If you work in coffee, you've had this conversation. Hell, if you really like coffee, you've probably had this conversation. Someone says something about coffee being one-note, and you offer the suggestion that they think of it like wine, a varied product that produces different flavors based on a myriad of different things. You tell them that the origin matters, as does the weather, and that there is a great deal that can be done to a bean in terms of processing and roasting, even after it's grown.
Maybe they smile, maybe they grumble. Chances are, this doesn't communicate much, despite providing a concrete example. Chances are, they think your grasping. Grasping for prestige, reaching for that top shelf that wine, as a beverage and industry, rests on. They hear you, and they also hear a fundamental insecurity. Right, they think. Coffee is just like wine. Just keep telling yourself that, while drizzling caramel sauce on my latte.
And they're right, somewhat. I've used the coffee/wine comparison, both because it sort of makes sense, and yes, also because it does confer a certain connotation of class. It suggests that our humble beverage is worth thinking about, worth working on and caring about. And most of all, it says that those of us who do that work aren't spinning our wheels, aren't making a life of purely imagined significance.
Take coffee seriously, we say. Take me seriously.
So if this is a problem (and maybe it's not), what is the solution? Do we use beer instead? It is, after all, similarly affected by many of those same factors. And, unlike wine, it has a certain working class, utilitarian connotation. A workin' man needs his coffee and beer. Wine? Grape juice is for kids, thanks. And beer, of course, is also being pulled from the depths of mere utilitarian consumption. There are craft brewers, as there are roasters, making a product that tastes good and unique.
But of course, we don't really want to use beer as a comparison. We want the prestige, and so we grasp at it, while customers shake their heads at our desperate reaching.
The answer, then, is to take neither path. We should instead opt for the more direct route, saying unabashedly that coffee can "taste like coffee" without also tasting uniformly like over-roasted cardboard. The answer is to make great coffee, and tell people that that's precisely what it is.