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Philosophy

Maybe it’s been working on my dissertation – written about experts in society – or maybe it’s been my summer of meeting great coffee people, but I have been thinking a lot recently about expertise in the speciality coffee industry.

First a discussion about what expertise actually consists of in coffee. It may pertain to two things:

  1. My expertise as a barista when encountering someone who knows nothing about the modes and nuances of speciality coffee.
  2. The expertise of opinion formers in the realm of coffee. This consists primarily of the roasters, but also prominent career baristas.

For a little bit, I want to talk about the second of these types of expertise. Information in the coffee world – new techniques, new equipment, new methods of productivity – is spread primarily through a network of blogs, specialist events and classes. These aid the furthering of knowledge by creating dialogue between baristas, roasters, shop owners etc. There are problems with these kinds of interaction.

It is worth, initially, bearing in mind that roasters and coffee shops are independent companies. The desire to share knowledge is, on some level, hindered by this. Experts in the field are shaped by their own interests, financially. In some way this holds back innovation; as you would expect it to. In other ways it enhances it. Competition leads to people developing separate models of working, which means greater variety.

Recently, there has been a lot of enthusiasm surrounding the EK43. A spice mill turned coffee grinder that has the potential to lead to better extraction rates. This enthusiasm came to a head in two prominent blogs by two coffee experts. Dale Harris, of Has Bean, criticised the leap to embrace EK43s, whilst James Hoffman, of Square Mile, meticulously took apart this criticism. Without going into too much detail about this debate, it is worth pointing out that Hoffman’s points were substantially directed against Harris’ decision to criticise the EK43 without having experimented with it first.

I don’t intend to make any contribution to that debate. However, it does illustrate the paradox of the expert nicely. It was all very well that Hoffman had used the EK43 and drawn his own conclusions from it, and others had too. However, the actual dialogue has been constrained by the fact that the array of blogs written on the subject are unable/unwilling to publish empirical evidence showing the effectiveness of the EK43. (I believe they are unable to: the EK43 has been espoused in classes given by Ben Kaminsky, who, understandably, doesn’t want the contents of these classes outlined.) This may have led to frustration from Harris; it is certainly frustrating for me.

This frustration is initial, and will disappear as more and more information trickles out with regards to the EK43, and maybe when I get the chance to try a shot pulled from EK-ground coffee. I also don’t judge the lack of information available: who would share such vital information without first extracting some kind of money first? The paradox, however, is an interesting one. The coffee expert wants their information seen, wants the status of being an expert to be justified, and wants (and this above all the case for the coffee industry) the quality of coffee available to go up and their values to be vindicated. The coffee expert also wants some kind of renumeration for their hard work, and has other kinds of interests that permeate the small world of coffee. The resolution of this paradox is not straightforward, though further professionalisation of the industry will require some kind of solution to be found.

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subjectivity coffee perceptionThis blog post will look at a significant issue for coffee lovers, especially those who love speciality coffee. In places it is very theoretical, to the point of being philosophical, but it has practical implications.

The problem is familiar to all who have ever tried to convince a friend that they should try coffee x, rather than their substandard coffee y. The conversation might go something like this:

“Why do you always drink instant coffee? It’s much worse than my expensive/well-made/better-tasting coffee.”
“Taste is subjective, I’ll drink what I like.”

The standard response at this point is to admit that taste is indeed subjective, and that’s the end of the debate. This leaves the coffee lover in a state of discomfort: they know that their coffee is better, and yet if someone else is simply impervious to this argument, how can it be better? Coffee drinkers descend into a pit of subjectivity where all opinions are emotional and not supported by facts.

What I briefly outline below cannot hope to answer this question. I cannot suggest how coffee lovers might make ‘coffee x is better than coffee y‘ an objective statement. This blog is just a thought on how we can start to claw back some objectivity from the position that we are in. To do this, I reference John McDowell*, a philosopher of perception. Broadly, McDowell says that too often we make a claim that something is objective/subjective when actually it is mind-independent or mind-dependent. To illustrate the difference: when we perceive the colour yellow we often say it is subjective, when actually we mean it is mind-dependent. It is not subjective in the sense that there is any chance of disagreement – like there is with ‘coffee x is better’ – but it is true that it requires a person for it to exist. The same is true to some extent of coffee: the flavour of coffee is dependent on someone tasting it, and this is what we mean when we say coffee is subjective.

With this view, it’s possible for coffee flavours to be objective, though it is still dependent on a mind perceiving the flavours. What does this mean for coffee lovers? Not a huge amount. But it might suggest that making tasting notes is not necessarily in vain. Coffee is objective because we can agree on how flavours may, given the ideal conditions (brew-time, temperature, a tongue without chewing gum), be teased out and agreed upon between different people. But…

The Bottom Line… under this view, we can maintain objectivity in coffee tasting. What we cannot do at this point is say ‘coffee x is better than coffee y‘. That will have to wait for another blog.

Please ask questions, stimulate debate. This is not uncontroversial.

References
*John McDowell, ‘Values and secondary qualities’ Honderich (London, 1985) in and ed. Ted Morality Objectivity