An Aesthetic

October 20th, 2012

We often talk about coffee roasting as being a combination of art and science.  This phrase annoys me immensely, as it feels like we’re using the term “art” as our excuse for not really having a very good understanding of what is happening.  I feel we’re explaining away our lack of precision but I want to talk about coffee in the context of art.

I’ve always struggled with definitions of art – almost as much as I have struggled with blog posts that use dictionary/encyclopaedic definitions – so I won’t leave one here.  Instead I’ll think about a company having a defined aesthetic, a guiding principle in matters of artistic beauty and taste, within coffee which it seeks to execute upon.  I think very few businesses, roasting companies for example, achieve this.  An acid test:  Consider a roast from another company that you didn’t enjoy.  Was it bad because it failed in execution because of poor technique, or were they simply seeking to create something that falls outside of your definition of beauty?  If this company has a strong aesthetic then this question is much easier to answer.  You could argue that Starbucks has a stronger idea of how it wants to express coffee than many independent, quality focused businesses.

With roasting I’m often frustrated to receive samples, solicited or not, where I’m left confused as to why these have been sent.  I am sure many other companies have an experience where the coffees may be so far away from what a roastery is aiming for, or looking to present, as to be potentially offensive.  At an extreme I could imagine Tim Wendelboe being somewhat confused, though likely amused, if someone were to offer him an Old Brown Java sample…

This may be a function of laziness on the part of the person presenting the sample, but it also speaks to the likely lack of clarity of a roasting company’s aesthetic.  This is surely something that could be focused on and talked about when presenting coffees for retail or wholesale.  I don’t yet have a solution for this, but it is definitely something that is the subject of more of my time and attention in the coming weeks.

I think the same absence/opportunity applies to coffee bars too.  I’m surprised that with the rise of multi-roaster cafes in the last few years, that we haven’t seen these cafes using their purchasing as a way to express a coherent idea about coffee.  Maybe this is happening but I haven’t seen a lot of business going through a strict selection process when shopping for coffees, using a clearly defined set of benchmarks.

I would accept the criticism I sometimes receive that I post things like this without offering any sort of concrete explanation of how or a solution to the question I am asking.  I think it is easier to write about how one would define and execute upon an aesthetic in a coffee bar, rather than in a roastery.  If I were trying to do something like this then the process would be something along the lines of:

Decide how long I want each coffee to run for.  Based on this talk to potential suppliers to get samples for cupping.  I would hope to have sufficient coffee knowledge that I can select suitable samples, coupled with input from the roaster.  Price would not yet enter into things.

Samples would be cupped blind.  Before the reveal (this is important) the coffees would be discussed, and this would be a good opportunity to make sure all staff are clear on the style of coffee which we wish to present.  We would select a number of coffees for the menu that all fall within the boundaries of excellence but provide a diverse tasting experience.

Once selected then we would look at the price.  The price of the coffee would dictate the cup’s appropriate retail price, and the whole bean price would have to be pretty crazy for it to be a problem – especially when you look at the costings for a cup of coffee.  (This is perhaps a separate blog post).  This would mean that prices change often – and I don’t think anything is wrong with this as long as you’ve been clear from the start that this is how things will work.

I think it would be easy to build trust with customers if you can communicate what it is you love about coffee and are trying to share with them.  Once they understand that they probably like everything you like then I think they’d be willing to explore a menu with a feeling of trust and safety.  I accept that some people will understand more clearly that they simply don’t want what one is selling, but that is no bad thing.

One notable aspect of this kind of process is that it requires the aesthetic come from a person or very small group of people.  I don’t think genuine excellence is possible without it coming from personality, especially in something as broad as coffee, and I think this requires their engagement/involvement – at least at the beginning, until the aesthetic can be accurately and repeatedly communicated.

How people wish to factor in the value of other people’s brands – be it leveraging on someone else’s brand for sales or not – is a somewhat separate topic again.  Ultimately I believe that a business should own its own quality and that it should be building relationships with its customers that are independent of its suppliers.

I get frustrated when I see a lot of internal criticism of our industry (on twitter and the like).  We be can critical of each other, but it would be helpful to first understand from each other what we are trying to achieve else our criticisms may be wasted, or misdirected.  Criticising someone for having a different aesthetic is somewhat pointless, criticising them for their failure to deliver on what they claim is fair.

I will accept that this post is perhaps too short, and not sufficient detailed on a subject like this.  However, I’d rather publish it as is, than not at all.

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