taste, taste revolution

April 8, 2008 – 12:11 pm

they laughed when CI said lem butler’s competition espresso tasted like “new leather dress shoes in a malt custard dip” — but only because they’d never wrapped the bouche around a pair of johnston and murphys! now comes the new yorker’s john lanchester to tell us that “your palate and your vocabulary expand simultaneously.” you ability to discern tastes, in other words, has a lot to do with whether you have the right words. (a lengthier treatise on how language can govern your ability to think — even preventing normal “human” cognition in some remote tribes — here.)


A taste or a smell can pass you by, unremarked or nearly so, in large part because you don’t have a word for it; then you see the thing and grasp the meaning of a word at the same time, and both your palate and your vocabulary have expanded. One day, you catch the smell of gooseberries from a Sauvignon Blanc, or red currants from a Cabernet, or bubble gum from a Gamay, or horse manure from a Shiraz, and from that point on you know exactly what people mean when they say they detect these things.

he forgot “new leather shoes from an espresso blend.” but no matter … the “over-the-top” descriptors, he says, tend to appeal to an untrained audience, while the more precise, scientific terms for taste risk alienating all but an elite group of readers. which begs the question: isn’t this a problem the quality coffee movement should worry about? shouldn’t the more free-wheeling, evocative descriptors have their place alongside the austere, numeric ones? if not, we may be limiting our audience — or, worse, robbing them of the pleasures of taste!

i say we can balance things a bit. lanchester, referring to wine, calls it a taste “impasse:”

On the one hand, we have the Romantic route, in which you are free to compare a taste to the last unicorn or the sensation you had when you were told that you failed your driving test—and others are free to have no idea what you are talking about. On the other, we have the scientific route, which comes down to numbers, and risks missing the fundamental truth of all smells and tastes, which is that they are, by definition, experiences.

which brings us to smell — probably the most powerful evocative force in the taste experience — and, by extension, the very coffee-instructive art of describing perfume. consider some of luca turin’s criticisms in “perfume: the guide,” mentioned by lanchester:

Consider 212, from Carolina Herrera: “Like getting lemon juice in a paper cut.” Amarige, from Givenchy? “If you are reading this because it is your darling fragrance, please wear it at home exclusively, and tape the windows shut.” Heiress? “Hilariously vile 50/50 mix of cheap shampoo and canned peaches.” … Hugo, the men’s cologne from Hugo Boss? “Dull but competent lavender-oakmoss thing, suggestive of a day filled with strategy meetings.” Love in White? “A chemical white floral so disastrously vile words nearly desert me. If this were a shampoo offered with your first shower after sleeping rough for two months in Nouakchott, you’d opt to keep the lice.”

it’s funny! it’s experiential! and, most importantly, it still tells you important stuff!

this can devolve into self-parody, of course (see also: burr, chandler), which is how this blog usually intends its most absurd descriptors. we frequently arrive on the doorstep of “stale trombone case” out of sheer frustration, inebriation or … a concentration of community.

ah, yes. isn’t that it, really? these sorts of descriptors are the things you say at a party, to cronies with whom you’re really comfortable and have, perhaps, shared dozens or hundreds of cupping spoons. the outlandish term means something more in this context and, by the same token, strengthens the communal aspect of taste. but why not broaden the circle?

words don’t just govern your ability to taste. they govern the vibrance of your community, creating narratives that bundle people together. question is, who are we excluding?

(note: read the whole, excellent lanchester piece.)