Language is crazy. Almost as crazy as coffee people. But the language of coffee has its own madcap cadence. In every industry and market the lingua franca is often a complex mashup of technical jargon, local input, and global agreement. All of us who call the wonderful world of specialty coffee home know that we have our own language that can easily cause confusion and division when misunderstood or misapplied. But for those of us who work with coffee professionals on the coffee-origin side in Latin America, there is an additional layer of communication challenge. The language of coffee in Latin America is Spanish. This “Coffee Spanish” doesn’t abide by simple Spanish translations. More often than not it is a tangled web of jargon, slang, and colloquialisms sprinkled with enough regional and country differences to make your head spin. These language differences can make or break relationships and business agreements.
As coffee professionals on the buying side (buyers, roasters, baristas, importers, exporters, etc.), the final handshake is the culmination of a long series of events. It might involve hours of air travel, hundreds of miles of driving down dusty roads, hiking the farms, and finally cupping the coffee. Success in coffee is predicated on knowing both technical jargon and social niceties that build relationships. A myriad of challenges awaits the coffee professional aiming to bring home the pride of a producer. All the hard work, dedication, and relationship building can be shattered with a misunderstood technical processing term or poor understanding of cultural and societal traditions. The intricate details that play a hand in negotiations and relationships are some of the primary challenges for the vast majority of coffee professionals. It is more than a simple lack of Spanish or English fluency, but comes down to understanding the coffee-centric technical language used in both English and Spanish. Knowing what the local preferences are for appearance, conversation, and business often play unseen, albeit powerful, roles.
Communication is a tricky subject in Latin America. Green buyers and drinkers from consuming countries bring with them their own tasting lexicon and grading standards. And often the words and phrases they have learned in other producing countries. Though sometimes understood by larger, more storied operations, these items rarely translate for the farmers, millers, and other men and women making the daily operation run. Scouting for a new relationship and dashing off into the mountains of, say, Bolivia without understanding the differences in language, grading, and growing that exist there will torpedo any chance of establishing a meaningful relationship. Take, for example, interpretations of weight and distance. A quintal is a Latin American unit of measure with different meanings to different people in the supply chain depending on a number of technical factors and math equations. Assuming it means one thing in negotiations when, to the producer, it means something else, can strain relationships, logistics, and financial agreements.
Success in coffee is predicated on knowing both technical jargon and social niceties that build relationships.
A simple translation of the term morteador in Mexico may be understood, but applied in Peru the producer could, at best, be confused and, at worst, be insulted that you wish he would destroy his coffee. Over years of traveling to coffee-growing communities and attempting to communicate with people at every point along the coffee supply chain, we have found that communities often use very different words and phrases for the exact same technical terms involved in coffee from seed to cup. Many of these words defy literal translation, resulting in frustration.
It is important to understand the culture and try to be the best damn Ecuadorian or Salvadoran or Mexican you can be when visiting. Leave your American, British, or Korean world behind and step into the shoes of your hosts. Drink the local beer, visit local festivals and shops, and most importantly, express sincere gratitude for the time spent and people met during your journey. In other words, lighten up and dive into the local culture.
Many of the experts and producers we spoke with in producing countries could not express this enough. “Don’t pick your nose at a meeting,” writes Luis Rodrigues of Caferium in El Salvador, “and always bring a little present for your host.” You should know that everyone loves coffee T-shirts. Bring a few from home and a nice selection of coffees from remote regions. You will win coffee friends for life.
Coffee friends are the best friends to have. Improving your understanding of the language of coffee is a killer foundation for any coffee professional. Whether you are a green coffee buyer, roaster, barista, café owner, importer, or production bagger, it behooves you to learn Spanish as a language and, as importantly, to learn Coffee Spanish. Knowledge and application of the social norms and cultural variations of the regions in coffee lands will build meaningful coffee relationships that last.
At it’s heart, specialty coffee is about people, and the key to opening the door to people is language.
Spanish Terms to Know
Here are a few Coffee Spanish words and phrases that will help you build bridges whether you are visiting origin countries or simply exchanging emails or tweets. You won’t be a fluent Spanish speaker, but as Edwin Martinez of Onyx Coffee says maybe it will help you “look a little less foolish.”
- mas o menos = more or less. But really: I will try; it will be sorta close to what we just sorta agreed to; and other wonderful ideas.
- está bien = it’s OK. But really: chillout, relax, don’t worry, I forgive you, it’s cool; invariably leads to sharing a beer & laughing.
- chivo/chido = cool. But know which version each country uses as using the wrong one is an insult.
- Me gusta mucho su café! = I like your coffee!
- beneficio humido/seco. In most Latin American countries (but not all) these are the terms for a wet mill/dry mill.
- pergamino/cafe seco = parchment coffee (coffee with yellow husk still on).
- oro/cafe verde = green coffee. Oro is gold because green
coffee is like gold!
—Andy Newbom is director of coffee for IPCoffees Speciality Imports and Andrew Russo is the founder of consultancy company Russo Roasts Coffee. The two authored Coffee for Spanish Buyers, a new guide to help overcome communication barriers at origin.