On Talking About Coffee

On Talking About Coffee
August 22, 2019 Summit Coffee
In Blog

Despite how it might be portrayed in movies, you would never walk into a brewery and ask, “Can I have a 16-ounce beer?” It’s ridiculous, right? Or, similarly, you wouldn’t sit down at Kindred and ask, “Can I have a wine?” Um, there are like 200 on the menu.

Consumers understand that with beer and wine, there are choices, types of these drinks that have wildly different tastes. Same with soft drinks, sports drinks, even sparkling waters. If someone is looking for an IPA, they’re likely not to be content with a Belgian saison. And someone who prefers a full-bodied, tannic red wine probably isn’t going to want a light pinot noir from Oregon.

So why is it, then, that the primary way we talk about coffee is as “coffee?” It’s selling short an entire industry, an entire tasting experience that has started months and years ago in a different country. It’s a problem facing all of speciality coffee, not just our circles in Davidson and Asheville. How do we elevate the discourse with our customers, so we can properly identify ourselves as experts in the field, without being super pretentious? We’ve been working for the past few weeks on a course called Palate Development, trying to coach our team to taste coffee better. We concluded with our last class this week, acknowledging that the very point of learning how to discern flavor even better is so that we can pass that knowledge onto the customers, you, the ones actually drinking the coffee.

Our mission statement calls us to provide “remarkable hospitality with a commitment to excellence,” and that applies to how we talk about our core product. So how can we take a step forward? How can our staff get better at helping the customers get the coffee they want?

The overwhelming majority of our customers walk into our cafés — more so in Davidson than in Asheville, perhaps — and ask for a coffee. That’s it, and it’s a perfectly reasonable request. So the challenge facing us then is, how do we give you the coffee you’re going to prefer? Last week, for example, our Basecamp café had two drip coffee offerings: Pitch Black, and Koke. These coffees are both terrific, and also staggeringly different from one another. Pitch Black is one of our year round offerings, full-bodied, with notes of chocolate and a rich, smoky cup. Meanwhile, Koke is a single-origin offering from Ethiopia that smells, and drinks, more like fresh strawberries and kiwi.

Now, if you’re John Johnson and you walk in at 6:30am looking for coffee, chances are you’re going to prefer one of these to the other. If you’re inclined to like a coffee that tastes like an explosion of strawberries, giving you Pitch Black would be a huge miss. Likewise, if you want a smoky, rich coffee, you’re probably going to think something is wrong with Koke. Thus is the variability in specialty coffee. So when you ask for a “large coffee to go,” we reach our dilemma. And there’s improvements that can happen from both sides. First, from the Summit perspective.

Historically, our baristas default to either a) picking a coffee for you, or b) asking if you want the “light or dark roast.” The problem with these options is that neither accurately helps us identify what you want your coffee to taste like. Coffees that are well-roasted don’t have a roast flavor (that’s where Summit and Starbucks go in different directions — to each their own), and so the degree of darkness actually makes no sense. A light roasted coffee might have a full body, and a dark roasted coffee might be more tea-like. We’re really trying to get our staff to stop asking this question — now if a customer asks for the “darker coffee,” then we can assume something more about what they’re hoping to taste. But we, as coffee pros, should not lead with “light or dark” to help differentiate our coffees.

Going forward, we’re teaching our team to take a funnel approach when talking about our different coffees. First, we want to identify them — “This is Basecamp, our take on a house coffee and one of our three year-round blends.” Then, if the customer wants more, we can start talking about general taste — “Basecamp is a really smooth, full-bodied coffee, and the cup tastes like dark chocolate and cherry.” Now, if the customer still hasn’t decided, that’s when we offer a taste and add some personal thoughts — “Here, why don’t you try it. It’s our best-selling coffee and I really like it.”

What about on the other side of the counter? Again, we’re aiming to provide remarkable hospitality and a commitment to excellence. Part of that involves reading the customer — if John Johnson is looking at his phone, and in a hurry, he probably doesn’t want to hear barista Sally drag on about the subtle licorice on the fourth sip of the coffee. But if John Johnson is clear eyed, receptive to learning and to more information, then Sally sure as heck better help John through the transaction.

We offer multiple coffee options so that we can better serve a wider taste palate of customers. I love Koke, and would drink it every morning and then some. My father-in-law loves Pitch Black, and would MUCH prefer that. Our coffee program allows us to both have great experiences.

Going forward, as we work to better describe our coffees in ways that make sense, maybe you, the one who’s drinking the cup of coffee, can start to think about what you want from a coffee. Because if you’re not in love with one of our options, hopefully the other one is a better fit — and I’d hate for both sides to miss that opportunity.

As customers, be on the lookout for some changes and know that the purpose of them is to provide a better coffee experience for y’all. We’re in the business of making coffee that people want to drink. If you have questions, ask them. If you’re curious to know more, let the barista know. And if you feel like you’re not seeing this call to action reflected in your daily coffee trips, then let me know personally!

There’s a long road if coffee, as an industry, wants to be as understood as beer and wine are. All we can do is try to elevate the interactions, make them more intentional and thoughtful, and hope more of our customers know whether they would prefer the sweet coffee from Ethiopia, or the full-bodied chocolate explosion that is Basecamp. If that happens, we’ll be doing our job by serving the right coffee to the right customers.

Our mission is to provide remarkable hospitality and a commitment to excellence. This is one of many steps we’ve taken, and one of many we still need to take. Thanks for your patience and excitement along the way.

Comments (2)

  1. Cardinal Coffee 4 months ago

    Love what you guys are doing in the coffee world. Your product is superior and your ease of partnership is refreshing. Many thanks and keep up the great work!

  2. Alex Wasowicz 4 months ago

    You might want to try offering your Palate Development course to the public so customers can become more educated about flavor perception. Since graphics communicate quickly, you could try posting a spider chart on the wall to show how your coffees differ. Similarly, maybe if you hung a flavor wheel on the wall it could inspire people to think more about what they are tasting and smelling. Another visual shortcut possibility is to try capturing tasting notes in photographs. Finally, for the customer who really doesn’t want to think at all (or people who just enjoy surprises/randomness), maybe you could feature a rotating “coffee of the day” option?

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