A Coffee Carol: Part 2

Last year this time, I made the exciting announcement that I was starting Quietly by way of ‘The Coffee Carol’. It relied upon Charles Dicken’s famously festive story about the staunchly selfish and greedy Scrooge.

We all know his redemption arc initiated by an evening examining his past and glimpsing into his dire future. The vision of him dying alone and his accountability for a cavalcade of suffering, embodied by sickly Tiny Tim and the emancipated ‘children of man’, ignite a revelatory moral crisis. I evoked the tale’s spirit to try to talk about my goals with Quietly and use Scrooge’s epiphany to position ‘am I doing enough’ as a core driving question at Quietly. 

So let’s talk sequels! After ‘A Christmas Carol’, Dickens published ‘The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In’. And to repeat my disclaimer from last year, I have spent a good portion of my life hating on Dickens but have slowly/partially come around to his work. I guess sentimentality has a weird relationship with hyperbole.

‘The Chimes’ follows Toby Veck or ‘Trotty’ as he known for his brisk pace about town. Despite his steadfast work as a ticket-porter, Trotty struggles with debt and economic instability. Dickens sets up several conversations around topics like eating tripe, his daughter’s would-be marriage, and arresting vagrants to illustrate how – despite his kind heart – Trotty has a deeply ingrained view of poverty as a moral failing

Late one evening, the sounds of chimes draws Trotty to the Church. He climbs the belfry until he reaches the “shadowy, and dark, and dumb” bells and goblins (yes, goblins). They berate Trotty for his faithless view of humanity and alarmingly explain that he has fallen from the tower. As Dickens writes, “he looked down, and beheld his own form, lying at the bottom, on the outside: crushed and motionless”. Cue, the would-be visions of the future culminating in Trotty’s daughter about to drown her child and herself. Trotty is able to reach out and stop her, thus propelling his own moral re-alignment and will-to-change

And in a quite familiar twist, it is all a dream! But one that leaves its mark, as Toby realizes, “we must trust and hope, and neither doubt ourselves nor doubt the good in one another”. As the goblins (yes, goblins) demand, we listen to the ways we do the “chimes wrong” by ignoring the “the voice of time”, believing humanity to speak through “one note”, and “abandon” those “who have fell from good”. Or in other words, help in the present rather than nostalgically yearn for the past, reject flat visions of humankind, and offer help to those less fortunate in any-and-all ways. 

The reason I once again drag Dickens into ‘Ask Lee’ to poke a little fun (Scrooge 2! but what if the ghosts are goblins? And the rich are poor!) but mainly because I think Dickens has a point… 

While Dickens’ moral tale is explicitly pointed at the condemnation of the poor, the larger call to reject flat views of humanity is agelessly salient. The specialty coffee sphere is roughly the size of a half-consumed jaw-breaker and I often get caught up in the business side. I certainly indulged in anger this week, when I was forwarded an ‘about us’ which essentially copy/pasted my heart-felt (read: overwrought) vision for Quietly. I admit callousness in coffee group-chats, jeering at herbal notes standing in for vegetal descriptions or throwing shade at the deluge of holiday merch morphing roasters into hipster dollar stores. And to echo the last dispatch, it is tough not to relate to Trotty’s ingrained sense of worthlessness with the dominance of ‘big brand’ third wave roasters across the limited hoppers of our industry.

Last year, I was vowing to start Quietly under the guide of Dicken’s call ‘to do better’ and this year, I hope to ‘seek the good’ more. Find the joy, the fun, and the community united around coffee. Cast off the antagonistic qualities inherited from competition and instead forever seek the ceaseless delight and possibilities of the cup!

While I understand why we continually adapt and return to ‘a Christmas Carol’, there is one aspect of ‘the Chimes’ that surpasses the original. Rather than the exceptional and singular individual forced to scrutinize their humanity, Trotty’s encounter with the goblins is about a larger cultural examination. Unlike Jacob Marleys’ chains, which only haunt Scrooge’s isolated corridors, the sound of the chiming bells echoes throughout everyones’ homes. It is easy to demand that lone and powerful Scrooge change but it becomes a bit more difficult if responsibility lands on all those who hear the bells’ calls – everyone must answer the goblins’ ethical appeal. As Dickens writes, “A new heart for a New Year, always!” 

For the sequel to ‘A Coffee Carol’, I want to vow to seek the good but also do it through and with community. I want Quietly to be part of a relentless push to “neither doubt ourselves nor doubt the good in one another”. I am not sure what it looks like if we shift away from the transactional relationships between producers, importers, roasters and shops. Or, if we try to replace cold competition with collective efforts for betterment, education, and outreach. However, what is the worst that could happen if we approach every link in the chain with kindness and humanism in our hearts? It would certainly be better than just waiting on our collective coffee scrooge – be it starbucks or timmy’s or kraft’s blue bottle – to turn over a new leaf. 

It is the ‘always’ modifier in the ‘new year, new heart’ line that hits hard. Scrooge’s transformation is one-time and while a Christmas Carol ends with a hopefully vision that he is ‘better than his word’, I could easily see him sliding back in small increments, pound-by-pound and ledger-to-ledger. The radical and unrelenting ‘always’ does not allow any rest or respite. Shops: let’s do fun tastings and events to talk about origin. Roasters: let’s do neat roast-projects as partners. Drinkers: let me know how the industry fails you and let’s find some solutions.

I want to seek the good in as many ways as possible and I think that means listening to Dickens demand that we “bear in mind the stern realities from which the shadows come; and in your sphere – none is too wide, and none too limited for such an end – endeavor to correct, improve, and soften them”.

Happiest of holidays to all!

💓✨☕🙏

Trust the Process,  
Lee Knuttila