Murakami, Personal Preference & Objective Quality

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I’m currently reading Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and want to share a quote: “our memory is made up of our individual memories and our collective memories. The two are intimately linked. And history is our collective memory. If our collective memory is taken from us – is rewritten – we lose the ability to sustain our true selves”.

While wonderful on its own, I want to apply it to coffee! Specifically, I want to use it to address the often-repeated notion that “taste is subjective but quality is objective” (the food and drink version of Horace’s “matters of taste are not properly disputable”). The base argument suggests that while we all live in our own flavour worlds, there exists some communal or shared benchmarks for excellence.

We could all sit down and enjoy the same cup of coffee and no two perceptions would align. Our taste receptors are all distinct and, as a result, we all have different thresholds for sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami. These thresholds interlock and adjust in relation to each other. For example, two people could have identical sweet responses to a chocolate chip cookie but if one person is low on the bitter scale and the other high, the overall perception of that sugary treat diverges greatly. To add to this complexity, there is a plethora of elements involved in the ‘creation’ of flavour including the tongue, the retro-nasal passage way, our outward facing sense of smell, cued expectations and our very personal memories.

So we have the first element of the 1Q84 quote: the individual point-of-view. Pie or cake? Pancake or waffle? Bacon or sausage? We have our weekly meals routines, our favourite lunch spots, or those particular pizza topping we perpetually seek out. All of which speak to our sensory engagement embedded into our worldly experience. AND YET: there are those cultural benchmarks for taste. Awards, stars, recommendations, and reviews illuminate how we culturally separate a 1966 Château Latour from wine-style drinks or fermented-grape beverages.

In 1Q84, danger stems from the manipulation or shifting of history. Characters fall into alternate realities and as the minute details of daily life change, much larger understandings of love or friendship grow increasingly unstable. As the title suggests, it is a riff on George Orwell’s 1984. A book in which Big Brother issues updates to state history and continually destroys all of the previous records. Along these lines, I want to ask: what is the peril in our collective rewriting of quality? Taken another way, given these outside criteria for objectively great food and drink, what happens to our private flavour bubbles when those benchmarks move or disappear?

The accepted characteristics for a good cup remain elusive. For a while, there was a lot of talk about sparkling acidity: lemons peels, grapefruit juice, and orange pith. This led to a brief (and personally glorious) moment when deep sweetness reigned. Bags and baristas extolled the virtues of caramel, chocolate, and ripe fruit. I would say brightness rules the current moment with the sheer amount of flavour trumping its articulation or balance. None of these are inherently bad but there is a major problem in our industry’s collective refusal to acknowledge that the terrain continues to move and shift.

It extends beyond current trends. Given that dark roasts operate to hide the poor growing conditions arising from social inequalities and injustices, specialty was born from rejection and reaction. However, there is a consequence. We drift toward amnesia and a perpetual sense that our current moment has the best tasting cups. One more time because it is so good: “If our collective memory is rewritten – we lose the ability to sustain our true selves”.

This is not an argument for a singular monolithic flavour profile; it is quite the opposite, a plea that we recognize the way quality is constructed through social power and sustained by dominant voices in the industry. I want every coffee drinker to be a specialty coffee drinker but I don’t think that happens if we isolate one version of coffee – be it acidic or bright or sweet – as the lone legitimate cup. It dilutes how amazing coffee can be and does little to aid the narrative that producers need to be paid more for their labour. It increases the gaps between producers and drinkers. Without our collective memory, we live in limbo and that means our own personal, special taste experiences will lose value and fall apart.

Also for the record, the answers from above are: pie, waffle, and depends on the type of sausage.😏


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