Last week, Keaton Richie illuminated why ‘green’ flavours work in wine but struggle in coffee. He pointed to how herbal notes can balance the more fruit-forward flavours in wine. Whereas, these same green notes come at the cost of fruity sweetness in coffee. He also explained how we pair wine with food, so green-like freshness elevates with umami, smoky, earthy, or fatty flavours. This is less true for coffee, which rarely accompanies an aged-rib eye or mushroom gnocchi.
I wanted to spend a little more time working through this dividing line for a simple reason: it is fascinating! How can you have the exact same flavour excel in one context, for example pith in beer, and have be demonstrably terrible in the next, like that same pith in coffee? Keaton – with great ease and grace – answered the question with logic and clarity. Let’s go the classic Ask Lee route and do the opposite…
To deal with this incongruence allow me to call upon American Art Critic and Philosopher Arthur Danto. In his book The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (1981), he discusses the difference between an aesthetic experience and a work of art. He uses the example of Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ to draw a line. The work is part of the ‘ready-mades’ meaning Duchamp took every day manufactured objects and re-contextualized them as artworks; in the case of Fountain he signed a urinal with ‘R. Mutt 1917’ and entered it into the Society of Independent Artists exhibition.
For Danto, it is not the beauty flowing outward from Fountain that overwhelms or endears itself to viewers but rather its ‘art’ comes through its retroactive marking as an ‘art object’. When we see the urinal in a gallery, we provide room for artistic consideration and understand the wittiness (or silliness) of Duchamp. Such reflection is less likely in a public washroom or hardware store. In other words, it is not necessarily the porcelain glaze or the polished glean of the object itself but instead it is the institutional understanding that provides latitude for aesthetic study and contemplation.
SO, what does this have to do with coffee, taste notes or wine? Good question. I call upon Danto because we can think of the line between a flavour and the context in which we taste it. Take some of the things that I detest in coffee – like green herbs or the bitter sour of citrus peel – they are not objectionable on their own. Imagine a negroni without an orange peel or a pesto without basil. It is only in the context of coffee that they become an issue. The grassy notes of herbs mean underdevelopment, not freshness. This is similar to the urinal shifting meaning as it moves from washroom fixture to gallery art object. The context or ‘expressive content‘ provides a set of guidelines and cues expectations. The flavours are transfigured by virtue of being in a wine, or a pasta, or a coffee cup. As Danto states, we learn that an object has specific “qualities to attend to” and as a result “our aesthetic responses will be different” (99).