A great question this week: “what do you consider to be a good cup of coffee?” My fundamental roasting goal is the preservation of the unique sensory characteristics tied to a coffee’s origin. The approach demands that the roast process have no impact beyond illuminating the very best aspects of the green. Hence, no dark roasts, bland baked batches, or sour hints of under-development. However, I also hang a large asterisk on my method and say there should be a diversity of roast approaches. In other words, drink what you enjoy because it likely works for your individual palette, morning routine, and coffee desire.
Easy answer. And yet … it seems like a bit of a cop-out. Take a minute and think about the best cup of coffee you have ever drank. Was it bright or bitter? Hot or cold? Served black, with cream or sugar? Good likely tethers to the vivid and sweet feelings of memory. Deeply and inescapably personal. The real question becomes: is it possible to talk about what is good coffee outside of this subjective frame? Let’s drop this on one my least favourite philosophers: Kant!
In the Critique of Judgement, Kant separates the work of art from the everyday through his notions of the agreeable and the beautiful. A delicious sandwich, a warm blanket, or a tasty cup are all based on our inclinations and predispositions, be it for extra pickles, vintage wool or washed processing. As Kant states, “that is agreeable which the senses find pleasing in the sensation”. It gratifies us by working in tandem with our rooted worldly engagement. For example, we eat sandwiches to satisfy hunger or use blankets to keep warm but likely do not want a foot-long ham and cheese for dessert or a heavy duvet in the middle of the summer.
For Kant, the beautiful requires ‘disinterestedness’. It supersedes our everyday desires and arises from contemplative appreciation for its own sake. A painting of crashing waves gives us pleasure in its form but we do not want to possess those waves. Unlike the taste of cilantro or smell of lavender, which are marked by those who like or dislike them, the beautiful is outside the personal self. It is shared, collective, and communal.
We crave coffee that we find agreeable. It extends directly from our taste desires, be it double-double or soy latte or pour-over. So then, what in coffee is similar to the pure formal elements of a brush stroke or an intricate melody in a song? Taken another way, is there a universally good coffee if you remove our predilections for Nabob or vanilla flavouring or dark roasts? Kant would actually hate this. His conception of aesthetic objects is very limited and there is almost a disdain for the everyday. He contends that taste and smell do not have ‘structure’ beyond ‘sensation’, meaning they lack a mental dimension.
It strikes me as strange. In my experience, the best cups actually demand a great deal of consideration. You sip and evaluate sweetness, acidity, and bitterness. You ask: is it fruity, with stone-fruit, melon, or berry? is there chocolate, cream, or caramel? is it silky or harsh, mild or aggressive? All of these questions require us to reflect upon experience. We traverse our deep catalogs of memory laden with warm cherry pies, the crunchy bite of a caramel apples or the zip of citrus peels. It seems less a pass/fail test of agreeableness and more a journey filled with surprise. We are grounded in contemplation as we ponder the very mechanics of taste.
The reason I am separating the agreeable cup from the beautiful cup is to highlight how certain coffees can propel the imagination. If roasted too dark, the unique qualities of origin inherent to the green are lost. You get the universal flavours of the roast process with notes of burnt and bitter char. Roast too light and you will have the vegetable flavours of the green. The cup will taste like pea pods or grass, despite any variation in region, varietal, fermentation or processing. If your batch loses stability, you will have a baked roast that tastes bland with a papery finish.
Such errors remove the potential for unexpected wonder and awe. Granted the cups may be agreeable; take, for example, a bitter dark roast loaded with heaping spoonfuls of sugar and heavy milk. However, they are not beautiful. Coffee that tastes like origin provides a delicate and complex surprise. Taste notes change year-to-year and harvest-to-harvest. Given it has no predetermined characteristics, it requires aesthetic meditation. And here lies the dividing line between just getting caffeinated and a imaginative engagement with the world. Great coffee draws us out and pushes us towards plants growing in hot sunshine, the work of hands picking ripe cherries, the intense impact of fermentation, and pools of cool water washing over beans.
So yes, always drink what you want, but also recognize that perhaps the truly good cup is the more elusive, unique, and beautiful one that is beyond both our kitchens and ourselves.
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