thoughts on tasting notes part two: notes and service

I went to a restaurant in Brooklyn with a group of friends recently. Our server, telling us the specials, went off into a list of tasting notes. They were thoughtfully descriptive, almost poetic. The only problem was that most of my party, including myself, hadn’t caught our server’s little introduction; we had no idea what she was describing to us.

When we overuse flowery, specific tasting notes describing coffees to customers, we set some pretty unreasonable expectations – not because they can’t pick up on those same sensations in the cup (they can), but because we’re skipping over a bunch of important information and giving no context to what sounds like an arbitrary list of fruits.

A pretty typical customer response is wait, what? The barista’s attempt at recovery is usually both fascinating and terrifying to watch, and often involves some sort of awkward nightmare-hallucination stream-of-consciousness attempt at communication that involves numerous mentions of wine and how wines have tasting notes.

I know this because I’ve been there. And now I avoid getting to that point in the conversation at all costs.

Basic (really basic) descriptions of sweetness, acidity and balance go a long way. I really like this coffee, it’s a little on the sweet side. Wow, that sounds great. This coffee’s got a nice tart thing going on. Now we’re communicating pretty clearly that this is a coffee (not wine or smoothie or soup), and we’re giving some information about how it relates to other coffees (relative levels of sweetness and acidity).1

A consumer interested in more information will ask further questions. A consumer who is not interested in more information really doesn’t want to hear about the ripe tomatoes you taste in the cup.

Annnnnd in case you’re curious, our server was describing oysters.


  1. Starbucks has this figured out pretty well.

About barnwolf

head barista for pavement coffeehouse and erc boston
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2 Responses to thoughts on tasting notes part two: notes and service

  1. Matthew says:

    I really like this approach. It’s too tempting to lure customers into a coffee with blueberry and caramel notes, only to have them pronounce it “alright”.
    Do you have any basic tasting notes or terms that you use other than “a little sweet” or “tart”, etc.?
    cheer and I dig the blog.

    • barnwolf says:

      Thanks Matthew! As far as other descriptors go, texture-related words can go a long way as well, though i think you have to be just as careful with them. Even with the amount of tasting I do on the daily, I’ll totally admit that “full bodied” still doesn’t really mean anything to me; but I think pretty much everyone finds it really easy to imagine “creamy” or “smooth” or “buttery” texture. I’ve been trying to use texture descriptors especially with espresso, where texture is such a huge part of the tasting/drinking experience.

      I definitely use more specific tasting notes too, I’m just trying not to start the conversation that way or use them in every situation anymore.

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