I am writing to you from a box-filled apartment with all the usual chaos and excitement of moving! Let me start with some Quietly updates: as of January 1st, Quietly has a home in Stirling, Ontario. Taking some cues from past build-out experiences, a top priority at the new space is effective venting and cooling. Accordingly, we have a very knowledgeable HVAC specialist designing and  installing this week. Equally exciting, our roaster is in the final stages of construction at Probat HQ in Vernon Hills, Illinois! They have recently added controls for both airflow and drum-speed, which means the new line combines the classic (and perfect) cast iron design with the advanced  tool-set I need to roast. Bag designs are being finalized and my wife and I move into our new rented country-house on Thursday! So, yes, lots going on here. 

An unfortunate consequence of this frenzied adventure is that I have not had time to write an Ask Lee. But I never want the conversation to end, so thought I could delve into the archive and share one that seems appropriate for the start of Quietly. This week’s (old) question is thus: how do you approach coffee education?

Coffee Education is complicated. On one hand, it encompasses the technical training and expertise of a craft that spans agricultural practice, processing, roasting, extracting, brewing and steaming milk. On the other, it is a more philosophical question of engagement between customers, cafes, and roasters. In many ways, it is about the spanning gaps between coffee as consumption or coffee as enjoyment or coffee as appreciation.

Allow me to draw upon one of my favourite philosophers, Jacques Rancière, and his book The Ignorant Schoolmaster. It recounts the life of 17th Century French professor Joseph Jacotot. As was the style of the time, Jacotot was forced into exile due to a change in local rule. Fleeing France for the Netherlands, he took on a new job as a professor but ran into a significant problem: “a good number of students did not speak French” and “Jacotot knew no Flemish”.

Desperate, he decided to experiment by handing out copies of a novel with both languages. Much to his surprise, the students were soon able to both read and write in French! In place of the “horrendous barbarism” that he presumed would prevail in the class, Jacotot was instead left questioning his very position: is it not the job of the teacher to explicate ideas to “transmit his knowledge to his students as to bring them, by degrees, to his own level of expertise?” 

I think there is a prevalent attitude in many modern coffee circles that it is our job to explicate the idea of ‘good coffee’. Like Jacotot, there is an underlying assumption that education is “to transmit learning and form minds simultaneously”. In doing so, we create the role of the master who designates a distance “between the taught material and the person being instructed”. When we recite mantras like “dark roast is trash, macchiatos contain no caramel, extra hot lattes taste like chalk, death before deaf” we rely on a distance between us – the coffee masters – and the ignorance of the customer. After all, we do not consume coffee nor do we even enjoy it, we appreciate it because of the very fact we can “make it an object of knowledge”.

For Rancière, the lesson in Jacotot is about equality. His entire philosophical project builds on radical equality or the idea that human beings are equal – in all respects. The approach focuses on the structures that erase equality and takes aim at the forces that render voices and actions invisible and inaudible. Hence in books like Nights of Labor, he uses 19th century worker’s diaries to refute that they were passive and unwitting victims and instead understood (and spoke out against) systems of oppression. The distance created between master and student perpetuates a hierarchy. For Rancière and Jacotot, teaching oneself language was not an isolated event but rather evidence of the student using the same acts of observation, retention, repetition, and verification that they had employed their whole lives. One simply needed to share the object and believe in a shared “same intelligence” that is “at work in all acts of the human spirit”.

In coffee, there is a danger in ‘education’ becoming the articulation of ignorance. People have been tasting their whole lives and have a well developed appreciation for flavours (favourite fruit, ice cream, cereal, etc). So rather than dismissing customers or presuming one’s mastery, I think it is more beneficial and much more interesting to focus on the shared experience of the cup. Granted, I have a lot of opinions about coffee. I value sweetness because it opens the window to origin. I have disdain for green-tasting light roasts and one-dimensional dark roast. But I do not want to universalize these, simply make them a guiding voice for Quietly Coffee. And I love tasting coffee with people who approach it differently. In keeping with Rancière, sharing a cup provides a common resource, in which individuals can share thoughts. It is not a transmission of one’s knowledge to the other, but rather a poetic process.

One last point and, phew, did we take the scenic route to arrive here: by focusing coffee education around tasting, we focus on origin. How it translates through the roasting and brewing becomes the shared novel in Jacotot’s classroom. This is important, as in keeping with radical equality, coffee remains an industry with a great deal of exploitation. Telling the story of where coffee comes from becomes an invaluable way to discuss intersectional politics and illuminate how equality is erased at all points in the chain from cherry to cup. Let’s all share a cup. 

Trust the Process,  
Lee Knuttila