Flavor Notes

Coffee beans sometimes list the flavor notes on the bag. Just the other day I saw a roast at a coffee shop that has notes of a lemon drop — it tasted exactly like that!

But did it?

When I make coffee from beans that just have something like “House Roast” on the label, something strange happens. I cannot make out the taste. The lack of a description leaves my brain not connecting the sensations on my tongue to a flavor.

Words add more to the experience of how coffee tastes then I cared to realize.

This instance is one of a heuristic common to all of us called reification. Social critic Neil Postman defines reification in his essay “Defending Against the Indefensible” as “confusing words for things.” He goes further to describe it as ignoring these three simple notions:

  • that there are things in the world and then there are our names for them
  • that there is no such thing as a real name
  • that a name may or may not suggest the nature of thing named

There always is reification in marketing. As Postman mentions, “because people confuse names with things, advertising is among the most consistently successful enterprises in the world today.” Labelling flavor notes for coffee beans does no harm to anyone. Reification, however, can rear its head in harmful ways if we confuse words for things.

It reminds me of a story about scholar Alfred Korzybski (this telling is via Wikipedia but I initially heard of the story from Tim O’Reilly’s book WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us:

One day, Korzybski was giving a lecture to a group of students, and he interrupted the lesson suddenly in order to retrieve a packet of biscuits, wrapped in white paper, from his briefcase. He muttered that he just had to eat something, and he asked the students on the seats in the front row if they would also like a biscuit. A few students took a biscuit. ‘Nice biscuit, don’t you think,’ said Korzybski, while he took a second one. The students were chewing vigorously.

Then he tore the white paper from the biscuits, in order to reveal the original packaging. On it was a big picture of a dog’s head and the words ‘Dog Cookies.’ The students looked at the package, and were shocked. Two of them wanted to vomit, put their hands in front of their mouths, and ran out of the lecture hall to the toilet.

‘You see,’ Korzybski remarked, ‘I have just demonstrated that people don’t just eat food, but also words, and that the taste of the former is often outdone by the taste of the latter.'”