Last weekend, the lovely folks at Th3rd Wave invited me to give a Masterclass in Montreal. My talk was an amalgamation of many of the arguments made in the last year or so of Ask Lee, so I thought it would make sense to post it here! Part One:

“Before coffee, I taught courses at York University and am going to crib from those days to explore the idea of ‘Coffee Appreciation’. You may have taken Art or Music Appreciation 101. I always ended up teaching the Film version. The start of the term was inevitably dedicated to separating student’s favourite films (always a bleak and ubiquitous two-way tie between Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan) from those whose formal language, or particular place in a cinematic movement, or political content made them special. So allow me to ask a simple question with this Masterclass: is there a way to frame coffee with this same lens (how can I not make the film pun)? That is, can we separate our personal favourite cups from those whose qualities and traits makes them exceptional

You might be saying, ‘Lee: we have cupping scoring sheets with measurements for things like acidity, sweetness, or body’. It is true there are multiple systems in place to rank coffee, typically for financial ends. In fact, the majority of the economics of coffee are driven by green cupping scores. And yet, just as the Metacritic or Rotten tomatoes algorithms may not actually list the “best” movies, the score sheet is a simply an abstracted number in a closed system. An ’88’ does not explain why a coffee is great. Nor does it make a case as to why we should pay more for it. There is no huge divide between 87 and 88 with trash on one side and gold on the other. One thing cupping scores certainly can do is gate-keep. Rather than bringing in more people to the specialty world, it is a another way intimidate with less than approachable conceptual jargon. 

So then how do we talk about the exceptional beyond numbers? Much of the school year was dedicated to history: talking about the sets in German Expressionism or editing in Soviet Montage or play in French New Wave.Context as a way to understand cultural value. So let’s travel back in coffee’s recent past and ask: what formal qualities are conflated with quality? In the first wave, it is a pretty easy case to say uniformity was at the top of the list. Nabob or Folgers success was (and continues to be) creating a product that tastes the same cup-after-cup, morning-after-morning. The cup becomes part of a ritual with a very reliable taste profile dominated by intense bitterness and notes of roast and ash.

We might all recoil in our seats but we should also remember a bitter flavour profile actually enhances perceived sweetness when you add sugar that is then mellowed out with an enhanced body with cream. The real issue goes beyond flavour because, while the marketing might suggest these “bold flavour notes” are for bold’s sake, roasting dark does a very effective thing: it hides origin. There is a point in roasting where you no longer have the flavours inherent to the green; instead you have the notes of the roast process itself. 

I like the analogy of pies. We could line up a strawberry pie, a pumpkin pie, and a peach pie. All three when baked perfectly will showcase all the beauty of berries, squash, and stone-fruits. However, burn all the three and you will have a hard time separating the plates beyond (perhaps) visuals. Not a delicious dessert. Yet, what if you were trying to hide rather than celebrate the fruit? Much of the history of dark roast is about disguising the flavours of the bean because they were not seeking those qualities we associate with ‘tasting terroir’ today. It is easy to get into the headspace that the notes of origin are innately great and it is the job of the roaster and brewer to ‘unlock’ or ‘open the window’ to where a coffee is from; but that only works when where its from is also great. If you recall the fad of flavored coffee in the Nineties, the behind-the-scenes story revolves around corporate globalization and aggressive push to farm robusta in Vietnam. Without French vanilla or hazelnut: the flavour notes were … tires, rubber ties. Thus, roasting dark continues to be a way to create cups whose formal qualities build upon uniformity and consistency; we are seeking a burst of bitter that will get sweetened and diluted. But the real hidden story is that ethically, it (more often than not) signals a problematic chain of exploitation.

In the second wave – I should pause here – for those unfamiliar with the waves, a brief primer: we often think as these as separate historical periods but it is more about overlapping coffee worlds or viewpoints. The first wave is functional consumption of caffeine. Think tins of Maxwell house, personalities like Juan Valdez, technologies like drip machines or instant coffee, and scoops upon scoops of pre-ground but vacuum-packed coffee.

In the Second wave, we have companies like Peets and Starbucks. These initially small companies re-focused the industry on the artisan elements: namely roast style and espresso preparations. In many ways, the second wave marks a return to coffee’s roots (wave zero?) in the European espresso bar. A core element of the wave’s crest is massive expansion with global proliferation of the 90’s mocca or java house (the backdrop of many sitcoms). The ‘formal quality’ that rises to the top stems from enjoyment. Think about the fun of a unicorn Frappuccino, expansive menus with ceaseless options, or the layering of whipped cream and glue-like, corn-syrup based toppings. The focus is on the preparation. The end point is about what we add to coffee. 

The third wave extends the concerns of the second. Origin in the third wave means farms and cooperative rather than generalized continents. It builds upon ‘specialty grade’ level coffee, meaning those who typically score over 80 points. The coffee chain falls into the picture and we think less about adding caramel or getting jacked on caffeine and more about the story behind the cup. About all the elements starting with soil, the rain and sun; a particular plant varietal budding and ripe cherries being picked; to the intricate play of processing and fermentation; with shipping and the intense chemistry of roasting and finally that time to shine on stage at the café.”

SO! We in the first wave the sameness and uniformity provide the criteria for a great cup. In the second wave, the base coffee largely remain the same but there is a shifting towards the minutia of the drink (flavours, toppings, textures, etc), in which the value of the unique begins to bud. The question arises: what happens in the third wave? That is: what is the formal quality that makes specialty coffee, special? 

Next time on Ask Lee…


Trust the Process,  
Lee Knuttila