What is "bold" coffee?

the business of coffee houses

What is "bold" coffee?

Postby Marshall on Wed Apr 28, 2010 8:45 am

Since Starbucks is marketing the word in a big way, some of your customers are bound to start asking for it. What will you tell them?
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Re: What is "bold" coffee?

Postby nick on Wed Apr 28, 2010 9:47 am

Marshall wrote:Since Starbucks is marketing the word in a big way, some of your customers are bound to start asking for it. What will you tell them?

"Start?"

Marshall, I assure you. Every single barista reading this has had customers asking for "bold" since the day they started working behind the bar. Bold, strong, dark, smooth, light, thick, heavy, bright, low-acidity... we've heard it all.

What we're all experiencing though, is that as time goes on, what Starbucks is marketing seems to have less and less impact on what our customers ask for. For better or for worse.
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Re: What is "bold" coffee?

Postby Brett Hanson on Wed Apr 28, 2010 11:51 am

Starbucks isn't marketing (or trademarking-for the paranoiacs out there) the word "bold". It's an approachable descriptor that they've organized their whole bean menu around for decades so that some unsuspecting folgers drinker doesn't wander in off the street, order the Kenya, only to taste grapefruit notes, soil themselves, and forget who they are for a half hour.

The whole bean categories at Starbucks currently read: mild, medium, bold, and extra bold.
http://www.starbucks.com/coffee/whole-bean-coffee

It's all for the better folks. Let Starbucks get people in out of the cold and once they transcend these four basic categories and want to talk about blueberry vs. raspberry vs. currant notes, they're all yours.
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Re: What is "bold" coffee?

Postby Robert Goble on Wed Apr 28, 2010 5:29 pm

Brett Hanson wrote:they've organized their whole bean menu around for decades so that some unsuspecting folgers drinker doesn't wander in off the street, order the Kenya, only to taste grapefruit notes, soil themselves, and forget who they are for a half hour....


Hate to be a killjoy here Brett but no one's tasted grapefruit notes in a Starbucks' Kenyan in the history of the company.

You are right in that "Bold" is a descriptor. That descriptor is as much about keeping East Coasters (yes I said East Coasters) away from the West Coast "Dark" roast style as it is about selling the West Coast style (where boldness and freedom are honor badges to be marketed) to the rest of us....

Notice how there's no "light" on the menu? -- That's because "light" is considered weak when lifestyle descriptors are used to market taste --- hence "Medium" is the new "light".

Now go drink the feature medium (in Vancouver it's almost always pike place roast) and you'll find it anything but medium -- it's pretty dark --- it's certainly not "light" But accuracy is not the goal of lifestyle descriptors. They could equally chose "fun" "fanciful" and "fabulous" as descriptors --- it doesn't matter because it's about sales not coffee.
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Re: What is "bold" coffee?

Postby nick on Wed Apr 28, 2010 6:04 pm

Robert Goble wrote:Notice how there's no "light" on the menu? -- That's because "light" is considered weak when lifestyle descriptors are used to market taste --- hence "Medium" is the new "light".

http://www.starbucks.ca/en-ca/_Worlds+B ... +Blend.htm
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Re: What is "bold" coffee?

Postby Robert Goble on Wed Apr 28, 2010 8:57 pm

nick wrote:
Robert Goble wrote:Notice how there's no "light" on the menu? -- That's because "light" is considered weak when lifestyle descriptors are used to market taste --- hence "Medium" is the new "light".

http://www.starbucks.ca/en-ca/_Worlds+B ... +Blend.htm

Nick - you're letting fact totally ruin a good argument.

(but the point I was making was instore brewed options are Bold and Medium)

R.
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Re: What is "bold" coffee?

Postby Peter G on Wed Apr 28, 2010 10:15 pm

I think the words we choose to describe coffees are really interesting. It's part of our job to describe the experience of tasting a coffee, using only language, and it's a challenge. How do you put the sensory, transient experience of drinking a coffee into words?

Interestingly, in English, we have very few words to actually directly describe flavors. These specific words are generally restricted to those experienced in the mouth, ("taste" words)i.e. sweet, sour, and bitter. These 3 are pretty much the only words I can think of that are explicit words that describe nothing else besides a taste sensation. Maybe add "acrid".

We also use taste words as identifiers, to express that we connect our taste experience with a real object. For example, someone might give us a glass of water and we say "I taste soap in that water." We mean that we identify actual soap mixed in with the water. Ok, so that's identifiers. In coffee, we rarely use this: when is the last time you said "I really taste the mercaptomethylpentanone in this coffee!"?

Here's where it gets good: we also use similes when we taste things. Often, we use a simile when we are trying to identify something: "this water tastes like soap" may mean that we actually taste soap in the water. We more often use similes to communicate that what we are tasting has some characteristic that reminds us of soap. It is these similes that we use most often when we describe aromas, and therefore when we describe flavors (remember, flavor=taste+aroma). We use these so often we sometimes forget they are similes. When we say we detect the blackcurrant in coffee, we're not saying that we taste actual blackcurrants, we are saying that something in the coffee tastes like blackcurrant. That's a simile. In our community, we go crazy with the similes. We taste fruits, candies, flowers, animals.... you name it we use it as a coffee descriptor. Similes have the benefit of being very specific: we can test ourselves by smelling the coffee, then smelling blackcurrants, then smelling the coffee again. Yup, smells like blackcurrants.

Another more controversial group of descriptors are the metaphors. Less specific than the similes, these are harder to put your finger on. When we say coffee tastes "strong", we generally mean that it has a high percentage of soluble solids in the cup. Some people, however, might use it to mean an intensely flavored or darkly roasted coffee. Ok, but that's an easy one. What about "rich"? That's an oldie-but-goodie coffee metaphor. "Bold" falls in the metaphoric category, and therefore is pretty tough to define. Consumers seem to have an attraction toward these metaphors (a playful wine, an intense cheese, a sophisticated scotch, etc) but experts tend to despise these descriptors as overly vague. I personally try to avoid using them at all costs, they seem smarmy and like marketing-speak to me.

So I had to say all that before I could answer Marshall's initial question: what does "bold" mean to me when I read it?

To me, it describes a coffee that is fearlessly intense. Dark roasted, high acid, heavy body. Someone has already used the dark-roast Kenyan archetype, and I agree with that. As a metaphoric descriptor, though, it leaves a lot to be desired.

Let's talk about "rich", my personal favorite weird coffee metaphor!
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Re: What is "bold" coffee?

Postby Marshall on Wed Apr 28, 2010 10:27 pm

Brett Hanson wrote:Starbucks isn't marketing (or trademarking-for the paranoiacs out there) the word "bold". It's an approachable descriptor that they've organized their whole bean menu around for decades ....

Yes, but Starbucks didn't use to advertise at all. Now "bold coffees" are front and center in their full-page ads and right in the face of people who never go to Starbucks.

But, I like your "lifestyle descriptor" comments. "Bold" is an adjective that makes the consumer feel good about himself, unlike, say, "good mouthfeel."
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Re: What is "bold" coffee?

Postby JakeLiefer on Thu Apr 29, 2010 6:32 am

To understand what customers are looking for when they ask for a bold coffee, I believe we have to better understand the typical 'bold' customers interaction with coffee. In my setting, 'bold' customers reside in a higher age range than the typical customers we see. Whereas our typical clientle is 20 - 65, the 'bold' drinkers tend to age in range from 30-65, with most residing in the age of 35-55.

While many of our younger customers first interactions with coffee came through Starbucks, many of the 'bold' drinkers first experienced coffee at home, the office, or a restaurant. For these drinkers, their first cups of coffee were probably watered down and underextracted. Ever get office coffee in a styrofoam cup that was about 10 shades too light and tasted really bad? This is what many of these 'bold' customers drank for years. Then Starbucks came along in the mid-90's and these customers tasted coffee that was brewed with proper ratios and suddenly coffee had more body and more flavor. This body and flavor didn't necessarily come from the roast profile or origin, it was simply brewing with more coffee. However, customers didn't associate these attributes to ratios, but rather to roast and origin. Hence, irregular groupings and associations took place. The largest error came from associating a dark roast with flavor, and by inference, light roast with no flavor.

Alas, even with all of these thoughts and attempts to understand it, I still don't get it, nor do I see any trend away from it. Customers have rightly reacted to underdeveloped coffee, but in the process have taken up descriptors that improperly describe what they're looking for.
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Re: What is "bold" coffee?

Postby Brett Hanson on Fri Apr 30, 2010 2:26 pm

Peter- wow as usual. Do you have a temple of some sort that I could attend weekly?

Sorry Robert and Marshall, the fact that you're stepping into a Starbucks for the first time in 5 years gives you mad street cred, but in no way makes you an authority on Starbucks recent history and trends. Do you really want to go there regularly enough that you become an authority on what they do?

Robert:
* I've personally tasted grapefruit in the Kenya. It's not to the extent of a stumptown, but it's in there, but hey believe what you want.
* You're right about east-coasters, but Light was actually a whole bean menu category (still is in the Indonesia market according to this), but Light was changed to Mild during my tenure at Starbucks. To Nick's point, LightNote Blend was created for the E coast market, but has since been scuttled-- "cigarette butts" was too often used as a descriptor around the office.
* Pike place roast- don't waste your breath on coffeed. Just google the phrase and be satisfied with the other 10 Million people who have already howled about it for 2+ years and have decided they have better things to do with their lives. You do too, brother.

Marshall:
* They're promoting the part of their whole bean menu that's listed in the "bold" category. Since the bold category has existed for years (and years and years), please riddle me how you promote it without using the word "bold". Until the whole bean menu boards were removed from the stores to make room for the warming oven signage, the word Bold was present every single time you visited a Starbucks, whether it jumped out at you or not.
* RE: bold/lifestyle descriptor- "mountain, meet molehill"; you're really overthinking it. Don't get me wrong, there are throngs of folks out there coming up with far-more-elaborate Starbucks world domination conspiracy theories ("they're using their coffee for mind control, man"), but I would put money down that what actually happened was a couple folks in the whole bean sales group sat around and spitballed ideas until they found one that wasn't totally douchey. And what real person, on any level, would take a word off a coffee menuboard and somehow connect it to themselves? Do you walk into intelly, pick up a bag and announce "I'm a stone-fruit man. Yeeahh!" I'm guessing not.

I resisted writing this because it doesn't amount to a hill of beans (I actually just used that accidentally- I'm too lazy to take it out now), but I just didn't want this to devolve into the level of discourse that's so pervasive on sahbuxg0$$ip.

More important than all of my blathering, did no-one get the Natl Lampoons Christmas Vacation reference in my first post?
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Re: What is "bold" coffee?

Postby Robert Goble on Mon May 03, 2010 3:14 pm

Brett Hanson wrote:Sorry Robert and Marshall, the fact that you're stepping into a Starbucks for the first time in 5 years gives you mad street cred, but in no way makes you an authority on Starbucks recent history and trends. Do you really want to go there regularly enough that you become an authority on what they do?

Robert:
* I've personally tasted grapefruit in the Kenya. It's not to the extent of a stumptown, but it's in there, but hey believe what you want.
* You're right about east-coasters, but Light was actually a whole bean menu category (still is in the Indonesia market according to this), but Light was changed to Mild during my tenure at Starbucks. To Nick's point, LightNote Blend was created for the E coast market, but has since been scuttled-- "cigarette butts" was too often used as a descriptor around the office.
* Pike place roast- don't waste your breath on coffeed. Just google the phrase and be satisfied with the other 10 Million people who have already howled about it for 2+ years and have decided they have better things to do with their lives. You do too, brother.

What are you smoking Brett? You are very hard to figure out lately - like you are fighting some imagined ghost of 3rd wave hip-steria. Who did you wrong brother? I'll gladly have words with them.
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Re: What is "bold" coffee?

Postby geoff watts on Mon May 03, 2010 3:23 pm

Love this, makes me think back about the days when I worked as a full-time barista.

In 1995, when manning the bean sales counter, I could nearly guarantee that we'd have at least 10 people each day asking for whichever coffee was the most "rich", "bold", or "strong".

At the time it the best explanation for why these words were so common was that they stood for something--they were the most intuitive metaphors consumers could come up with to differentiate Specialty coffee from "regular" coffee--the sorts of coffee one would normally find at diners, gas stations, convenience stores.

The three words seemed to get used interchangeably...but the intention was the same in every case. They wanted to be able to perceive the coffee more...not necessarily any specific detail in the coffee, just more taste. At the time I tried to create a 5 part formula to explain the meaning of 'bold': 2 parts roast darkness, 2 parts brew strength (and associated viscosity), one part Acidity level. This came from the observation that there was some inconsistency in the feedback we were getting...sometimes a bright Kenya would read as bold and satisfy that customer. More often it would be the Sumatra that would elicit the 'yeah, that there is bold!" response. Universally the coffee we brewed in the shop was considered 'bold'. That's the data that led to my weird boldness formula. I do think the bitterness associated with dark roasts was a big part of it...and perhaps that bitterness was associated with 'strength' in the pharmacological sense (eg, more bitterness = this coffee will wake me up more). Or maybe it more bitterness as a sign of a more highly concentrated brew (more coffee per oz of water = more caffeine). I still hear that a lot--a huge number of unconverted coffee drinkers are really in it for the caffeine, despite what we'd like to believe. I remember some study of consumer preference for cough medicines, and every time they'd try to take the alcohol out of the formula the response was negative, along the lines of 'this medicine isn't strong enough, doesn't taste like it is going to work". Makes some sense that this would be the case with coffee as well on some level...if it doesn't have that bitter kick then it ain't working right, I'll have to drink two or three to get my fix.

Coffee in milk was a sort of litmus test--after I dump 6 ounces of milk in here, will I still taste the coffee? If so it is bold, strong and rich. If not it must be mild, weak, or light.

Confusion about brew strength vs. intensity of coffee character hasn't gone away,and of course it is our job to make that distinction. I had a friend over recently who brewed a Chemex in the "Norway Style" using about 70% less coffee per water weight than I normally do, and the result would likely be called 'light' by a lot of our customers---despite the fact that the coffee itself was a decidedly intense Kenya from Nyeri. It tasted delicious, but the lower concentration would certainly lead some casual drinkers (and probably many of our customers) to feel that the coffee was too 'mild' or not 'bold enough'.

It has become a sort of in-joke at CoE events...every now and then someone will throw out 'bold' or 'strong' as a descriptor and bring the house down...or just elicit a lot of groans. If you want to make Songer cringe, describe a coffee as rich. You'll see him actually twitch.

Metaphor used to be one of the key tools in the arsenal for us when describing coffees in the early days of Intelli. I've compared coffees to Hondas Civics (straightforward, sensible not sexy, trim, reliable, very approachable...in 2010 speak, balanced, slightly citrus-forward without much discernible acidic complexity, medium in body and soft in viscosity, very uniform cup-to-cup, sweet enough to provide a pleasing finish but not overtly sweet, etc..), to dancing salsa with Penelope Cruz (metaphor for brilliantly articulated acidity but perhaps slightly edgy and complex enough in flavor/character to require multiple exposures before getting the whole picture , alluring and slightly intimidating, tight body--silky and only slightly viscous, not velvety, lots of red fruit, tart and sweet finish, next cup might be a bit different..) to Kevin Costner (kinda pleasant at first, charming on the surface but perhaps lacking substance behind the veneer, 'nice' without being engaging, ultimately underwhelming or even boring).

Since then I've moved almost to the other end of the spectrum when thinking about how to describe coffees. The idea of getting at the essential character or the coffee in four or five unembellished and universally accessible descriptive words seems like a sort of ideal. Asking the simple questions seems to be the key to me: If there is fruit, is it more berry, more citrus, or more stone-fruit? If more citrus, is it more orange, more lemon, or more grapefruit? If stone fruit is it more apricot, more cherry, or more peach? The most profound consumer experience tends to come when a coffee drinker can easily recognize a flavor that appears printed on the front of the package...."yeah, I got that peach, that jumped right out". The more we can do as coffee evangelists to connect the drinker with our understanding of the coffee the faster our industry will move ahead. Which is why bold, rich, and strong really don't have any place in specialty anymore (IMHO). They don't lead anywhere tangible. They once had a place, when the biggest difference in what consumers could expect to find in most places did boil down to brew strength and roast degree. But they probably belong on the 'historical artifacts' list, not in modern-day coffeehouses.
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Re: What is "bold" coffee?

Postby John P on Mon May 03, 2010 5:34 pm

Geoff wrote,
The more we can do as coffee evangelists to connect the drinker with our understanding of the coffee the faster our industry will move ahead. Which is why bold, rich, and strong really don't have any place in specialty anymore (IMHO). They don't lead anywhere tangible. They once had a place, when the biggest difference in what consumers could expect to find in most places did boil down to brew strength and roast degree. But they probably belong on the 'historical artifacts' list, not in modern-day coffeehouses.


Well said.

Sometimes you just have to tip your hat, smile, and move on.
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Re: What is "bold" coffee?

Postby Marshall on Mon May 03, 2010 6:34 pm

Brett Hanson wrote:Sorry Robert and Marshall, the fact that you're stepping into a Starbucks for the first time in 5 years gives you mad street cred, but in no way makes you an authority on Starbucks recent history and trends. Do you really want to go there regularly enough that you become an authority on what they do?*

Brett, I'm going to hazard a guess that living in Seattle has given you a highly exaggerated sense of Starbucks' market penetration. There are millions upon millions of people in the U.S. who never see a Starbucks where they live or they work. Advertising is reaching them, where a menu board will not.

So, I assumed, with the recent print campaigns, more people would start asking for "bold" coffee, even if they weren't Starbucks customers.
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Re: What is "bold" coffee?

Postby Brett Hanson on Mon May 03, 2010 10:47 pm

Geoff nails it yet again. I'd like to think I was on his wavelength even in my first post.
Brett Hanson wrote:It's all for the better folks. Let Starbucks get people in out of the cold and once they transcend these four basic categories and want to talk about blueberry vs. raspberry vs. currant notes, they're all yours.


Robert and Marshall- my point since post one was don't waste your time overthinking Starbucks motives. They can be better explained with Hanlon's razor than anything else.

I tried to give a lot of examples demonstrating that it's not worth your time to dissect what Starbucks does on this particular topic because their actions are more simple than devious and (to the people in charge there) just a logical conclusion. In the process, I stirred the pot more than I calmed the waters.

My point would have been better made by writing nothing and letting the topic peter out.
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Re: What is "bold" coffee?

Postby Brett Hanson on Tue May 04, 2010 7:53 am

And just to emphasize my point (that there's little point in worrying about this), the new promotional period started today- bold coffee talk is over, the signage (and even the sleeve on my hot coffee cup) are squarely focused on... frappuccino.
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Re: What is "bold" coffee?

Postby Tim Dominick on Tue May 04, 2010 11:36 am

geoff watts wrote:It has become a sort of in-joke at CoE events...every now and then someone will throw out 'bold' or 'strong' as a descriptor and bring the house down...or just elicit a lot of groans. If you want to make Songer cringe, describe a coffee as rich. You'll see him actually twitch.


"noble" is another one that will cause Paul to ask you to bring him a small sample of "noble" from the grocery store.

"Bold" is a term that we've been getting with Starbucks converts for years and it really means something to them. In my experience it is code for med-dark, hints of caramel-like sweetness and low to no acidity. I like Geoff's point about it being a coffee that will still taste like coffee with 6 oz of half and half poured on top. I generally ask people who use "bold" how they drink their coffee. It is rare if they say black.

"Acidity" is a term that really scares the hell out of consumers despite our attempts to convey it as a very positive attribute. Often it is looked at as a stomach ache or the gas station cholorgenic acid sludge syndrome.
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Re: What is "bold" coffee?

Postby Alistair Durie on Tue May 04, 2010 6:55 pm

I was told "sweet acidity" was another way to get Songer wound up.

Off the record... bold is a personality. Sure, it doesn't belong in the cuppers handbook, yet we often find ourselves sitting around the cupping table describing the personality of coffees beyond our notes. Colors, genders, emotions, which is where I feel bold fits in. Ever tasted a Kenya with skintight red leather pants? I have.
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Re: What is "bold" coffee?

Postby Brett Hanson on Tue May 04, 2010 7:29 pm

Alistair wrote:Ever tasted a Kenya with skintight red leather pants? I have.

:shock:
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Re: What is "bold" coffee?

Postby nick on Wed May 05, 2010 6:17 am

Alistair wrote:Colors, genders, emotions, which is where I feel bold fits in. Ever tasted a Kenya with skintight red leather pants? I have.

Fine. Then make sure that Kenyan co-op knows that you think their coffee tastes like that. I'm sure they'll be thrilled.
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Re: What is "bold" coffee?

Postby Alistair Durie on Thu May 06, 2010 12:47 pm

I hope you didn't miss my point, because there's never any 'wrong' ways to describe a coffee, and in trying to get closer to the coffee we think of images, memories of candies and other personal obscurities. On our cupping sheets we aim for a common language, where "bold", nor "red" serves any purpose... though kickin back discussing how we feel about coffees being 'aggressive', 'colorful', 'for men in suits', or gulp... 'bold'... anything goes.

Bold is daring, forward, intense, highly saturated... as a coffee term it has been murdered as much as "gourmet" has... but no term is wrong, or irrelevant.
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Re: What is "bold" coffee?

Postby Tim Dominick on Thu May 06, 2010 1:35 pm

Is describing a coffee as "bold" any more irresponsible than invoking similes or hyperbole while mentally masturbating a colorful description?

A SBUX customer, or most consumers for that matter, can get their head around "bold" better than one can understand the rambling notion of a coffee that is as "sweet as big rock candy mountain with notes of Sicilian blood orange harvested from the west side of Mazara de Vallo in late December and the witty, piquant acidity of a freshly plucked kumquat"
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Re: What is "bold" coffee?

Postby nick on Thu May 06, 2010 1:37 pm

Alistair wrote:I hope you didn't miss my point, because there's never any 'wrong' ways to describe a coffee, and in trying to get closer to the coffee we think of images, memories of candies and other personal obscurities. On our cupping sheets we aim for a common language, where "bold", nor "red" serves any purpose... though kickin back discussing how we feel about coffees being 'aggressive', 'colorful', 'for men in suits', or gulp... 'bold'... anything goes.

Bold is daring, forward, intense, highly saturated... as a coffee term it has been murdered as much as "gourmet" has... but no term is wrong, or irrelevant.

I'm glad you're making that distinction, because that was sort of the point of my snarky post: common language vs. personal expression. Both are relevant, but personally, I just want to see a sharp dividing line between the two.

I've had a few occasions where I've been in this sort of situation: I'm in the same cupping as a visiting Ethiopian exporter and a newbie barista, and the latter is waxing poetic about how some coffee reminds her of a morning sneeze or reminds her of a hard wooden chair or the sunlight on her lap during a long summer drive... and the visiting exporter is completely bewildered and confused. He wanted to learn about the US market, and had heard that baristas are more and more respected and appreciated for their engagement with the coffee... the look on his face made me think he was struggling to figure out how to explain "morning sneeze" to his colleagues back home.

Those experiences changed my approach to coffee taste descriptions, and my approach to cupping. Call me a killjoy, but I think there's absolutely a time and a place for self-expression... I'm just less and less tolerant when it's during cuppings.
Nick Cho
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Location: San Francisco, Coffeefornia
full name: Nicholas Cho
company: Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters
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