Tradition

August 26th, 2010

I’m a little conflicted when it comes to the idea of tradition. I firmly believe that an understanding of the past, especially its mistakes, is crucial to understanding the present and composing a reasonable guess at the future. A lot of coffee’s past is covered with the blanket of tradition, but I think we often neglect to look underneath to try and understand why and where they’ve come from.

I don’t really want to write this as a response to the articles Giorgio Milos has been writing, though they’ve probably helped crystalize some thoughts. We, as an industry, are continually struggling to deal with the impact and importance of Italian espresso traditions.

What has been on my mind has been the idea that tradition is something immutable, something to be preserved and studied.  This just isn’t true – tradition is little more than persistant ideas, roughly copied using the human mind.  Their memetic nature means that a tradition will adapt and change in order to be valuable and be passed on.  What distinguishes tradition from historical cultural artifact is relevance to the current culture.  What is traditional is not correct, nor perfect, it is merely useful enough to keep alive as an idea.

What does this rather wordy paragraph have to do with coffee?  Espresso is Italy in 1950 would be further away from espresso in Italy in 2010 than espresso in the USA in 2010.  I hope, and strongly suspect, that espresso in Italy today will be abhorrent to an Italian in 2060.  Tradition must evolve.

Tradition is not an excuse to stop exploration and progression.  Deviation and experimentation away from tradition absolutely must happen in order to discover new and useful things that will become the traditions we will pass down to future generations.

This doesn’t mean we should ignore the ideas that have survived best until now – if we can understand the 7g dose then we stand a better chance of avoiding mistakes that have already been made, of learning from past experiments.  My understanding of this dose, current machinery and extraction have all changed dramatically in the last year but if I’d either completely ignored the 7g or followed it slavishly I wouldn’t have had that learning experience.

Understanding the influence of economic factors on the birth of traditional espresso blends (coupled with regulation of drinks prices) explains more about the presence of robusta, or unwashed coffees from Brazil, than taste does.  This isn’t to say that people don’t enjoy blends like these – but you can’t help but end up at the conclusion that taste preferences weren’t the driving factor they are sometimes made out to be.  This means that if taste is your driving force then perhaps a different approach would be preferable.

I think the thing that most annoys me about the articles, and it annoys me about a great deal of culture, is the idea that diversity is not to be celebrated and encouraged.  I’d hate to see Italian espresso in its current form disappear completely, but I’d hate to see it become a ubiquitous, monotonous method more.

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