the unpleasures of coffee

August 15, 2011 – 4:28 pm

so what if the culture of specialty coffee, with all its focus on quality and impulse for celebration, also carries a certain narrow way of thinking that ends up handicapping the cause in the long run?

obviously, this is where you click, “close tab.” back to teh twitterz! right, yes, but it’s a question i can’t really escape. the main impetus is wendell berry’s old, seminal essay on the pleasures of eating. and if there’s anything this blog does any more, it is to cookerize steaming heaps of shaky food-coffee analogies. so we’re thinking aloud here, perhaps blogging for ourselves.

the idea is that the fatal problem with modern eating is that it has ceased to be an agricultural act. foodies and locavores aside, eating is largely an isolated, anonymous act of personal consumption. why is this? well, berry’s notion is that the specialization of production leads to the specialization of consumption. in the same way that hollywood has come to specialize in a certain kind of mindlessly entertaining movie, people have come to specialize in a certain mindless kind of movie watching — and they no longer have to bother with entertaining themselves.

this makes for a passive, uncritical, dependent consumer who can be rather easily persuaded to want a certain thing (often via advertisement, NOT via an actual exercise of personal taste). we know the food industry does this — the eyes are the tastebuds now. but this is where this blog’s brain comes to a screeching halt and wonders, “does specialty coffee do this too?” we aspire, of course, to deliver an excellent product while getting consumers to recognize it. but there seems to be a sense in which SOME of the marketing and delivery says, “drink this coffee. IT IS REALLY GOOD, LIKE BLUEBERRIES.” but the consumer is still being told what to like, and he isn’t being connected to anything more valuable than a quirky transaction, or maybe a status symbol.

when the industrial food world succeeds in persuading you to eat its food, via absurd advertisements in which the edibles wear an astounding amount of make-up, you end up with an entire culture that glorifies a pig in a poke. this is an awesome old term, resurrected by berry, for when someone sells you something — it used to be a pig in a sack — that is very cheap, in part because you haven’t seen what’s in the sack. there used to be a radio program when i was a kid in which, in the space of a few minutes, people bought and sold things such as couches and car parts via the radio announcer, and the goods were exchanged sight unseen. the program was called “a pig in a poke.”

in general, this is a dubious way to buy things. if you want to get all ron paul about it, it isn’t freedom. berry nails it:

We still (sometimes) remember that we cannot be free if our minds and voices are controlled by someone else. But we have neglected to understand that we cannot be free if our food and its sources are controlled by someone else. The condition of the passive consumer of food is not a democratic condition. One reason to eat responsibly is to live free.

instead, most consumers have instead made a little deal with the food system, or even the movie system and the coffee system: give me a quick, cheap, adequate pleasure, and i will go away sated, oblivious to the work, value, adulteration or price adjustments that come to bear on this product. but this isn’t really a very good deal. the consumer is voluntarily exiling himself from reality, and for what? a cheap hit?

of course, specialty coffee has fought against much of this. industrial coffee had become a cheap con, a system of crappy commodity stimulants. the triple waveist squadrons try to restore value to the beverage, illuminating the farmer’s plight, focusing on taste and explaining fair pricing. but perhaps it’s worth underscoring what we’re up against — an entire culture that’s conditioned to prefer the sterile transaction, that doesn’t want to know too much.

and so here comes my second coffee question: how many cups do we sell that are purely commercial transactions? you can’t force a customer to care, and there’s a lot to be said for avoiding elitism and relentless gospel preaching on the espresso bar (this blog has said some of it). but if you resign yourself to a mindless exchange, isn’t that basically a surrender? it would seem that you’re succumbing to the narrow preference of exchanging money for goods (even superior goods) with minimal hassle.

but that anonymous, transactionalized system is why we have bad coffee in the first place! even worse, some coffee shops seem to be saying that because they know SO MUCH about coffee, a customer can’t possibly enter this rarified air, and so you’d better just pay up and shut up. it’s as if, by being specialized nerds about the production of our coffee, we’re asking people to be specialized consumers who focus only on that.

now that i think about it, this may explain why, in our regular coffee travels, we’ve seen a number of pretty good coffee shops interacting with customers in ways that feel downright weird or incongruous. perhaps now we have a better vocabulary for it.

to sum: i worry that we’re still telling people what to like (marketing over taste), that we’re selling them goods without contextual value (a pig in a poke) and that we keep agreeing to a bare commercial exchange that would actually seem to be at stark odds with efforts to make coffee great and valued. it’s not really a full pleasure.

this blog falls miserably short at providing answers to these questions. but it might muddy the waters with another blog post!