Note: I wrote this blog post before Christmas and never got around to publishing it at the time.
The Coffee Dictionary, written by three-time UK Barista Champion Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood, has been on my radar for some time. My hesitation about buying this book was its name: it is positioned as a dictionary. I have no desire to read a dictionary. I saw that cafespaces had reviewed this book and the review made me think that I, too, could read this book. It may be called a dictionary but I thought it was not worth missing out on the knowledge that would be in the book.
The Coffee Dictionary did not disappoint. This book is an A-to-Z guide to coffee, covering terms ranging from the flat white and honey processing all the way to Coffee X, a project to brew coffee on the International Space Station (yes, Colonna-Dashwood managed to find an entry for the letter “X”).
I decided to read this book from cover-to-cover and I found this was not a problem. Although each entry is separate from the next, I found that each term in the book flowed uniquely. I was eager to read the next definition. This was helped by how many entries complement each other. The section on the naked shot, for instance, was linked to many other topics in the book, like espresso and portafilters.
I was already familiar with most of the terms in this book, although I did discover a few new terms. The real value in this book was deepening my knowledge of what I already knew. I knew, for instance, that naked shots existed. I knew they were shots poured through a naked portafilter. But I did not ever consider that the spouts of a regular portafilter can collect debris. Naked shots do not suffer this issue. Naked shots help you identify if your coffee is channeling, which is when coffee flows through paths of least resistance instead of the entire bed of coffee grounds.
Colonna-Dashwood drew on his knowledge of how terms are used in the real world to give some insightful background about many terms. I learned, for instance, that carbonic maceration was used in a World Barista Championship. I learned that coffea eugenioides, a species of coffee bred with coffea canephora to produce coffea arabica, was presented on a blind table to a US Brewers Cup champion Sarah Anderson. She took this species of coffee to the World Barista Championships in 2015, where she placed fifth that year.
The Coffee Dictionary covers terms from brewing to coffee culture. For instance, there is an entry on the third-wave. In this entry, Colonna-Dashwood does raise the argument about how the term is mainly applicable to the U.S., but he complements this with a detailed description of what the third wave is. This is not a book of opinions: it is a book with insightful descriptions of various terms that you are likely to encounter in the world of coffee. There are entries on drinks, like the cappuccino and flat white. Colonna-Dashwood does not paint a picture of the “right” way to brew these drinks. He instead talks about varying theories, leaving the reader to develop their own perspective on the matter.
I like how The Coffee Dictionary is not too focused on any particular aspect of coffee, like espresso or home brewing. There is a good balance of terms. The book even addresses coffee capsules and talks about how they became more popular after some Nespresso patents expired in 2012. I learned that the Aeropress plunger is so important because it ensures water can pass through the bed of fine grounds. Without the plunger, the brewer would probably clog. This is the case with many pour-over methods which tend to clog if the coffee is ground too fine.
With that in mind, this book goes broader than just talking about coffee. Colonna-Dashwood includes definitions on the gustatory system, the olfactory system, agronomy, and other coffee-adjacent terms that are not explicitly about coffee. As someone who finds coffee tasting interesting, I was aware of the terms gustatory and olfactory. But I had never thought to look them up. I learned that science has found it difficult to attribute particular parts of the mouth to certain tastes. I was reminded that our senses of smell are affected by our age and genetics.
This book was a great read for me, someone who has spent a lot of time reading about coffee. Some of the material acted as a refresher, which I found useful because it is all too easy to forget about the fundamentals. A lot of the book was new to me. Did you know that Syphon is a brand name under which some vaccum pots are traded? I did not know that. So, all Syphons are vaccum pots but not all vaccum pots are Syphons. I’d recommend this book to those who are still new to coffee as well. I can see myself referring back to some definitions in this book if I ever feel like I need a refresher on a topic.