Last week, I posted the first part of my Masterclass on Coffee Appreciation from the amazing TH3rd Wave’s Escape Pop-Up in Montreal. I asked a simple question: what makes coffee exceptional beyond our subjective or personal favourite qualities? For the majority of coffee history the answer has been uniformity. Bitter dark roasts in the first wave and then variations on them in the second with whipped toppings or flavoured syrups. Now the dramatic(ish) conclusion…
“The cogs that power third wave coffee dramatically swing the central values or attributes for quality in the cup. Rather than uniformity in product or simply focusing on a predetermined set of roast degrees, we celebrate the unique and the totally unpredictable possibilities for flavour! The reason we see taste notes gain such prominence on bags and in cafes is because they are inexorably tied to the core quality that binds the entire third wave together: the elusive and one-of-kind taste experience extending from and illuminated by origin. After roasting for so many years, this novelty of surprise has not faded.
Granted not all cups or roasts are created equal. Universal notes are unfortunately possible and often present in the third wave. I have posted this before but I think it helps to visualize:
If there is severe under-development you will have bitter or astringent notes of things like bread or celery. Nutty notes are hard because they can swing the other way but the waxy dry bite of a nut is typically under. We push development slightly more, we have citrus and tea. Keep pushing and we get question marks: it could be fruit, it could be berry, it could be lush sugars like maple. However, if we keep chugging along on the roast curve, we cancel out those unknown flavours and get cocoa and burnt sugars; go to the end of the line and it will be cinnamon, clove, roast, all the sharp notes of char. A journey from bitter to sour to sweet and back to bitter.
One note here: I am by no means belittling the sour notes of citrus, the sweet-sour zing of berry, nor the sweet-bitterness of pastry or cocoa; when profiling, you need to find a landing spot and if you are aiming of the flavours unique to origin you will typically have some of those universal tastes associated with being just slightly under or slightly over.
What I hope to illuminate in this tour is the way third wave coffee opens-up a space for the unique. It is simple – but also super interesting because this is what makes specialty coffee so special! No two cups are necessarily alike; instead each coffee is unique and as I constantly repeat: each cup quietly tells a story. In place of the first wave process of elimination and destruction, we move away from habit and the singular.
So allow me to conclude my masterclass today with an argument on why the unique matters. In 1873, Walter Pater wrote a History of Renaissance and concludes with a call to live a passionate life. He argues: “To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame – to maintain this ecstasy – is success in life. In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world”. In other words, at our best we foster a burning desire to experience something beyond our usual habits.
He continues, “and meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes two persons, things, situations, seem alike. While all melts under our feet – we may well grasp at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artist’s hands, or the face of one’s friend. Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening.”
Sadly, this doesn’t fit on a coffee bag but I think it is fair to borrow Paters ideas to celebrate the unique, those things that surprise the senses. Today is Sunday and if you think what you did last week you might have some memory. It gets a bit more difficult is you try to do every Sunday in June; it becomes a real challenge, if I ask what you did every Sunday last February; how about five years ago? It’s easy to say that is simply how the ebb and flow of life is and memory is fleeting but it gets a little more troubling when you think about the Sundays ahead of you because there is a set amount. Pater, like many romantic writers, constantly reminds us that we are all ephemeral, finite, and temporal beings. Accordingly, we should not lose our sense of curiosity. As he says the face of a friend, the lifting horizon of ideas and the stirring of the senses.
Here we arrive at the love portion of coffee. Coffee can be this magical, ever-new thing. Moreover, to build upon unique elements in the cup, the way we experience flavour and taste varies person-to-person. Everyone has different levels of sensitivity and intensity; and with each of these dissimilarities, the body then mixes the information from its receptors in particular proportions. As Bob Holmes 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”. So the cup becomes not only a way to experience the unique but it becomes acommunal touchstone to experience otherness – to incrementally challenge the closed self and open up to the world.
My parting words: we often talk about terroir in the abstract but I think we should always ground it in labour. My argument today was this: the overarching formal qualities of coffee shift from universality to uniqueness across the coffee waves. It is a movement away from hiding labour to highlighting labour. When we taste elements of varietal it is because someone planted and picked it; when we think about processing, we are thinking about the work of de-pulping and pushing beans, loading tanks and arranging drying beds. One of my pet peeves is when people disparage naturals saying the elements of terroir are less present; you are simply tasting a different profile from a variation in labour.
And I think to appreciate coffee is to appreciate the labour. The real problem with dark roasts is the erasure of place, story and people. Conversely, the real wonder of well-grown, well-roasted, well-extracted coffee is to go beyond the self to what Pater calls the “splendor of experience”; to immerse ourselves in a distinctive and elusive sensory world, linked to where a coffee is from and the work that goes into every bean. Drink the coffee you love but also leave room to break habit. For Pater, the power of the unique for is breaking apart the habit which accelerates fleeting time. And after all, we only have so many Sundays left, let’s not waste them on bad coffee.”
Trust the Process,