I have dedicated a great deal of virtual ink to the idea of the ‘value proposition’. Essentially that the market mechanics behind the Third Wave rely on people paying more for coffee (at all points in the chain). As an industry we make this pitch in several ways: through quality markers like latte art, or design choices that signal an elevated guest experience, or taste notes to demarcate the cup from your typical tin of grocery store fare.

None of which are perfect, as explored here, but I want to once again visit the topic because I have been revisiting one of my favourite writers: Susan Sontag

She has no shortage of spectacularly flawless essays but it was “Against Interpretation” that really had me pondering coffee this week. In the essay, Sontag explores the relationship between the work of art and the critic. She argues that at its core, art is ‘magical’ and ‘incantatory’ but the experience quickly runs ashore because from Plato onward, we start asking the value of art. We demand that art ‘do’ something and use criticism as a way to parcel out the ‘true’ meaning of art or to explain art’s worth. 

She cites Kafka as an example, saying the actual texts become secondary to the way we ‘understand’ them through allegory: be it a social, psychoanalytic or religious reading about bureaucracy, paternal anxiety, or higher moral law. In place of the transcendent experience, we supplement interpretation. She is not suggesting we no longer seek meaning or turn to the artists to appeal for intention, but rather perform criticism that engages with the work rather than replacing it. We “recover our senses”, seek immediacy and engagement, rather than always disappear into the “shadow world” of “meanings”. 

So coffee? Value proposition? Coherent thoughts? Well, this month’s dispatch is inspired by Sontag’s vivid case for the grandeur of experiencing art. If you are reading this, chances are you like coffee, likely even love coffee. I was up early this morning hauling wood and getting the woodstove going here at the farmhouse and afterwards I sat down with a fresh cup of Gera. It was syrupy, sweet, and the perfect respite from the bite of predawn chill. I anchor my flavour impressions in memory: so, it was like the spoonful of lemon curd the pastry chef would sneak me during my bartender days, the smell of Mom’s earl grey tea-tin when opening the cupboard door, and the warm bite of a strawberry snuck from the backyard garden in the too-short Saskatchewan Summer. 

In that morning dim, waiting for the fire to warm the room, I realized I was simply enjoying coffee without the purposeful analytic work that I perform at the cupping table or doing a quality control dial-in. I put aside all the ways I too frequently make coffee not about coffee: sorting through spreadsheets of green scores, filling a whiteboard with development time protocols or saying things like “the acidity in this cup balances but does have a sharp edge”. I am not alone, we are in a moment where the conversations about coffee surround auction prices or carbonic maceration or q-scores. There is little space for the cup in front of us – it is all abstracted. Thus, we run into a major obstacle because if we are asking people to pay more for coffee, we are using these industry-specific concepts that shade rather than illuminate the cup.

So then is turning to those magical citrus, tea, and berry notes the best way to make the proposition? It would make sense given I had such a sublime moment of appreciation. Yet, we run into a wall here too because flavour is not universal, which has been a frequent topic here (see: this series). Communicating the value in Gera with the memory of respite from eating a glossy square of lemon curd during a Friday night restaurant rush does little. Especially, if you never worked at Regina’s ‘The Mediterranean Bistro’ (realizing that name was a bit of a geographic stretch). The prescriptive nature of taste notes often pre-frame flavour experience. By providing very explicit expectations, we narrow experience to an evaluation of validity. This does taste like grapefruit; this does not taste like cane sugar. There is very little space or room for actual engagement beyond those who first establish the notes on the bag.

Sontag outlines two encampments of critics. On one hand, the formalist readings, which focus on elements of form; think lighting and framing in a movie, or stroke and colour in a painting. On the other hand, there is content-driven criticism, which seeks meaning from elements of story and character. For example, searching for elements of class or poverty to enact a Marxist reading or probing for seeds of trauma to do a character-based psychoanalytic reading. One of the underlying points propelling Sontag’s essay is that there is a danger in any singular focus because it overtakes the much larger landscape. As she writes, they can “deplete the world – in order to set up a shadow world of meanings. It is to turn the world into this world”. And in many ways, there is similar tendency in coffee…

The value proposition often falls into two somewhat similar categories. Say I place a cup before you and as you peer into the radiant, crimson black liquid, you ask, “what I am I drinking”. I could do a content-based explanation that relies on the information of origin. I could talk about land ownership, farm history, agricultural approach, varietal, tree age, processing, importer ethos and so on. Conversely, I could focus on the formal aspects of the coffee and speak about its sour, sweet, and bitter tastes, as well as its more complicated flavour profile of fruit, berries, vegetables, or savory charred bits.

These two core approaches are clear given the hefty weight most shops place on either taste notes or individual aspects of origin (namely novel forms of processing or the isolated world of auction lots).  And it comes at a cost of the magical transcendent – dare I say artful – moment of sensory experience tied to the unique elements of origin. To borrow from Sontag, we can find meaning in “the luminousness of the thing in itself”. So, if we start with this moment: how do we properly communicate or build upon it? The problem with these very slender and limited approaches of either form or content is that we block out the interconnected reasons that coffee is valuable. Restricted approaches hide the very core reality that it is the labour behind the cup, which is responsible for the flavours in the cup.

To properly communicate Gera’s worth, there must be space for your own sensory experience (your flavour memories, your sense of sweetness, how coffee fits into your day), which can then connect to Faysel Abdosh’s washing station and his agricultural approach to growing coffee. If we rely on both form and content, we tie the cup to how community builds around Gera station, the Jimma Agricultural Research Center’s varietals, and the numerous ways fermentation, young trees, and rich soil contribute to the flavour. 

“Against Interpretation” ends with Sontag calling for balance. As she states, “for I am not saying that works of art are ineffable, that they cannot be described or paraphrased.” Rather that we need to “recover our senses” because “we must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more experience”. Thus, let’s create more room for interpretation of the cup from a plethora of voices and erode the singular authority of taste notes. Then link form to content and always connect the ‘felt sensory experience’ to the people, choices, labour and places responsible at origin. Balance, equality, and exploration: the new value proposition. 


Trust the Process,  
Lee Knuttila