them continue to teach. There’s a number of reasons for this – training budgets, consistency, hubris….
So, at least for now, when coffee professionals walk into a room together to talk about coffee, they don’t always trust folks who aren’t native speakers in their language. But every time we are kind and try not to get lost in translation, our teams, and ultimately our industry, wins.