As someone selling distinctive coffees, how do you translate the technical details into helping your customers know what to expect in the cup? Language can help or get in the way.
I'm just beginning to get a handle on specific varieties. The coffees I already have are mostly a mix. To be honest, I really didn't know better and depended on my importer/suppliers to educate me. It's a case of, if I didn't ask, no one was telling me.
As a comparison, I had/have a rubberband-powered balsa wood model airplane hobby (Not much time with the new "job"). I got into the very specialized segment of the hobby called indoor duration model airplanes where only the very best balsa wood could be used. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDspK4eZ2DE
It got to the point that I became such an expert on the quality of balsa wood that I could only less than .1% of the available supply. I spent hours sifting through balsa bins looking for that one special sheet. Most times I would leave empty-handed.
But the big balsa sellers had to sell all their balsa, not just the best of the best. I could not depend upon them to tell me, that was not their job. They had a whole warehouse of wood and it all had to move. I would buy big lots, pick through them and sell 99% to other less discriminating modelers.
The other way to buy this wood was through the very few dealers that specialized in this type of balsa wood. But instead of a 3" x 36" sheet costing $1.50, a 1" x 18"x .020" thick piece would cost $9++. There was a need for very
thin sheets, measuring .006" thick that could be as much as $15. That works out to about $100,000 per pound!
Coffee is similar, the main difference being there is a grading system. But most importers are not putting cupping numbers on their offerings, possibly for fear of difficulty selling the lower-scoring coffees. Most times, if you want only 95 point coffee, you will pay for it. Like balsa, great coffees can be had for cheap, but you will have to sample a lot of coffee to find them.
For most uses, 85-88 point coffee is more than good enough. Most of my customers would not care for a 95 point coffee anyway. Most palettes, mine included, have not developed to that level yet.
But to answer your question (finally?), my job is to try and educate the customers that show an interest in learning. Yes, language can get in the way. My coffee vocabulary is not great, but it's usually better than theirs. I try to introduce words and concepts little by little. Many people still ask for "low acidity" coffee thinking it will be less bitter. I still get the occasional request for a large cappuccino. The trick is to educate, sans condescending tone, and not say "there is no such thing as a large cappuccino". I keep a medium and darker roast batch brew at the ready and they sell equally. But if someone is not sure I offer a small taste of each and if I don't have a line, we can have a conversation about what they taste in each. Some are very appreciative, but then dump a bunch of milk and sugar in the cup. I'm lucky to have about 50% of my customers drinking their coffee black. I also have a pour over station where I can make a cup of any of my offerings before someone buys a bag. The 3 minutes it takes is a great opportunity to engage in a conversation.
It's a daily task, especially at my bar where the weekend throngs are mostly tourists. My weekday regulars are well trained by now and we can get much deeper into coffee. They might buy their usual doppio or 12oz drip, but if I have a new sample roast on hand, I'll make them a quick cup for free to try, and get some feedback. If I have a coffee with a clear defect, green-wise or roast-wise, I'll make a cup for us to share and we'll talk about it. This is as close I can get to a cupping crew.