This dispatch comes from the road! I am currently in Finland and because I am away from email, I am going to use this space for a Lee ramble rather than the typical question and answer.
Finland has some beautiful coffee shops. Plenty of unique spaces, lovely customer service, and well-executed Nordic style cups. I had the delight of tasting coffees from two of the same source farms as Cut but roasted in a radically different manner. It has me thinking of how we generalize coffee as an industry.
While restaurants and food culture do not make the cleanest comparison to cafes and coffee, there is some useful overlap. All of my chef friends talk about their approach to food as an individual style. They all take pride in their cooking and stand behind their use of ingredients, but I do not think any would claim their food as the universal best. Such a declaration would overstep their specific methods and downplay the diversity of food culture. Granted they borrow from schools, like French or Italian, yet even within these categories, it becomes more about the particular viewpoint of the chef or restaurant.
In coffee, we have a bad habit of doing the opposite: universalizing individual approaches as the greatest coffee, or even worse, the only coffee. In my rant on education, I attempted to disentangle my vision at Cut from those lighter roasts that emphasize green flavours and those darker roasts that highlight the char flavours deriving from the roasting process. I did so, not to diminish these other approaches, but rather mark our place in the vast industry landscape. To awkwardly continue the metaphor, as I continue to traverse to different expanses, the more important it seems to focus on articulating one’s own space – one’s own roasting philosophy.
To make the point another way, allow me to borrow from Scott Rao. He teasingly states, “if you read the tasting notes on hundreds of third-wave coffee bags, you’d think coffee must taste like a cross between red wine and various fruity desserts”. His continues, “you’d never think the predominant flavors were roasty, biter, and sour, with just a hint of sweetness.” Comic, yet true. The majority of bags out there will parade fruit and chocolate but refuse to tarnish the perceived flawlessness entrenched in third-wave coffee with any mention of roast.
To loop together these various threads, there is a problem with honesty in modern coffee. Honesty, in how the individual roaster weaves themselves into the larger industry fabric, with the presentation of our products, and ultimately how our cups taste. I feel quite lucky that Sam allows me to end every dispatch with ‘trust the process’ because it acknowledges that roasting is a never-ending, difficult challenge. Also, it is also a pretty good coffee pun 😎.
This is spiraling into another nine-part tome, so let me just end with this: in an industry that struggles with honesty, put faith the cup. If you taste more roast or bitterness or astringency than meyer lemon and bergamot, you are likely onto something. The feedback loop is key, as it helps us on the roaster side to realize how things taste in different conditions (with different water, extraction methods, etc). This, in turn, might help foster more dialogue on the diversity of roasting styles. Less generalization and more nuance is a good thing.
As for my own camp in that landscape, let me say this: every time I profile a coffee, I hope to represent origin through developed sweetness and balanced acidity but that does not make it the world’s best coffee – it simply makes it Cut Coffee.
tl;dr: let’s stop universalizing coffee, roasting, and taste. Also, Finland is pretty neat.