Last weekend was the Sensory Summit on a Budget held at the relatively new Canadian Roaster Society in Montreal, Quebec. They were nice enough to invite me to come and both brew coffees and give a talk! A couple kind people have asked if it was recorded, to which I can happily respond: it was not. But I did think it might be nice to share a rough recap (constructed from my fragmented and jumbled notes) of my spiel!

“I love the SSOB because it lacks competition. The much more common latte art  throw-downs or brewing/barista showdowns all deepen the existing and ingrained competitive elements of our industry. Creating community comes with greater ease through more conversational and casual assemblies, so this is nice. Moreover given we are in food and drink, it is extremely important to take time to think about, experiment with, and discuss flavour itself. Which I want to do today through three things: taste, value, and the philosophy of Bruno Latour.

Let me start with an easy question: what do we do in specialty coffee?There are some clear answers: we roast, we brew, we pour, we work with producers and buy green. All of which are true, but I want to answer the question with the underlying economics of specialty coffee by arguing that we make a value proposition. We ask that everyone pay more for coffee. 

The value proposition begins in the Seventies and really underpins the coffee waves analogy. Coffee moves from functional consumption (caffeinate me) to an enjoyment of a drink (centaur frappuccinos) to the third wave with appreciation following the links bean to cup. This last pivot means the socio-economics of agriculture come into view. That is the farmers, producers, pickers and labour itself. Entwined here are the unique elements of origin – soil, variety, rainfall, processing, temperature shifts from day to night. With enhanced infrastructure and investment, quality increases and roasters can purposely push lighter roasts. The café can then be a stage to really showcase the wonders possible in a cup. 

The question becomes: how do we commonly make the value proposition? It comes across frequently through markers or signals for quality. Take latte art for example, it highlights a level of care, expertise, and training; as well, it visually displays the technical element of proper density. It indicates value. Another route is cafe spaces that crib notes from dining trends. By taking coffee out of the home or fast food chain, we align it to more esteemed spaces, while also uplifting delivery through fine ceramics, elevated design, and heightened presentation. Looking at you clipboard espresso menu. 

However, I think the major way we make the value proposition (and appropriate for a sensory summit) is taste (and taste notes). Second wave broke away from first wave using roast degree terminology. When Starbucks came to Saskatchewan, I can remember the paradigm shifting retail wall with terms like French and Vienna roast. This is a major movement beyond simple brand recognition, like Folgers or Nabob. This change occurs again with the escalation from enjoyment to appreciation and replacement of universal notes of a roast degrees with origin. We use taste notes and flavour descriptions to say this coffee tastes like where it is from and it is unique. It is from a specific place. You can taste it through x, y, & z. It is special, please pay more for it.  And in doing so, we are creating a black box…

It is a term that I am borrowing from Bruno Latour‘s Science in Action, which examines how science operates as a practice. He explores howtheories become entrenched as scientific fact through repeated use in studies, experiments, or lab work. At first, a theory may face scrutiny and inquiry – but over time, it is accepted and then naturalized. He uses the example of DNA. We ‘know’ what DNA ‘does’ in a vague way but do not necessarily discern, or question or even care about its actual functioning mechanics. We concern ourselves with outcomes, that is, the particular effects something, like DNA, has our genetic growth or development. Latour calls this a ‘black box’. 

He borrows the term ‘black box’ from cybernetics, but recasts it as a way to talk about, those things we do not talk about. He describes it as “a piece of machinery or a set of commands” that are “too complex” to describe on their own. All that matters is the “input and output” of a black box. Latour’s specific example is about the double helix shape, so I butchered it slightly, but he goes on to give several examples like diesel engines, vaccines, and chemical elements. It fits perfectly with his philosophy that follows people and objects through their actions and relationships. A pebble on a beach may be a perfect thing to skip across the water, yet the pebble as black box hides a geology lesson about volcanic stress and sediment. 

Allow me to quote another one of my favourite philosophers, Graham Harman, talking about Latour: “all human activity aims to create black boxes. Boeing engineers labour to create a new model of jet, which will never reach the market if it breaks down during test flights. In forming a friendship, settling a marriage, or composing a manuscript, our hope is to establish something durable that does not constantly fray or break down”. We aim to create ‘low-maintenance’ black boxes that are outputs or effects rather than things unto themselves. We then no longer labour over them, question them or need to spend our time thinking or talking about them.

Taste notes are a massive black box. We don’t focus in on the chemistry, just the input of “where coffee is from” and its output “how it tastes“. The box hides that notes exist because coffee shares aroma and flavours compounds with a great number of foods. After roasting, there are more than a thousand compounds in coffee with most of them being brewable and a smaller section of those producing the flavour constituents of coffee. Thus we overlap with fruit or baked goods or vegetables or citrus because their flavours too build from a diverse set of aroma and taste components. By marking these individual and unique elements, we can establish the value proposition. This is great because people should pay more for coffee, coffee should taste distinct and origin matters. 

And yetthere is a danger is simply using taste notes to elucidate or stand-in for the importance of origin. Equally, there is peril is relying upon all these other black boxes (like restaurant spaces and elevated design) as we are using things unrelated to origin to suggest the value of origin. At its core there are three fundamental problems with taste notes…” 


Next: Part Two of Two of the SSOB Talk.


Trust the Process,  
Lee Knuttila