Specialty coffee didn’t invent coffee marketing or talking about coffee, but the emergence of the specialty coffee sector did usher in a “new wave” of coffee language.

That wasn’t very subtle, but you understand the point. Specialty coffee introduced new (or rediscovered) ways of talking about and understanding not only the coffee itself but the industry, ideas that would escape the coffee world and be used by consumers, from coffeehouse denizens to journalists. The language of coffee has certainly expanded over the last three decades. More words. Greater specificity. Greater opportunity for differentiation.

The earliest known coffee advertisement was for the first coffee house in London and appeared in 1652. At over 300 words, we would say today that the ad is copy heavy, to put it mildly. Coffee being far from the ubiquitous beverage it is now, the ad sought to introduce and explain coffee to readers. At the time this ad appeared, coffee was not being grown commercially outside of Arabia (Yemen), and would not be smuggled into India and Ceylon for a few more years. So the ad explains the origin of coffee (“Deserts of Arabia”), and roasting (“dried in an oven”) and preparation (“ground to a powder and boiled in spring water”).

Readers are told they should not eat an hour before or an hour after drinking coffee “as hot as can possibly be endured,” but not so hot as to “raise a blister.” It is explained that coffee helps the digestion and should be drunk in the afternoon and in the morning.  It “quickens the spirit, and makes the heart lightsome.” Up to that point we would all mostly agree with the claims. But then the writer of the ad takes a turn indicative of the times. Coffee, we are told:

  • Is good against sore eyes
  • Suppresses fumes
  • Is good against headache
  • Prevents cough
  • Prevents and even cures dropsy, gout, and scurvy
  • Prevents miscarriages
  • Helps old people and children with “running humors.”

Then the ad copy returns to more familiar territory as it explains that coffee prevents drowsiness and makes “one fit for business.” We are warned not to drink coffee after dinner unless “you intend to be watchful.”

Ten years later coffeehouse ads were relatively common and though much shorter, they made many of the same claims found in the first coffeehouse ad. Some even knocked the coffee of competitors (the “so called” east India berry, says one ad, doesn’t make very good coffee … neener neener neener). It’s no wonder that the introduction and success of coffeehouses in London coincided with strenuous effort by the countries with the most boats to break the Arab grip on coffee.

Coffee advertising of a sort began appearing in America in 1714 when newspapers listed coffee among items being sold by retailers. Coffee advertising that looks familiar to our eyes did not appear until the 1800’s. The message usually focused on themes other than taste or quality. Early ads were simply a declaration of fact: “We have coffee for sale.” Then advertising focused on innovations, such as the idea that you could now buy coffee already roasted so you no longer needed to roast it at home. Finally, and more often than not, adverting focused on price.

The Pan-American Coffee Bureau coined the term “coffee-break” in this advertising campaign

Nobody really talked about taste and when taste did enter ad copy for coffee in the 20th century, it was only in a very generalized way. Coffee was flavorful or rich tasting or simply delicious. The concept of a “coffee break” actually entered the American lexicon through advertising. A now defunct producer organization, the Pan-American Coffee Bureau, created advertising that coined the word “coffee-break.” But even then the theme of the ads was coffee as a pick-me-up.

Although very specific flavor notes had been a part of “cup testing” for 100 years, anything rising to the level of a flavor profile was not really used to sell coffee to consumers until the emergence of the specialty coffee sector. The emphasis on single-origin coffees expanded offerings but also expanded the need for words to describe coffee flavors. The wine industry utilized copious amounts of taste descriptors.  Why not coffee? Words that were, “inside baseball,” tools created by the industry to talk about coffee in something approaching a standardized language, began to leak out into product descriptions aimed at coffee drinkers.

This was, for the most part, good news. We wanted increasingly sophisticated consumers who understood why specialty coffee was better than commercial grade coffee and could talk about it, describe it to their friends who might be enticed to give this “fancy” coffee a taste. We were happy to give consumers new words to hang on their love for great coffee.

Then came the arms race. Not only did we want to describe how coffee tasted to us and what consumers might expect to find themselves, we wanted to be unique. The result was a kind of “adjective inflation” as roasters sought to use words that not every other roaster was using.

To be fair, some if not most of this drift into the sea of adjectives was inherent in the desire to be more specific and accurate. Chocolate you say? Well, what kind of chocolate? Because you could mean dark chocolate, milk chocolate, baking chocolate, all of which are distinct enough from each other that they merit identification. The same goes for fruit. Twenty years ago it was fine to say, to consumers, that a coffee was fruity. But what type of fruit, Citrus or Drupe (and of course we can’t say “Drupe,” we must say “Stone Fruit” because we are still trying to sell coffee here)? And once you’ve identified Citrus, you may as well tell us whether it is grapefruit or orange, or maybe blood orange.

Once we add descriptions of body, aroma, and acidity, describing the experience of drinking any particular coffee when it’s only one among several to which you must attach words can be a challenge. There is little reason to discourage creativity and even poetry when talking directly to consumers about the coffee drinking experience, but if the task becomes a chore, there are a few things to keep in mind that can help you organize your approach.

Perhaps most important: All tongues are not created equal. The ability to taste exists on a continuum based on the number of taste buds with which you were blessed (or cursed perhaps). On the high-end are folks who will be able to taste the difference between a navel orange and a mandarin. On the low end are folks who can taste the difference between, say, dark roast and light roast and have a preference. There are extremes at both ends, people for whom any coffee will do, and at the other end, people for whom only a few coffees will do. And then, of course, there are all of those in the middle. Practice can increase one’s ability to identify distinct aromas and tastes no matter where one falls on the continuum, but we don’t expect the average coffee drinker, even the average specialty coffee drinker, to devote time to a focused improvement in their ability to distinguish different flavors.

For the sake of convenience if not precision, coffee drinkers can be organized into three groups and all three groups should be given consideration when talking about your coffee. It should be noted that how you talk about coffee is part of your brand, a part of your company’s personality, so how you describe the coffee drinking experience can be as eccentric as you want or need it to be. If you want to describe a coffee as reminiscent of the first time you rode a bicycle, more power to you if that is consistent with your brand intent. If the idea of bringing some justification to how you describe coffee is appealing, thinking of coffee drinkers in three groups can be helpful and you might consider trying to touch all three at some point.

The Broad Stroke Tasters

Let’s not call it the “bottom” third. Let’s call it the “distant third,” those consumers least likely to seek out and be devoted drinkers of specialty coffee. There is plenty of differentiation among these coffee drinkers but in very general terms this group is likely to respond to terms like roast levels and sweeping descriptors like “bold” in reference to a dark roast with heavy body, or “bright” in reference to light body with more acidity. You may, and rightly so, consider these non-descript descriptors, and not want to put them on your packaging. But if the distant third  is included in your business plan, use broad terms when and where it makes sense to help target greater diversity in your customer base.

The Middle of The Road

The middle group is where the battle between great coffee and coffee that is good enough is fought. Within this group are coffee drinkers targeted by the fast food sector when they began making incremental improvements to the quality of their coffee a decade ago. Again, generally speaking, these are coffee drinkers who can likely detect the difference between, say, a hint of grapefruit and a hint of plum. They are much more likely to detect the difference between chocolate and caramel or caramel and vanilla than the distant third group. They will respond to descriptors like citrus and spice.

The Fine Line Tasters

If the distant third tastes in broad strokes, the “closest third” tastes with a fine tip pen. While this group might be close to the hearts of some roasters because they can taste the difference between dark chocolate and milk chocolate, they are also pickier and more demanding. When these folks pick up a bag of coffee, they may not be as responsive to the descriptor, stone fruit, as they would be to nectarine. They would rather see the word cardamom than spice, or almond rather than nutty.

Describing the taste of coffee you roast and sell can feel very personal, which is a good thing, as long as you understand the purpose in describing how coffee tastes is not self-expression but communication, and remember to walk a mile with the tongue of your customers before talking about your coffee.

Cover Image: John Wayne encourages Americans to drink more coffee in this Pan-American Coffee Bureau ad from 1953.