I realize my last dispatch was a tad polemical and I always want Ask Lee to be a positive, fun, and celebratory thing. So in honour of the season, I present (with apologies) A Coffee Carol! Pour the nog, stoke the fire and listen for the heavy chains of Jacob Marley…
Do you remember falling in love with coffee? I grew up in Saskatchewan and loved to skateboard. To say it is cold there is actually a disservice to the chill. It is frigid, freezing, subarctic. Taking breaks inside fast-food chains or ATM lobby’s became crucial in escaping winter’s icy touch. My favourite respite was a coffee shop called DJ Cinnamon’s. It was a classic second wave shop with flavoured syrups, heavy dark roasts, jute bags on the wall, and a pastry case loaded with the titular cinnamon buns.
Ironically, my drink of choice was iced coffee. The condescended milk in the bottom was so custardy sweet, the dark roast full of dense bitterness, and the hold/cold sensation was novel. For a young Lee, there was something just so, excuse the pun, cool about it. I often relate coffee’s second wave to my youth for more reasons than timeline. Just as the third wave, or modern coffee, is as reactionary as a rebellious teen, the second wave pushed again the stale, freeze-dried, grocery-store habits of home. The fact that I did not see my parents putting their morning drip over ice or adding a cornucopia of corn-syrup goo’s added both allure and, ironically,sophistication.
One never forgets first love. While the thought of hopping on a skateboarding or drinking a DJ Cinnamon’s coffee now fills me with dread, the excitement for a new cup and coffee’s charm remains constant and steadfast. And on that note, I have some very exciting news. After nearly five years at Cut, it is time for me to move on. I gave notice earlier this month and 2019 will start bright with my own roasting company! It is an equal mix of terror and excitement but it also just makes sense.
The news is also why I call upon A Christmas Carol for this week’s dispatch. Scrooge’s redemption arc from greedy narcissist to empathetic protector of the downtrodden remains a salient lesson when it comes to work and labour. I hated the story as a child, likely because there are so many adaptations and variations on it and I never viewed Scrooge as relatable. I could assure myself, “I am certainly not, nor could I ever be, so terrible”. Yet with age and a fresh read, I see the subtlety (the hyperbolic, anti-Dickens, English-undergrad Lee is dying right now) and love the story’s central moral question: are you doing enough?
In the Third Stave, Scrooge travels to boisterous winter markets, festive celebrations in a myriad of locations and Bob Cratchit’s family feast. Scrooge faces consequences for his actions, embodied most tragically in the sick Tiny Tim and the emancipated ‘children of man’ named Ignorance and Want (an abject vision understandably absent in most adaptations). It is the pivot point in the story; Scrooge must break the greedy habits galvanized in youth or devastate the lives of those around him. This is so easy to hinge on the coffee industry given the multiple environmental and social crisis points from climate change, to the broken commodities market, to systemic inequality from crop to cup. The industry relies on the values established long ago in its greedy youth and until it embraces change, the very real people that Tiny Tim stands in for will suffer. That question remains: are we doing enough?
I said this was going to be positive right? Akin to Scrooge, we need to realize that if these “shadows go unaltered” coffee’s future is bleak. Luckily, we are “not past hope” as there is still time to change. A Christmas Carol ends with Scrooge renouncing his former ways and embracing generosity; he becomes the final ‘ghost’ emerging as the spirit of Christmas itself. Facing the social, political, and environmental challenges that threaten coffee requires work on a myriad of micro and macro levels but it is certainly worth it. Dickens writes, “Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more” and that endless push is certainly my goal in my new project.
My new roaster is Quietly Coffee. I wanted something that looked to the past – hence all this reminiscing about Saskatchewan. Coffee as a break from the cold, a gentle push in a morning routine, or a companion to a good book all speak to its timeless and precious nature. I never want to lose sight of coffee as an everyday wonder. And yet, I also want to beforward-facing. The ‘coffee yet to come’ will require creativity, persistence, and a revolt against the industry’s entrenched problems. The same way we can poke fun at DJ Cinnamon’s, people will retroactively mock our current coffee moment. With Quietly, I want to not only raise awareness of the existing inequalities but also take a cue from Scrooge and push forward to do more to help solve these issues.
So why Quietly? The name originates in a line from Ezra Pound’s Cantos: “a nice quiet paradise over the shambles”. And I glean it for the idea that every cup opens a window to origin. Every coffee plant produces a unique flavour and I want to roast coffee that stresses how each cup quietly a story. As Scrooge demonstrates, It is easy to be complacent in the present. At the end of a Christmas Carol“His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him”. I can happily say that I go forward with Quietly with a full heart, a fiery desire to creatively innovate, and a very familiar lifelong love of coffee.
Trust the Process,