The Assemblage of Coffee

It has been awhile. The last dispatch was all the way back in May, which seems a world away at this point. There are numerous reasons for the lull. The roaster is exceedingly busy, meaning I am perpetually short on time. Like everyone, there is an omnipresent stress to living during a pandemic, leaving me forever low on energy. But the main reason, the political landscape since May is dotted with so many more important things than me writing about life’s little foibles. In coffee, there are several noteworthy stories I would like to flag: 

  • D’Onna Stubblefield, a former wholesale Account Manager and Educator at Counter Culture Coffee revealed a severely toxic work environment. Counter Culture issued a statement on their website.
  • The co-owners of Matchstick have left the company after numerous former employees exposed what Leah Christ described as a “toxic culture of misogyny, intimidation and silence”. Lindsay Williams-Ross outlines the fallout and former owner’s divestment in the company: here.
  • After 49th Parallel touted their commitment to diversity online, a former employee responded about their experience with the company. EDIT: By request of that former employee, I am removing all mention to them and their social media posts. There has been no public statements by 49th and they have since deleted their twitter account.
  • Finally, Elysium drew the ire of many after a round of layoffs directly on the heels of a staff meeting to address representation and diversity in the company. On Instagram, they are responding to those calling for more accountability and transparency with comments like: “We appreciate your perspective and we are committed to doing better!” (taken from this post).

Meanwhile, the pandemic continues to have a massive impact on our producers; here is a perfectly devastating distillation: “farmers will only be able to harvest a fraction of the specialty coffee they meticulously care for and invest in”. More here. This is the initial leg of potential tragedy that I discussed back in April. While I want to be optimistic, climate change and the price crisis were pre-existing conditions for the industry and I am not sure where we go from here?

Quietly is approaching the year and half mark in at the end of August leading to some reflection on my impact as a business. As we worry about germs on every door handle and reckon with the colossal social inequalities enmeshed in all outlets of our collective cultures, I am likely not alone listening for my echoes or trying to find my tracks in the sand. My personal solution to existential crisis is inevitably a bookshelf away. So, for this Ask Lee, I want to ask: what is the material and expressive assemblage of Quietly?

You might be asking your own question: what is he talking about? Fair enough, so let me re-ask: how do we measure our impacts? I have always been a big fan of Manuel Delanda for writing practical philosophy. You can see the heavy influence of two of my favorites, Delueze and Guatari, in his work but whereas they wrote extraordinary poetic and abstract works, DeLanda grounds himself in lived reality, be it science, computer programming, or the intricate structures of community. I want to narrow in on two of his concepts: the material and expressive dimensions of the assemblage.

Did I already include: what is he talking about? The cafes and roasters we all engage with are assemblages by virtue of being irreducible to one single thing. Quietly exists at an address in Stirling but the building does not encapsulate the entire idea and essence of the company. I use a Probat to roast and, by extension, foster sensory experiences but it is an industry standard, which generates dark roasts, light roasts, and endlessly divergent flavour impressions. What I am impatiently picking away at is: there is no single object, idea, person, machine, process, experience, or place that is Quietly. Instead it is an assemblage – a collective sum of all these parts – which gives Quietly its identity.

DeLanda narrows in on two elements for each ‘component part’: its material axis and its expressive axis. A frequently cited example is an ecosystem in which the material axis consists of dirt, creatures, plants, light and so on. These would be separate from the expressive roles: the colour of a flower, the migratory patterns of birds, the ordered structure of soil erosion. You can see the way the expressive and the material interact to build up an assemblage of identity. 

To illustrate using another one of DeLanda’s examples, in a conversation, there is the material element of human bodies facing each other and using voices to generate words. These mesh with more expressive roles of facial gesture or posture. As DeLanda states, “there is what participants express about themselves, not by what they say, but by the way they say it”. So, the assemblage is the conversation: it is not just people or words but rather the collective synthesis of the whole scene. Bodies and voices are material, akin to a printed transcript, but these dovetail with expressive elements that come through things like crossed arms or the avoidance of certain topics.

In coffee’s expressive lane, we could list the ways we communicate about coffee: our vocabulary, demarcations like ‘first, second, third wave’, our bag designs or how we frame taste or origins through aesthetics (although to be true to DeLanda this would be the coding axis but I already said: generous reading). These would synthesize with the material parts, like the cold metal and hot burner on a Probat roaster or the muscles of people’ hands contracting to pick ripe cherries and laying them across long wooden tables to dry in the sun.

So, you might be asking: what insight do we garner when understanding companies like Quietly as an assemblage? I would propose that we see the central hinge of the industry: the extraction of a resource. This macro material act is part of every coffee assemblage. As without the transfer of green from those regions that grow and harvest coffee to places like Canada, there would be no local pour-overs or latte art or Quietlys’. Consequently, the history of coffee is inexorably linked to colonialism; it is undeniable. Thus, the assemblage of everything coffee-related contains this component part: green coffee, as a consumable commodity, is created through labor and moved across the globe, frequently through relationships dependent on economic exploitation.

From here we can scale through other points, parts and sections in the coffee assemblage. To use Quietly as an example, I then have green storage space, computers attached to the roaster, a bag sealer. There are expressive extensions to each: the pattern of moisture leaving green, my roast style or the pantone blue of the bags. And it is the culmination that is crucial because there is no apolitical part. They all link together in the assemblage and all relate back to that central material act of purchasing green coffee to roast and sell.

We often rely on the material as the guideline for being progressive in coffee. Take for example, ‘price paid’. Be it through fair trade certifications, direct trade proclamations or the focus on ‘specialty’ against commodity. Our ledgers and books operate as check-mark stickers against the exploitative history of coffee. Alternatively, we might design shop spaces that are diametrically opposite from a fast food chain. The focus on the craft and precision of extraction centers the customer experience on slow speeds and reflection over speed and utility. Through the controlled pour of a goose-neck kettle over a bed of grounds (material), qualities of appreciation and care bloom (expressive). By cultivating these experiences, we separate from the mass-market. It becomes a comforting ward against bad coffee and the history of uneven relationships with producers.

And yet, what I am digging at with DeLanda is that there is no single part that makes up the whole of a company’s assemblage. As those news stories above illuminate, a roaster could pay a premium price or operate exclusively in the direct trade model or have a beautiful slow brew shop but other component parts bare corrosive stains. Especially along that expressive axis: workplace cultures, hiring policies, environmental mandates or aesthetic designs.

I like this lens to peer at the current coffee horizon. At its peak, specialty focus was wholly fixed upon information about origin. It was great to move from brand or blend names to the precise: farms, regions, varietals and all the other markers that illuminate the story of behind the cup. However, the encroaching allure of minimalist design is slowly diluting our sense of origin. Take for example, the British based ‘We Are Here’ coffee whose neon clad menu is made up of ‘this one’, ‘that one’ and ‘the other one’. They explain that they were “bored with the doo-dars and chit-chats” that are part of coffee so want “no ridiculous choice, no silly words”. Here the expressive becomes a way to move away from that central cog of resource extraction with the added step of saying that traceability is exhausting and that the names of foreign towns, regions, and countries are ‘silly’. So, what is wrong with this? 

It is not simply the choice of words or amount of information; the matrix of design remains a sticky problematic arena in coffee. Blatantly hiding origin is one way pitfall, the industry also employs stereotypes to erase our producers and coffee growing regions. I really like what Brendan Adams wrote about Juan Valdez as it perfectly illustrates the use of iconography to cover the lived reality of a place and its people. There are clear examples, like these bags from Polish-based Java Roasters below, but also many lesser ways we continue to enact the diminutive acts tied to colonial history.

Companies use animals, scenes of safaris, or brandish words like ‘wild’ and ‘exotic’, all of which operate as Orientalism. They speak for a place or impose an outsider view. There is no space for participation or intervention by those marginalized voices. To say a place name is ‘silly’ relies on a point-of-view in which western whiteness is the baseline norm. It is a position of historical violence and dominance because as Franz Fanon explains, by creating images or stories that conflate people with animals, we instill a sense of the barbaric. This reinforces the civilizing sense of the Western colonizer and, in turn, white supremacy. Be it a coffee bag design or phrases like ‘exotic’, there is an ‘othering’ (against the colonial self) inherent in all these problematic depictions. It is not unique to coffee, given it continues a long tradition of damaging narratives and stereotypes, think Heart of Darkness or the Lion King. The expressive and material align to erase the lived experience of those who plant, grow, harvest, pulp, ferment, package, and ship your coffee.

These examples are mostly built from the material and in a moment where we are really trying to do better in our workplaces, cafes, and roasters, the expressive demands attention. In that Matt Perger’s apology, his admittance of hate speech is striking because it never addresses how the workplace fostered or allowed such behavior. To return to DeLanda’s conversation example, the utterance is the material but all those unseen expressive elements help foster the communication. It brings up the bigger: how do the ‘we’ in our ‘coffee community’ say that this is a-ok?

I have spent much of this dispatch arguing that coffee is fundamentally reliant on resource extraction, which will forever link to our colonialist past. Yet, it equally pulls from the assemblage of late stage capitalism (as Delanda’s model suggests, these two parts operate together). We are buying, selling, and exploiting labor within a profit driven marketplace. While I often struggle with the idea of ‘running a business’, it would be naive to not admit that as a white, cis male, the system absolutely favours me. It is inexorably part of my assemblage. It removes barriers and ensures I can navigate the system as a naturalized member. Accordingly, it becomes my absolute ethical responsibility to destabilize and erode these concentrations of power. To find and fight those sites in which equality is erased.

Our larger task as an industry is to think about the expressive and material parts of each and every small piece that builds the whole and then ask: what do these parts challenge or what do they reinforce? What do our bags, descriptions, websites, and workplaces say about coffee and how do we say it? If we focus on those linkages between producers and the people that roast/brew/drink coffee as the principal part of our larger ‘coffee assemblage’, we might be able to actually move past the imbalanced relations of power and broken politics of representation that we continually perpetuate. Honestly, I do not think we are not ready for stark modernism because the long injustices of history exist so fully in our present moment.

💓✨☕🙏

Trust the Process,  
Lee Knuttila