August 12, 2011

To Boldy Go Away From Bold

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. You've heard it, and maybe, in your younger days, you said it. But few would argue that it's true. Words have power, whether to hurt or do a myriad of other things.

They are used, in the realm of coffee, to describe flavor. We here about assertive acidity, or perhaps soft fruit notes, and at least vaguely, we now have some idea what to expect from that coffee. The idea is, armed with these descriptors, a customer or employee can select the "best" coffee for a given palate.

Whether this works well, or even at all, is debatable. Perhaps it has something to do with taste varying, but I think it has more to do with variance in meaning. People don't all mean the same thing, when using a given word; that's especially true when discussing something as amorphous as taste.

Still, some words function better than others. One I find particularly troubling to deal with is "bold". It's a common descriptor, which probably plays in to my disdain for it. But beyond that, it's also nearly meaningless. If something is bold, it's fearless, challenging, daring, brave, and maybe, if the show is right, beautiful. None of those, you'll notice, are a taste. And while I don't doubt that certain beans are indeed quite fearless, I wonder what that has to do with their palatability. Sadly, outside of "bold", we're frequently left with "strong" - equally useless in most contexts.

Ideally, I'd like to see a shift away from qualitative descriptors, except insofar as they're used to elaborate on specifics. Thus, a coffee should not be described merely as "bold", but perhaps "boldly earthy". Ideally, we should strive for greater specificity in describing what's there, without telling customers how they should feel about it.

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