Coffee’s Institutional Memory

Last week, I celebrated one year of Quietly! It was Feb 28 that the very first batches roasted, bagged and delivered to shops. Since then time has been both swift and sluggish. There have been unceasing highs and lows. But it continues to be genuine fun to put my heart and mind into such an immense project.  What I have been reflecting upon at this one-year mark is the idea of institutional memory. It’s a way to describe a collective set of ideas, approaches, rules, or solutions that an organization builds over time and transmits through community members. 

For example, say three kitchens buy a similar model blender. Its included instructions provide the same set of guidelines for use. However, in the first kitchen it cannot be plugged into the same outlet as the mixer because the circuit breaks. In the second, if you are going to add a splash of cold water to help blend some greens, be sure to let the tap run because the first half minute will perpetually be scalding hot water. In the third, we aim to avoid using the blender during dinner service because its so close to the pass and drowns out ticket calls. 

While those included blender instructions may detail the various speed settings and maintenance schedule, they lack information on the particulars of finicky wiring, the inadvertent blanching of greens by a tap or how the restraints of space translate to the noisy blender being by the pass. These internal rules represent tiny segments of the respective kitchens’ institutional memories. Little bits of knowledge passed along through chefs, cooks, and dishwashers through quick chats, or whiteboard notes, or staff meetings. 

During my dissertation days, I enjoyed the concept as a way to talk about online communities; people who gain cultural capital within websites often will have both a deep memory of its values (jokes, memes, re-posts, etc.) as well as an ability to spread such beliefs. It is pretty easy to see the institutional memory of coffee. If you are an avid home-brewer, chances are you have a pour-over recipe, which includes a ratio of coffee-to-water, grind sizes and a timeline for steeping and blooming. We read the extracted coffee beds and confirm that our stir was perfect or that we agitated with too much vigor. Akin to those blender-filled kitchens, a V60 comes with a fairly limited set of instructions and the rest comes by way of our institutional memory for coffee brewing.

Moving to the café, these rule sets become a bit more rigid. Rather than individual approach, each shop has its institutional memory that prescribes dosage, time, grind, and so on. The way institutional memory is weaved into the coffee industry is part of the fun. We can taste a plethora of approaches or takes on a relatively simple set of menu drinks. A good city tour can provide endless reworkings of milk density in flat whites, filter brew strengths, or even the accoutrements of plating an espresso shot. Alternatively, think about all the roasters in the world using the same 12 Kilo Probats or 7 Kilo Diedrichs, it is through the choices like charge temperatures, roast time, airflow, and gas adjustments that flavour modulates and shifts company to company. Through variation and difference, we can showcase creativity and originality.  

And yet, here comes the classic Ask Lee … and yet, there is a negative aspect to third wave coffee’s institutional memory. When we talk about institutions, from government bodies to internet communities, each memory develops, subsists and persists in a different way. There is always an advantage to fostering change from the bottom up, that is, allowing all members of a community input into its knowledge base and culture. Conversely, a community built upon top-down governance is often far more reluctant to shift or adapt over time; instead, they steadfastly demand adherence to a set of unchanging practices, rules, and ideas. 

If you have ever slurped at a cupping table with me, you’ve likely heard my oft-repeated axiom, “you have been tasting your whole life, you are an expert”. Frequently those who lack experience in coffee will downplay their perceived knowledge or ability to taste for a simple reason: they don’t have access to its institutional memory. They do not know the internalized rule-sets, like bitterness as over-extraction or the grassy notes hinting at under-development, thus ignore their own very accurate and well-grounded sensory experience and defer to inferred expertise.

Those within coffee are not immune to this stifling effect. Many roasters and shops enact monolithic parameters of good and bad flavour, with little room for experimentation or variation. I’ve experienced this at the cupping table, I’ve seen baristas shift to new work environments and undergo the change, and I’ve even seen companies brag about it on social media: “we have an unwavering institutional memory that ignores individual experience, please like this post”.  

We can talk about institutional knowledge in cascading interconnected worlds. Each shop or roaster contains their own on but they are collectively part of the  larger institution of Third Wave or Specialty (or however you want to demarcate it). One that is stating to show its age and one that increasingly operates from that top-down model. It is a shop with identical architectural features, using the same approach to service and offering a pre-set handful of roasters (there has to be a good ‘throw a mug and hit the side of a shop that serves the Barn’ joke in here somewhere). It is roasters who are unwavering in approach and demand the exact same profiles in the cup. It is refusing to go beyond a slim group of importers to forge new relationships throughout the coffee growing world. It is a cement that is setting-in deep and enabling a singular sense of ‘good coffee’ to flourish. 

According to French Philosopher Jacques Rancière, we often build models that rely on a distance between a teacher and would-be ignoramus student with the “lessons and exercises set to gradually reduce the gulf”. However, the distance is perpetual. When you finish a first-year course, you are reset into a position of ignorance come the start of the second year. Rancière writes, “the schoolmaster is no only one who processes the knowledge unknown by the ignoramus. They are the one who knows how to make it an object of knowledge”. That is, they can bundle the world into sets of formulas, or ideas, or histories that become the markers for knowledge. However, what this model ignores for Rancière is that “there is no student who does not already know a mass of things, who has not learnt them by herself, by listening and looking around her, by observation and repetition, by being mistaken and correcting her errors”. 

When it comes to experience of tasting, we all have long, complicated, and wonderful histories and understandings. It is often the clash between our own senses and institutional memories that make us feel ignorant. We ‘don’t get it’ against those who both comprehend and enact the small minutia’s of institutional knowledge. As Rancière writes, “for the schoolmaster, such knowledge is merely an ignoramus’s knowledge” and such experience is accordingly a “lesser form of knowledge”. There is an inherent power in the ability to articulate such distances or hierarchies of understanding, which for Ranciere will always be problematic because equality is impossible – the distance between master and subject never closes. 

The reason this is front and center in my mind is celebrating a year of Quietly means examining the nuances, objectives, guidelines and tendencies of the company. It is currently just me and the employee of the month (my Optical Sorter) but nonetheless there is an institutional memory at work in every roast, bag and cup. When I weave this upwards into the larger fabric of coffee, I want to see more diversity in voice, less uniform choices in roasters, increased freedom in approaches, enlarged networks of producers alongside a generally a less prescriptive culture. We should stop trying to ‘teach’ people to taste through a ‘schoolmaster and ignoramus’ model or at least ask, does our institutional memory have space for new or different sensory experiences? It may seem small but it becomes the key in resisting the incremental enclosure of a monolithic, one-note culture. If we leverage and construct institutional memory from that massive and fruitful expanse of existing  knowledge and possibilities, we can stop trying to explain taste to the very people who experience it.

💓✨☕🙏

Trust the Process,  
Lee Knuttila