Balance, Negronis & Representing Origin

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Ask Lee’s started as part of the wholesale dispatch at Cut Coffee. The purpose was simple: answer frequently asked questions in larger conversations rather than single email chains. I rely on these past posts when working my way through my inbox. However, over the last couple of months, I realize I am increasingly out-of-step with my former positions. Some drift makes sense as the industry changes and I continue to grow as a roaster. But it also makes to update, so this dispatch, I want to answer a pretty simple question: what is the Quietly roasting style? (starting … now!)

Perusing any roaster’s ‘About Us’ page will reveal a common set of talking points. Usually, the story about how they started, a couple sentences about transparent and fair sourcing, maybe a line about the environment, and finally a declaration that the aim in roasting is to represent the flavours of origin. Something akin to: we roast to highlight the inherent qualities of green, we emphasize the clarity of flavor tied to origin, or our approach seeks the innate characteristics of a coffee. Such assertions are unsurprising given it is one of the core tenants of specialty coffee. We all want to experience those inimitable and ever-changing sensory elements linked to source.

The ‘how’ of this oft-repeated equation is a little opaque. Roasting is a complex act, given the sheer number of variables in using searing heat and turbulent air to make green beans brew-able. And yet, despite the abundant variance in approaches, there exists this common claim: each roaster is creating a sensory expression that reflects a place. And while there is arguably varying degrees of success in this lofty goal, I simply want to speak to how I ‘open the window to origin’ at Quietly.

Have you ever enjoyed a negroni? It’s an Italian aperitif and it is perfect. The chef/writer, Gabrielle Hamilton, describes its true beauty: it is one part gin, which “warms you up and softens your edges”. It is one-part Campari, whose bite, “peaks your appetite” and shuffles you from day into the warm embrace of night. And lastly, one part vermouth, whose purpose is simple as its sweetness “smooths over the relationship” between the botanical gin and bitter strike of campari. Completed with the zip of orange zest, served over ice, and best drank in dusk light, it is faultless.

While heavy with subtle pleasures, its greatest strength is balance. It instills harmony to a discordant set of taste elements. Nothing is lost, no one part overshadows the others. The varied parts in fact are improved, heightened, and given depth by virtue of their distinctive contrast. I recognize that celebrating classic Italian cocktails and extolling the timeless virtue of balance is not a very fashionable move in the current coffee landscape but it is the Quietly mandate. Everything right now is about big flavours with sharpened edges. Many roasters are currently reveling in brightness, vividness, or vibrancy; even if it means a potentially uneven cup or a focus on a singular flavour. Not that I see anything wrong with this: big and bold have been guiding principles in coffee for a long time but in its current iteration we have swapped acidity for smoke and soot.

When we eat or drink, our tastes buds do the ‘can I eat this?’ test to keep us safe from toxins. As well as the ‘is this good for me?’ nutritional check. Hence, we have the basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami (plus astringent and pungent) because these are highly effective ways to answer those questions. While taste parcels out into individual bits, we amalgamate everything into flavour. Smell, or more specifically our retronasal passage works with our olfactory bulb to transform aromatic information into a complete flavour image of things like a strawberry, mango, or grapefruit.

I used to maintain a singular focus on sweetness (half true previous post here) but these days I embrace a more holistic approach to profiling a roast. I like to do several test batches that play with the momentum of heat, the speed of reactions, the impact of moisture release, and overall flow of a roast. I then cup (a mostly true how to here) and consider taste levels, asking how much sweetness, bitterness and sourness are in the cup. In order to build out the flavours, I will for example isolate a sour-bitter that has a citric quality, or a sweet-sour that exudes some stone-fruit notes, or a bitter cocoa-like aromatic that really heightens the cups overall perceived sweetness. The goal: negroni level of balance.

We can think about each crop of fresh cherries as a space of possibilities. It exists in this open form, determined by the health and variety of the plant, the chemistry of the soil, the whims of local weather, the labour of the workers, and the institutional knowledge of the farm. Pulping, fermenting, washing, drying, shipping, roasting and brewing then shape its potential. Such a space is precisely what roasters claim they are representing.

As the roaster cog in this larger apparatus, I always want to ensure the largest swath of conceivable flavours appear in the cup. Of course, this means avoiding the universal flavors of green (herbs, grass, vegetables) or easily replicated dark roast taints (spice, ash, char) because these override any and all sense of origin. However, it also means building balance in the cup (because of interplay, take for example how bitterness increases perceived sweetness: here). Pushing, pulling, emphasizing, highlighting or even downplaying specific taste and flavour elements with intent means that the cup – and all of that labor and those individual elements of origin – will truly shine because they exist in balance.

So that answers the initial question of the Quietly roasting approach but not really the ensuing: does this mean it represents origin? I would say that yes, flavour is reflective of varietals, processing, cherry ripeness and all the choices made along the chain. However, taste on its own only goes so far and as an industry we frequently use this sensory representation of origin to stand-in for the actual story, reality, and voice of that place. And this is dangerous because it becomes a veneer to cover over any inequality.

The scale of this ‘representing origin’ claim is hefty because it imbues the roaster with a special ability. They are active while origin is passive. Accordingly, it replaces conversations about producers. The claim operates as a shortcut to specialty because who questions the actual relationships or importer network when the coffee is achieving this lofty task. Sure we pay terribly and exploit farmers but our roasts truly reveal the potential of terroir…

This is not the only way our industry side-steps larger conversations by fixating on these minor debates. Take for example, the attempt to overhaul the language of taste notes (which I am wholly guilty of: here & here) by using substitutes like ‘impressions’ or the overused ‘we’, as in ‘we find’ or ‘we taste’. I recognize the attempt to make coffee more accessible but beyond the danger of adding more unnecessary terminology (while rejecting the already understood and widely accepted lexicon of wine and spirits), there are diminishing returns in these discussions. By relying on these narrowed discourses, we bypass the intensely real politics of the cup to instead battle for low stakes in our very insular coffee world. It is precisely the same way we condense the entire story behind the cup with ‘roasting for the inherent quality’ mantras. We lessen scope, avoid complexity, and evade those long standing historical inequities.

The real work is bridging the sensory experience to all the factors, forces and people which propel it. We need to trace and draw ourselves backwards through the network into that space of possibilities. I love how Hamilton illuminates the way the distinct parts of the negroni undo the work day, prepare you for a satisfying meal and accompany you into the night. It is not just botanical, bitter, and sweet but rather a leaping off point. If we can do more to foster the connective tissues between seed and cup, by way of amplified voices of producers, conversations about farm-level choices, and celebrations of institutional knowledge then the relationship between flavour and origin can be dynamic – rather than a hollow, one-way talking point. Sounds much more balanced and I love balance.