Kyle from Soul Chocolate sent me a lovely message, “When you mention ‘Trust the Process’ I think of what that means for me, and how it extends to my daily life. Some days are tough admittedly and trusting the process allows me to feel it’s all gonna be okay! So my question is ‘What does ‘Trust the Process’ Mean to you?”
I have been using ‘Trust the Process’ for a long while in my email dispatches but by no means can I take credit for it. It originates with the world’s best basketball team: the Philadelphia 76ers! (I know, I know, I am cheering hard for the raptors but I have rooted for the Sixers all my life and I don’t want to be disingenuous) So back in 2013, the then newly appointed General Manager Sam Hinkie stated, “we talk a lot about process – not outcome – and trying to consistently take all the best information you can and consistently make good decisions”. The team tanked his first year at the helm. Yet the fan base frequently extolled their trust in his vision. Six months later with the team in full rebuild mode, the two phrases merged into the now iconic: Trust the Process.
I am certainly no basketball GM, so why throw (pass? shoot?) around the phrase? Well, I feel like it is the perfect summary to how I approach my everyday in coffee. As an industry, we love to isolate certain cogs in the machine: “this barista makes amazing espresso”, “this roasting company is always on point”, “this auction lot coffee is incredible!” Despite capitalism forever celebrating the individual, it is never one distinct part that makes the whole.
Time to call in one of my favourite bench players: Bruno Latour! I love that he rejects thinking about the world in abstracts and instead insistswe follow objects, people, and things through the world. What does this mean? Well, think about coffee: it is a problem when we summarize or make it small. It a living plant that grows and produces a fruit. It is picked (or not) and then makes it way down any number of plinko-eque routes to end up processed and shipped to a roaster. We blast a bunch of these green seeds with heat and air and dump them in a bag. Finally, a barista breaks and smashes them apart, dump water on the shards, and serves up coffee. Yum!
For Latour, such a journey from plant to mug is full of ‘actors’ or ‘actants’. It may seem obvious but he stresses the world is made of real things andreal people. Not to go too inside baseball (or mix sporting metaphors) but he rejects a long tradition of philosophy abstracting the world into concepts, essences, substances or theories. He wants to put everything on a level playfield (or court?) and examine how all actants enlist ‘allies’ to form ‘alliances’. Take, for example, his book The Pasteurization of France. It recounts Louis Pasteur’s campaign for anthrax vaccination in France. Rather than a typical lightbulb moment of invention or discovery that leads to adaptation worldwide, Latour surveys all the varied actors involved. Be it the reworking of laboratory language, the diverse groups of farmers to army doctors enlisted in the cause, or how things like public hygiene and colonialism play integral parts in Pasteur’s movement.
When I say ‘Trust the Process’, I am motioning towards the huge networkof people and things that starts with a flowering fruit tree and ends in my cup. Latour becomes especially useful as the ethics of coffee are dependent upon your alliances. It is easy to speak of terroir in terms of sunshine, rainfall, or soil composition; however, the question of whether the labour force that picks coffee is paid hourly or by weight is similarly vital. It is very interesting to explore fermentation experiments; but, maybe we can talk about water diversion and waste in the same breath because they are relationally interconnected? How about we align conversations about getting rid of single use plastic at a café with those at the roaster about bags, boxes, chaff and grainpro bags. In other words, ‘the Process’ is a way to frame the entire picture: all of the component people, places, things, and choices that form the large assemblage that is coffee. A way for me to understand that any person or company or cup is the sum of its alliances.
As of late, a running response to the frequently asked “why did you start quietly” has been “I had no choice”. It’s half joke, half serious – because you need to be accountable for every small part of your network. It is easy to advertise the marco: the producers, the roasting space, the cafe and the cup. Yet through the lens of Latour, the mirco is equally a piece of the puzzle: what are the footprints of your shipping containers, what are the wages at the dry mill, do you have diversity in staff, who makes your tape, what’s your importer’s stance on the c-market, do you charge extra for oat milk, what’s the last thing you put in a trash can?
Coffee is hard. It’s an organic material that will always be beyond you. You have an idea of what is good or bad and you likely grow, buy, roast, and brew with that notion in mind. But it will always drift. I started Quietly with a Probat. I had no experience roasting on one and I was unaware of its sensitivities, its nuances, its quirks. I have since added five thermoprobes, had the gas line re-installed, and repeatedly scraped my rules of roasting. That is process. It is knowing that the coffee I have sourced is amazing and I need to step up to make sure those people brewing it have the best possible roast.
AND really ‘Trusting My Process’ demands that I can zoom out on my entire alliance and know it reinforces my notion of an ideal cup. It boggles my mind that I know so many companies that have non-recyclable bags when climate change is destroying coffee. Shops that refuse to grapple with systematic inequality at the level of staff representation but extol the virtues of diverse coffee menus. I mean Uline: people still use Uline! We will forever be battling the forces in our alliance: shipping containers that might run hot and damage beans, misaligned burrs that fail to create even distribution, customers who struggle with prices points because they cannot afford rent, too much or too little rain or trying to live ethically in late stage capital.
And yet, I Trust the Process. Half because I want to be honest and admit I do not roast the best coffee ever single batch and half because I am relentless in my pursuit to always roast better. As Hinkie muses, try “to consistently take all the best information you can and consistently make good decisions“.
Forever Trusting the Process,
PS: below is the OG Trust banner~!