The Art-ification of the Bean: On Third-Wave Coffee Culture (1/3)

I began this investigation when I heard myself say, “I want to taste the beans, not the process” in regards to roasting methods of coffee beans. Though this sentence sounds intuitively correct, it is, of course, absurd, as the taste of the beans themselves—mildly toxic and coated in an unexciting fruit mucilage—would interest almost no one. What this statement really expresses is a desire for each batch of beans—roasted, ground, and brewed—to taste unique to that batch. Furthermore, it is a desire that I can discern the differences of each batch, or at least that I appear to others to be able to do so. It is a desire for difference and distinction.

“Distinction” is the term that French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu gave to define “taste.” Bourdieu conducted surveys in France that demonstrated that “the pure aesthetic is rooted in an ethic, or rather, an ethos of elective distance from the necessities of the natural and social world.” While it “presents the aesthetic disposition as a universally valid principle and takes the bourgeois denial of the social world to its limit,” taste is really the product of the historical process that produces educated elites, economic elites, and laboring masses. Taste is a discriminating expression of the individual’s relation to the social processes of labor, education, and politics.

Because “aesthetics” is not something that lives in objects but in the viewers of the object, “nothing is more distinctive, more distinguished, than the capacity to confer aesthetic status on objects that are banal or even ‘common,’” according to Bourdieu. The aesthetic enjoyment of coffee can be seen as it develops historically, from the “pure” commodity of industrialized coffee production (the rise of ground Folgers, Hills Bros., etc., in which roasting is proprietary and not attached to individual beans or regional tastes) to “artisanal” (Peet’s, Starbucks, fair trade, espresso culture, dark roasts) to “art” (Stumptown, Blue Bottle, individual farmers, light roasts). (This overview is informed by Mark Pendergrast.) Light roasts and the Third Wave producers that are shaping market trends currently see themselves as giving the maximum expression of the bean itself. Stumptown says the best roasting is done by “a person who knows exactly how to bring the best out of every bean”: It is the bean itself that contains the mystery, the power, the essence of taste. Blue Bottle’s description is slightly different, but sees in the nature of coffee itself the drinker’s enjoyment: “Coffee’s main purpose is to be delicious,” they declare (flying in the face of current evolutionary theory). (Compare this to the website of Peet’s, which places its roasters front and center, declaring “Coffee is their canvas,” fixing attention on the roaster as “craftsman.”)

But the Third Wave coffee drinker never tastes the beans themselves, rather, they taste a highly calibrated process that responds to each lot of beans differently. Third Wave coffee culture is therefore more invested in process than Second Wave (and certainly more than First Wave), but because the processes that Third Wave prizes are now “folded” into nature. Third Wave coffee culture conceives of its relation to coffee as a relation to nature itself that bypasses the alienated labor of industrialization and commodification. Third Wave drinkers want to get to “know” their producers because the producers’ hands have become a kind of terroir, and one of the primary elements of the beans’ “nature” (which, of course, is not natural at all, but highly cultured and cultivated; many producers are descendants of former coffee cultivators). Likewise, the roasters’ highly trained hands are another element of the beans’ “nature,” as are the low-waged barista’s. The coffee laborer disappears even as the “ethical turn” is touted as a great social advance.

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