Next week, I am chairing a panel at East Coast Coffee Madness in Montreal. If you are free next Saturday, please join! The topic is on a deceptively simple topic: “make coffee better”. I have been really pondering this proposal between batches and while weighing bags all week. And it’s led me back to Friedrich Nietzsche of all places. So this week we ask: what is “good”, “bad” and “evil” in coffee?
By sheer chance I ended up taking a lot of university courses with guest appearances by Friedrich Nietzsche. Full disclosure: I think he mostly sucks. However for this pitch of ‘making coffee better’, I want to start with what is “good” in coffee and Nietzsche provides a sturdy framework. In his work the Genealogy of Morals, he explores “the value of values themselves”. That is, he wants to “investigate the origin and concept of the judgement ‘good’”.
For Nietzsche, ‘good’ historically starts with those in power. With predilections towards violence and physical dominance, the warrior becomes ‘good’ mostly because they were sovereign oppressors. By way of their positions of power, they could proclaim themselves ‘good’ and conflate their qualities of wealth or strength with ‘goodness’. Moreover, they were defined against those below them: those poor and destitute people who were labeled ‘bad’ (what Nietzsche calls the Pathos of Distance).
These terms shift as Judeo-Christian religious leaders or the “priestly caste” gain cultural prominence. Good/bad changes from strong/weak to pure/impure. To be good is to abstain from sex, violence, and gluttony. Thus, the once ‘good’ aristocratic warrior becomes ‘bad’. So then what is good? Well, there is a complete inversion and it is the qualities of meekness celebrated in the “poor and wretched” that become good. As Nietzsche writes, the “good man” is “dyed in another color, interpreted in another fashion, seen in another way”.
If we were to construct a similar historic account in coffee, where would the ‘good’ start? In terms of the proliferation of the ‘first wave’ with coffee into homes, we have functional consumption. The demarcation between a bad and good cup would be first and foremost one that delivers caffeine. With the secondary qualities surrounding the quantity, intensity and consistency of flavour. Given the rate at which dark roast fades, it makes sense that so much of the marketing was about freeze drying or the seal on a tin. The ‘good’ is a strong cup that lasts and, of course, is affordable. While the characteristics associated with ‘bad’ are low impact flavours that dissipate on the shelf, vary in taste, and cost too much.
As we exit the kitchen and head to the java-house in the second wave, the ‘good’ arises from personalization and pleasure. The best cups were defined by one’s individual choices: this origin, this roast level, these syrups, these toppings, steamed at this temperature. The hand scrawled customer name on the cup works as perfect embodiment of the value system in which the variations in beverage rule supreme. There is a certain sense of reaction and distinction against the first wave in the cafe or coffee shop and ‘bad‘ really flows from the cheap tin; an inability to find pleasure or differentiate the cup becomes a negative trait.
While a coffee’s origin begins to begins to appear in the Second Wave, it remains quite vague: listing countries and sometimes regions but rarely producers or farms. The major shift in the third wave is transparency and celebration of the cup through appreciation of the seed. In many ways we see a shift similar to the one charted by Nietzsche because it moves from a good/bad based on quality, namely taste and flavour, towards a more ethical sense of good/evil, stemming from the growing, harvesting, processing, roasting, and brewing of coffee. The trend starting with fair trade through to direct trade heavily focus the coffee experience around a new notion that ‘good’ correlates to ethical sourcing, while bad cups were those reliant on exploitation. Of course, ‘good’ as in quality or taste is a core part of the narrative but it is the result of ethical agricultural and purchasing practices. In other words, unique and delicious cups are a consequence of good/ethical sourcing.
I would argue that the transformation of a morality centered on end product (caffeine consumption, unwavering taste profiles, coffee as component drink ingredient) to a morality invested in the people, places and systems that facilitate such a sensory experience is positive. And the reason I bring in Nietzsche is that you can see a similar reversal to the one in Genealogy of Morals at play here: those cups which are always the same, roasted to eliminate origin, and are impossibly cheap move from good to bad. And yet, I rant today because we seem to be losing ground and returning from good/evil coffee and to good/bad coffee…
Direct Trade has a lot of issues (a topic explored in past dispatches), which has resulted in justified critical reflection within coffee. However, the industry seems to be drifting away from conversations rooted in producer relationships. Increasingly, the dominant narrative around ‘good’ focuses on auction lot coffee, high cupping scores, and fermentation. For the unfamiliar, auction lots are coffees in which a very small set of coffees are put on auction for massive per pound pricing. Cupping scores are a way to determine a coffees price per pound through a standardized score system. And variations in processing these days range from those borrowed from wine (like carbonic maceration) to those based on specific anaerobic bacteria (like lactic fermentation). What is missing in so many of these is: the people who grew the coffee!
These conversations focus solely on the quantifiable aspects of taste in the cup resulting from abstracted concepts: auction-houses, numbered scores, and or microbiological processes. It is extraordinarily worrying that we are witnessing another reversal in which the ethical disappears and the good/bad become overwhelming about the sensory traits in the cup. Consequently, the cup as vessel for storytelling, connection, and the unique elements of place also falls out of view.
The notion of ‘good’ coffee it is an ongoing, ever-changing battle and as we approach whatever the forth-wave will be, I hope it is producer-facing. Anything less in an age of climate change and environmental crisis, is not just irresponsible, it just plain ‘bad’ in the truest sense of the word. So as much as we yearn to shift to minimal design in bags, a focus on taste notes over origin information, or just buying the highest scoring, wildest fermented coffees, it can be historically regressive and very troubling moral ground.
(To be continued at ECCM!)
Trust the Process,