Exotic flavour descriptors fetishise coffee-producing countries

tropical fruit
  • As experimental fermentations have grown in popularity, flavour descriptors have become increasingly specific and “exotic” – potentially fetishising producing countries
  • Research suggests that specific flavour notes are more desirable to consumers, and the more specific the imagery, the higher the “willingness to pay” 
  • However, more accurate flavour language based on a shared understanding between coffee producers and buyers could be more commercially viable

COFFEE FLAVOUR descriptors have various functions. They primarily help customers navigate taste expectations – helping them make informed decisions about whether or not to buy a certain coffee. 

But some argue that flavour descriptors increasingly fetishise coffee growing countries – a marketing gimmick that runs the risk of reinforcing harmful stereotypes. 

Over time, the specialty coffee sector has adopted increasingly specific and novel flavour descriptors. Words like “passionfruit” and “overripe mango” are now commonly found on a bag of coffee. 

Camila Khalifé, founder of Botánica and WBC sensory judge from Ecuador, explains that it’s all about the need to stand out from the competition. “The specialty coffee world was built on the idea that the more flavour the coffee has, the more descriptors it has, the more it costs, the more it’s worth.

It needs to move away from this idea, and put more weight on other factors that producers value more, like considering cost of production, cost of living, risk, and valuing long-lasting commercial relationships,” she says.

And as experimental processed coffees have become more popular, the descriptive language has become even less familiar with majority consuming markets.

“As far as flavour descriptors go, we want to use accessible terms,” says Ted Stachura, director of coffee at Equator Coffees. “I think if you are using the local terms for fruits you’re almost doing yourself a disservice because people aren’t going to make a connection to it and understand what it is.”

Meanwhile, research suggests that specific flavour notes are more desirable to consumers, and the more specific the imagery, the higher the “willingness to pay” is. More concrete and vivid flavour descriptions seem to give consumers the best product expectation.

Coffee descriptors or fetishisation?

Considering that descriptors should serve as familiar reference points for consumers, it’s puzzling that an increasing number of them are derived from fruits and other foods from countries disconnected from their consumer markets.

Rather than provide the customer with some sort of connection to where the coffee was grown, some might argue that flavour descriptors are deliberately unconventional to create a sense of uniqueness as a way to attract consumers.

Some are even described as “exotic” when referring to the variety, processing method, or flavour – a practice that runs the risk of distancing or marginalising coffee growing countries and their communities.

In this context, rather than simply trying to describe the product, descriptors become more of a marketing tool that fetishise flavours non-native to the consuming country. This strategy could be seen as capitalising on the “otherness” of the coffee’s origin. 

“Now we’re seeing coffee bags that say ‘panela’ instead of ‘brown sugar’ as if they are one and the same,” says Camila. “Panela is a totally different product. It’s incredibly hard to produce, and it’s loaded with cultural meaning – it’s a sweet childhood memory.

I’m really bothered by this kind of specificity when it’s not a firsthand experience of the people labelling it. I feel like that’s a form of cultural appropriation of flavour.”

Meanwhile, generalising flavours can be just as disrespectful. The generic term “tropical fruit”, for example, is one that appears all too often on coffee packaging.

“I was talking to a cupper in Colombia who said people from the US will sometimes come there and say they are tasting tropical fruit in this coffee, and for the Colombians, it’s like ‘which one?’” says Ted . “There are hundreds of tropical fruits, but they’re just lumped together into one category because consumers won’t know any better.”

A shared understanding of taste 

It’s not an uncommon standpoint that flavour descriptors can be geographically and culturally divisive. There’s often a double standard between coffee producers and buyers, in the sense that buyers are usually the ones who get to determine the specificity or the generality of what they taste.

“We’re forced to learn how buyers describe coffee,” says Camila. “We had to learn what berries, black currant, red currant, and white currant are – whether it tastes like bourbon or more like vermouth.

On the other hand, we have notes like ‘tropical fruit’ – but which ones? Pineapple doesn’t taste the same as mango, nor as passion fruit, nor do all mangoes taste the same.”

As a potential solution, many advocate for a more universally accepted language for talking about coffee flavour. 

This would facilitate a more open space for discussing taste that wouldn’t see certain regions or corners of the market excluded from the conversation, and it could help to create a shared understanding of each coffee and where it is grown.

“Why not listen to what people from coffee-producing countries have to say about their coffees?” says Camila.  “If they say that coffee has flavours of guava jam or quince (membrillo), it’s not because they made it up, it’s because that’s what their coffee tastes like to them.”

It’s also commercially advantageous to get it right. While research might point to specific and vivid descriptors as more attractive to consumers, it’s important to remember that descriptors aren’t just for end users. They are also a common language for describing the processing of coffee to actors throughout the value chain – including producers, wet mills and exporters. 

If buyers can use descriptors that accurately capture flavours in a way that’s familiar with coffee growers, it will be more profitable for all. Coffee producers will more effectively understand how cultivation and processing creates desirable flavours for the industry at large, creating a virtuous circle of communication.

Coffee Intelligence

Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our newsletter here.