Java jargon: Coffee lovers take lessons from wine snobs

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Sept. 15, 2011

You’ve been there, sitting in a restaurant beside some tweed jacket type who swills his glass of red through tobacco-stained teeth and expounds on the delicate notes of currants and figs, the slight eucalyptus aftertaste. Or perhaps the young professional, giant sunglasses perched on immaculate updo, droning about the complexity of the white, what with its blend of vanilla and lemon, its slight taste of cotton sheets.

Really? Who tastes their sheets?

Let’s face it, wine snobs are annoying — what with the way they crowbar ordinary words to describe something many of us just slug back and quietly enjoy.

Well, now there’s a new snob on the block. With the growing interest in purity, body and single-origin, this drinking dialect is expanding to a different beverage.

Coffee20franchises

Coffee, it seems, is the new wine.

It was inevitable. Most accounts plant the origin of the word “coffee” in the 1600s. It stems from the Turkish word kahveh and the Arabic word qahwah, which originally meant –– wait for it –– wine.

History professor Ralph S. Hattox explains the etymology in his book Coffee and Coffeehouses: The Origins of a Social Beverage in the Medieval Near East:

“The Arabic root q-h-w/y denotes the idea of making something repugnant, or lessening one’s desire for something,” he writes.

“According to one medieval Arab lexicographer, qahwa is ‘wine, so named because it puts the drinker off his food; that is to say, it removes his appetite [for it].’ The application of this term to coffee was a simple step: just as wine removes one’s desire for food, so coffee removes one’s desire for sleep.”

‘Pure coffee’

So, with coffee linguistically linked to wine, it makes sense that we’re now using similar language to describe it.

With a disdain for foam, the caffeinated wine snob is embracing “pure coffee,” mimicking the move from table wine to Cabernet, if you will. A quick trip to a few pure-coffee blogs yields the following: “the coffee held notes of fig, chocolate milk, a bit of wheat, black bean and bran. The overall feel was smooth with a little kick. As it cooled, a smokiness entered the sensory picture.”

And, “the espresso held bright lemon, ginger, rosemary, milk chocolate, with a velvety texture amidst a brown healthy crema.”

That all sounds quite nice, but I’ve never detected rosemary in my espresso. Then again, the two packets of sugar eliminate the need for all but one adjective: “sweet.”

Coffee connoisseurs talk more about single-origin or single-estate coffee, made with beans from one country or one farm. So, instead of Bordeaux and Gray Monk Riesling, you have Costa Rican Tarrazu and Panama Geisha Aristar.

And what of body? Like wine, java has body, and it’s being increasingly sized up (better assessed if you swirl it in your mouth). We yak about Brazilian and Honduran coffee having light and medium body, of Tanzanian beans being full-bodied.

So, why is java jargon becoming more refined?

Chocolate, salt also have own vocabulary

Morton Satin says people are trying to express their individuality through the products they consume. He’s the author of Coffee Talk: The Stimulating Story of the World’s Most Popular Brew and vice-president of the Salt Institute, a trade association for salt producers. Satin says it starts with marketers making us want to buy a product like coffee or wine and is driven by the likes of the Food Channel.

Once we taste a product and learn more about its nuances, we then need the language to describe it.

Satin says what’s happened with oenological language is spreading to not only coffee but chocolate, too. The brown stuff is described in terms of how well-tempered it is (whether it has a good gloss and healthy snap); its aroma (released by rubbing the chocolate with your thumb), which can range from kumquat and mushroom to juniper and baked bread; and how it melts in your mouth: creamy or greasy, or perhaps waxy and gritty. Like wine and coffee, more attention is paid to terroir, and cacao content is also of essence.

A man holds sea salt harvested from a salt field near Karachi, Pakistan. Salt is now being described with similarly elaborate vocabulary as wine, coffee and chocolate. 

Satin says even salt is getting more descriptors. We used to speak merely of table salt, but there’s also kosher salt, sea salt and fleur de sel (an expensive sea salt harvested from the surface of pools of evaporating sea water in France that is said to have high mineral content). There’s Brittany and Japanese sea salt, Hawaiian sea salt, Himalayan rock salt, finishing salt, flake salt, Kala Namak and now even smoked sea salt.

Satin likes the idea of using more refined language to describe the essential things we consume. It means we’re trying to renew our interest in the basics of life, he says, that “we’re starting to recoup a certain part of our consciousness, so our life isn’t just about work.”

This new language doesn’t initially roll off the tongue, Satin admits, so we have to practise it, but as we gain more confidence in knowing what is a good wine and what is good coffee, chocolate and salt, we’ll eventually have the words for it.

And we may already have the words, even if they’re not snob-sanctioned. At a wine-tasting party I attended a while back, we had to come up with a few lines for each wine.

People wrote descriptions like “cinnamon velvet” and “amber mist.” But my favourite was an Australian Shiraz someone said tasted like a “sunset in Manitoba.” I can’t think of finer language.

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