My last dispatch was the start of my spiel about “Taste, Value & Bruno Latour’s Black Boxes” presented at the Sensory Summit on a Budget. This week, we continue with the dramatic conclusion. To summarize thus far: we make a ‘value proposition’ in coffee that asks people to pay more. We do so through markers like latte art or interior design but most frequently though taste notes. In doing so, we use Latorian black boxes, which means we do not focus on the mechanics of taste but simply the input and output of ‘origin’ and ‘tasting notes’. 

And yet, there is a danger in simply using taste notes to elucidate or stand-in for the importance of origin. Equally, there is peril in relying upon all of 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 two fundamental problems with taste notes.

Most of our flavour sensations originate with smell. We have a small patch of nasal cavity receptors that signal the brain’s ‘olfactory bulb’ to create aroma impressions. This differs from taste, which is the volatile compounds of food or drink binding to cells on our tongues. These specific ‘receptors’ transmit sensations of salty, sweet, bitter, sour, or umami. Whereas taste is considered ‘analytic’ because we perceive it indistinct parts (this has too much or too little salt), smell is ‘synthetic’ as we amalgamate the sensation into a single perception. In other words, smell is like sight; we see unified patterns and not jumbled bits and pieces of line and light. 

This partially explains why describing smell is so tough. It also means we face the challenge of negotiating two perception systems reliant on different ‘languages’ when we attempt to articulate flavour. To shift back to coffee, it means that flavour notes are incredibly precise markers adrift in a sea of complex and unquestionably vague sensory experiences.

The next problem: the physiology behind these system vary substantially, with sensitivity and intensity differing from person-to-person. With each of these dissimilarities, the body then mixes the information in particular proportions. In other words, the difference in taste between people grows by virtue of relational functions and reactions. I tested my own thresholds with the taste strips used in high school chemistry classes. I am very high on the bitter scale but average to low on sour, which skews my thresholds for sweetness, saltiness, and umami. As Bob Holmes so eloquently states, “chances are that no two people (except, perhaps, identical twins) share exactly the same sense of smell and taste, so everyone lives in their own unique flavor world”

Adding another layer to the problem here, the chemistry of coffee is complex. I have an ongoing project with the University of Toronto about the Chemistry behind third-wave or modern coffee. Here is a slide with some preliminary results:

Through our research we fund that it is a hugely difficult to answer the simple question: ‘why does this taste this way?’ The study has shown that seven seconds (seven seconds!) is all it takes to drastically change the reactions responsible for taste. So as much as the ‘roasting black box’ suggests a neutral or easily repeatable operation: there is likely a lot more going on than we presume. 

We use taste notes as a way to explain the value of coffee. We use it to make the proposition that people pay more for coffee. At stake, our employment in a new(ish) industry and the ability to pay producers living wages. Maybe even, gasp, prices above living wages. However, we actually experience flavour through the complex operations of smell tied to things like the retro-nasal passageway, which means we are reliant on our own individual physiology and subjectively baises. Made all the worse, coffee roasting is a massive mess of reactions meaning two batches are rarely going to be alike.

For Latour, black boxes exist on all levels in endless forms but they encounter danger if we start ‘paying too much attention’. They lose their operational power. When taste notes fail to actually perform the task of the value proposition, the black box unfurls.

If I could return to Latour, a black box is anything –an idea, a theory, an object, an action – that is so firmly established, we take its interior mechanics for granted. When we present the black box of taste notes, we might understand them and we might be able to experience them using an ek43, specific water, and the knowledge of how to best brew. But what if you use a blade grinder, an old brewer, or water from a well? Herein lies the problem because when we make tastes notes the key crux of value, we turn the entire thing into a pass/fail exercise. If you do not taste them, you either blame yourself (I am not sure how to brew) or you do not believe the coffee actually offers these illusive flavours (they forgot to add peach). 

A brewer who spent over twenty dollars on a bag of coffee and was promised fruit and dessert but gets harsh char, sour pith, and a cup that ultimately tastes like nothing might walk away saying “I don’t get it”. And then, all those other ways we make the value proposition begincompounding: these cold spaces of barn wood and subway tile, the snobbish or intimidating attitudes, and lukewarm, grapefruit-laced swan drinks are not actually offering what they are selling: “this does not taste like peaches” and “I actually don’t know what bergamot is…”

As Latour states, a failing black box allows other alliances and competing networks of black boxes to move in and become the new ‘low maintenance accepted standard. If you think about the double-double, it has so much locked-in that is not reliant on the actual coffee. The product focuses on what is added to it: sugar and milk. In terms of flavour, we have two complimentary tastes: bitter and sweet (plus the bonus of a creamy mouthfeel). That’s not enough? Your cup is a lottery ticket! Still not enough? We will layer it with campaigns of nostalgia and the ease of geographic ubiquity.  There is no test or confusion in unlocking a coffee’s potential, just a very cheap and always the same experience.

Unlike Tim Hortons, our value proposal is flawed. Given that flavour is not universal, everyone tastes and understands flavour differently; taste notes then often narrow the experience rather than opening it up. They can shut down and misrepresent. With black boxes lending authority, the fault always lands on the one making coffee. So how do we solve this problem?

Well I would say the best route is honesty. Not every plant, crop, shipment, roast, extraction, brew, or pour can be perfect. We end up doing a disservice to the other links in the chain when we pretend we are faultless. I will stand up here as the voice as my brand new, vulnerable, tiny roast company and say: not every batch I roast is great. I try so hard – so obsessively hard – but on a long enough timeline, I will inevitably fail and become the weak link in the chain between producer and café. And I say this only half-apologizing because I think in over-representing our abilitiesin these – scientifically proven – complex systems we perpetuate a falsehood that does a detrimental job of getting producers more money; it opens our black box and strips its power.  How else can we solve this problem? 

I want to pay producers as much as I can, hence me constantly communicating and stressing origin’s importance. And maybe, I am the problem as a gatekeeper. Rather than using tools like diatribes or taste notes to signal value, we amplify the voices of producers. We create new ways for those who grow coffee to speak to those who drink coffee. In codifying what specialty coffee is though white tile, pour-overs, reclaimed wood, and flat whites, the bearded and tattooed cis-white male has became synonymous with coffee – be it roaster, owner, or barista. And if they are the ones who make the value proposition, that might be the very root of the problem. 

So! Let’s amplify origin and create more holistic systems. Let’s question whose voices are continually taking space and who they are pushing out. Let’s think about how spaces and design can better make the value proposition. Lastly, let’s do more things like this where we talk about taste and the politics of taste. Let’s not always compete or make drinks to throw out. Allow me say this: we know the input – great and wonderful and special coffee. To move forward as an industry, let’s create more effective models to frame or establish the output. I totally believe in the value proposition: people should pay more for coffee. I am hoping that we can find new ways to better make the pitch. Thank-you.”

I must say, looking forward to SSOB:2! 


Trust the Process,  
Lee Knuttila