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It's a Lot Like..

July 24, 2013

I mine the resources of analogy and metaphor rather intensively when talking about coffee. I do it when presenting and discussing coffee to a wide variety of customers and even more so when training people.

I wanted to muse a little about the worth of analogy in communication and also about its inherent shortcomings. I want to focus particularly on what is great about the wine analogy for speciality coffee. Quite often in the realms of twitterland and speciality coffee discussions this particular analogy has a tough time, so much so that it is often labelled awful and useless.

A little definition before we continue:
"Analogy is a cognitive process of transferring information or meaning from a particular subject (the analogue or source) to another particular subject (the target)."

In essence analogies are a tool for teaching and learning, an analogy can powerfully help with the consideration of new (previously unknown) ideas and processes.

By definition an analogy is different to the very thing you are using it to describe/discuss. An analogy does, of course, have to be relevant in a useful way, otherwise you could just use anything as an analogy. So an analogy becomes an analogy not just through being different but also through simultaneously transferring meaning. The worth of each analogy is open to debate, but the fact that the analogy is not a direct replication of the thing you are using it to describe is not a good argument against it. If it was, then analogies should be scrapped altogether.

So why are analogies called upon so often in speciality coffee? Well it’s the same old stuff of trying to look at something in a different way than it is commonly regarded. The use of analogy emphasises the fact that speciality coffee requires an unfamiliar means of viewing an otherwise very familiar drink.

At the heart of speciality coffee is a culinary endeavour, the focus is on the flavour in the cup and then considering all of the incredible variables that fed into the equation to make that drink a reality. The focus of speciality coffee delves much deeper into the area of provenance and terroir than traditional or commercial coffee. The wine analogy is seeming pretty good to me at the moment.

Once the wine analogy has been used to emphasise a provenance and flavour driven approach, it then becomes less useful. Coffee’s journey to the cup – all of the processes and factors involved – diverges wildly from the world of wine. With wine the majority of the drink’s creation occurs at source.

At this point we need to let other analogies take over. It is now useful to use the chain metaphor. Looking at coffee’s creation as a chain of people, natural factors, and equipment being responsible for a cup of coffee’s quality and identity. If something before your part of the chain goes wrong or is just different then what you can do with the coffee is also different, but your part of the chain remains a variable, one with a huge bearing on the coffee. Every step, right up until the drink is being consumed, has had an impact. Every link in the chain matters, and it’s important to recognise the impact of each link.

A coffee is more fleeting and seasonal than a wine. Analogies with fruit and food are useful at this point, providing an easy way to explain coffee’s perishability, and when we get to explaining brewing, the analogy of baking starts to creep in. This accords an explanation of the importance of weighing ingredients to be quickly understood. A wonderful coffee, carefully grown and roasted, is an ingredient with immense potential, but it needs to be crafted. Its preparation needs to be considered and exacting. Besides this, the baking analogy misses a lot out. That’s okay, because here we have used each of these analogies very specifically and with context. The full potential of any of these analogies is heavily reliant on context.

However, even without careful framing it’s not a complete disaster. To be concerned that an analogy will be taken too literally by a customer would be to heavily undermine their intelligence. It’s not as if someone is going to say, “really, it’s like wine, so whats the abv?”

On a more serious note, speciality coffee’s intricacies may not be common knowledge but the fact it’s not bottled like a wine is well-known, (bottled coffee & freshly brewed wine) as is the fact it’s an ingredient that’s prepared rather than just decanted. The very fact that the wine analogy is being used in regards to coffee is informative. Previously held commodity coffee knowledge provides the context. This is then being cross-referenced with a wine analogy to get the mind wandering.

Going a step further, even if a metaphor is completely misinterpreted, this doesn't need to be a problem. It’s merely part of the discourse. The discussion involving the analogy is more important than the analogy itself. For example, I was visiting a shop that was about to open and those involved were telling me a story about how they were going to be extremely accessible. They weren’t going to have flavour notes or anything else that could be off-putting. They followed this point with an example of how they felt they had failed when using flavour notes, which are of course, metaphors. The goal of the story was, I believe, to suggest how metaphors and analogies complicate things and that presenting coffee in a more familiar way would be better.

The story chronicled a pop up coffee venture that featured flavour notes for filter coffees. They had a particular coffee from Ethiopia, which was accompanied by a flavour note of (amongst other things) blueberry. A customer walked in and queried whether the aforementioned coffee was in fact a yoghurt. The pop up operators deemed this to be a failure and used it to justify the abandonment of flavour notes.

On the contrary, I believe this kind of reaction (which is rare anyway) is a golden opportunity to engage someone in speciality coffee; to say, ‘no actually it’s not a yoghurt, but a unique and exciting Ethiopian filter coffee, the flavour notes there are a lot like flavour notes for wine. Coffee can be capable of amazing and varied flavour potential if various things are focused upon. It’s quite different to traditional or commercial coffee, would you like to try it?’

The fact that analogies can break expectation to the point of being a tad confusing at first demonstrates that they are full of potential. Explaining the relevance or reason for using the metaphor then becomes as useful as the metaphor itself.

By not indulging in analogy there is always a danger of not relating to the uninitiated and of making it harder for people to join the speciality fold.

The very fact that the discussion about speciality coffee often races through several analogies in quick succession says a lot about the special and complex product that it is. The struggle to explain its specifics accurately without the employment of analogies says a lot about coffee’s uniqueness, which in turn signals how rewarding not only the journey but also the conversation can be.

A good question to ask is ‘who are analogies useful for?’ Analogies are primarily a learning tool. As the definition mentions, the goal is to transfer meaning or information from a source to a target. In reality, if you are very familiar with the intricacies of the speciality coffee world, then an analogy may not be useful for developing your understanding. The analogies may not actually be for you. You are already at the target and do not need to make the journey from source to target.

Analogies are instead a powerful language tool that can offer education on, and entry into your world, utilising familiar understanding to bridge the gap over to the unfamiliar.


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