There has been a push of new subscribers as of late, so allow me to do a brief, ‘what is this?‘ The whole ‘Ask Lee’ as rants/thoughts/blogs started back in the early Cut Coffee days. Having shifted from barista to roaster, I was deep diving into the science and lore around coffee and seeking answers on how farm-level choices, varietals, processing, roast styles or brew philosophies all impacted the cup’s final flavour. This ignited fervor boiled over into conversations with café owners, baristas, roasters, and coffee enthusiasts. Rather than cordoning off this chatter in isolated circles, I started including them as a Q&A in the weekly wholesale offer sheets!
It’s since become a different beast: a mixing of philosophy and all things in coffee I find interesting, while retaining the q&a format (meaning if you have a question about anything, please do ask!) and this week I am going to tackle a tricky one I have been getting a lot this year: “how is quietly?”
Why tricky, you might be asking? The whole experience has been equal measures pleasure and pain. I am working harder than I have my entire life. Sure, the PhD was a slog and I did my time in dish pits as a teen but between production, packing, shipping, accounting, communication and maintenance, there are major Sisyphus vibes at the roaster. However, this labour is also hugely gratifying! One of my go-to lines about my Quietly vision is that ‘I am sourcing and roasting the coffee I want to drink’. If it fails under this mandate, then people don’t want that same cup and that is honestly fine, because I tried. If it works, it means I’m hitting upon something shared, which is amazing!
To really speak to ‘how Quietly is’, I want to detour to one of my favourite photographers: Nan Goldin. I would have been taking a first year Art History or Film course when I stumbled upon her work, ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency‘, and it honestly it has never left me. Throughout her career, she has produced intimate, touching, alluring and tragic portraits of people in precarious worlds and liminal spaces outside dominant culture. I stress the personal in her work because it is omnipresent and devastatingly impactful; as she writes, “it is not a detachment to take a picture” rather “it’s a way of touching somebody—it’s a caress”.
So you might be asking, what does one of the world’s greatest photographers have to do with Quietly? Well, over the last 40 years, Goldin has documented the aids crisis, people struggling with substance abuse, marginalized LGBTQ communities, and sex workers through a lens that always champions the power of commonality. Against a history of street photographers who often sensationalized or de-personalized their subjects, Goldin’s work focuses heavily on moments of friendship and closeness.
And here is the connection: working in our industry is tough. For someone who came of age skateboarding and listening to punk, being a small business owner feels really, really weird. It is easy to say ‘historically coffee relied on exploitation’ but there are currently huge problems, imbalances and inequalities across the board in coffee and they are only getting worsened by the price crisis and climate change. From that macro to my micro, I frequently encounter the idea that Quietly should be growing exponentially. That I should be sending bags to every shop and populating every shelf. Because this is the logic of capitalism, we exponentially expand. We should all be Tim Horton’s or else we are not doing well.
In an age of social media, it becomes even harder to escape the internalized doubt and pressures of such market logic. Honestly, scrolling the Instagram feed often makes me feel awfully small against those massive third wave roasters who are trendily omnipresent and occasionally tasty. Every post or story is a small suggestion which imparts a spiral of self doubts: maybe I should roast more like this company, maybe we could brew that company, maybe our cafe should look more like these companies, my milk pour sucks, my cup tastes bad. So how is Quietly? Well – we all diminish ourselves, as we shred and fall apart, against the turbulent forces of late stage capital. I am really great at small talk…
And yet when I see Goldin’s work, I feel better because it illustrates so well the immense power of community and how closeness between people transcends situation and circumstance. One thing that I am constantly drawn to in her work is the use of blurred focus. Take for example these pieces:
The blur is simple formal element often associated with amateur or home photos. It brings you into the spaces with those people captured by Goldin. It becomes yet another way she stresses humanity or the opening of the self to otherness. She cribs an association of imperfection and the everyday to accentuate how community can become the way we can save ourselves and the ones we love – despite the world.
This might all be coming together now: Quietly is great because I can foster these really rewarding relationships and have community, and that operates in defiance of our economic system built upon inequality. In the last couple weeks, one of my oldest friends Derek opened Hamers Coffee and he is currently brewing Yabitu Koba. Sam, Ed and Mads, who I met during my barista days, are offering up Neja Fadil over at their brand new shop Happy: Coffee & Wine. They join the small group of others who have picked my roasts in a world of options and a tendency towards a select set of ‘name brand’ third wave roasters. I have the great honour of seeing them connect and cultivate their own interconnected worlds – cup by cup.
Circle building is a small way I deal with the angst of operating a business and the dread associated with late stage capital. Like the blurred focus in Goldin’s photos, it does not signal a solution to the myriad of ways equality is erased but does mark a slight, momentary escape from our material circumstances. In Goldin’s work, we do not overcome tragedy; but by opening up to otherness or the world outside the self, we can gain agency against a doomed future. To take a cue from her, we should be vigilante and seek a culture in coffee configured around those voices that are excluded and precluded from our dominant culture; the culture so perfectly aligned to the market logic of capital.
So, how is Quietly? As Nan Goldin’s work so brilliantly illuminates, it is as good as as those I get to call my community.
Trust the Process,