thoughts on tasting notes part one: notes and Kabbalah

I’ve heard there’s this idea in Jewish mysticism that the meanings of Hebrew words are closely related to the letters that compose them. That letters have their own meanings, and the ways in which they are combined determine the meaning of a word. The name of a letter, in turn, can be spelled out, and the meaning of that letter is said to correlate with the letters that compose its name. These in turn could also be spelled out and so on forever.

From a linguistic perspective, this doesn’t really make any sense. If you cared to, you could find/create similar patterns in any language, and even devote a lifetime of work to developing/deciphering those patterns.1 But its kind of a beautiful idea anyway. And I think it’s similar to the way we use tasting notes in some ways.

Let’s say we cup a coffee and decide that it has Granny Smith apple acidity.2 Now let’s go taste a Granny Smith apple, and forget for a moment about the coffee; if we taste carefully enough, maybe even comparing to other types of apples, we might describe the Granny Smith in terms of other fruits or spices or whatever. These in turn could also be described this way and so on forever.

To use the tasting note effectively, we have to forget those complexities (especially those that might differentiate one Granny Smith from another) and essentialize Granny Smith. Strangely, we do just the opposite with the coffee we are describing – we strip it of its coffeeness by describing it only in terms of fruits, spices, candies, liquors, things that aren’t coffee. Of course many consumers are confused; we sound like we might be describing a smoothie or tart more than a cup of coffee.

We’re trying to define a word by the letters used to spell it, and it’s not working.

I may be stretching the metaphor too far, but it really has me thinking about how we describe coffees…. I’ll have more on this soon – especially on how I think it relates to customer service.


  1. Edo Nyland’s theory that Basque is the basis for Indo-European languages, which were all invented by “skillful priest-linguists” (or something) comes to mind. His books are equal parts funny and sad if you have any knowledge of historical linguistics, but his theory and codes are explained in incredible detail.
  2. Of course, another cupper might choose another way to describe the acidity of the same coffee – and that’s fine. To stick with the orthography metaphor, the same words can be represented by different letters; we’re pretty familiar with this in English (flavor, flavour; Kabbalah, Qabbala, Cabala, Cabalah, Cabbala, Cabbalah, Kabala, Kabalah, Qabala, Qabalah, Kaballah).

About barnwolf

head barista for pavement coffeehouse and erc boston
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