Latte Art and Coffee Kitsch: On Third-Wave Coffee Culture (2/3)

It shouldn’t be a surprise that as coffee taste has shifted increasingly to single-cup methods and slow-brewing (cold brews, “Kyoto-style”), espresso culture has moved from the artisanal practices of Second Wave coffee to kitsch in Third Wave. After the corporatization of Second Wave culture (Starbucks, Peet’s) led to the mechanization of the labor of espresso (epitomized in the push-button home espresso machine and McCafé), Third Wave culture had no way to express the laborer in an unalienated manner. (More to be considered here: The transition from espresso as expression in the form of pull times, pressure, heat, etc. to the infinite customizability of the Starbucks menu, that is, the transition from artisan craft to post-Fordist consumer commodity.) This labor is therefore sublimated into the expansion of a new sense for coffee: Sight. No longer are the products of the barista judged by taste, smell, or even touch, but by their ability to make visual art of an edible good. Certainly, the role of crema in earlier espresso cultures had a visual component, but crema’s function in the estimation of a barista was more judged by the sense of touch, seeking out texture and thickness. With automated espresso, crema is now standardized and its value in the eyes of the consumer has plummeted, even for those pulling shots by hand, who are a victim of the broader trend.

What has replaced it is “foam art,” the rendering of visual images in the play of foamed milk and espresso crema. Local, national, and international competitions are now held to judge a barista’s visual art. Representational art is widely admired, populating Instagram feeds and Flickr collections , though abstract art has a dedicated following among an elite. Coffee culture has thus invented a new category of experience in the enjoyment of caffeine: Its similarity to other arts, namely painting.

By expanding the possibilities of the medium beyond its cohesion as a medium (that is, by adding sight to the taste, smell, and touch of food), and specifically by trying to invoke other arts through the artistic medium of espresso, the labor of the barista is no longer exclusive to the position of barista. The labor becomes undifferentiated, and the medium comes to seem a judgment on itself. Espresso thus becomes kitsch, as it presages the audience’s judgment of (lingual) taste and smell and diffuses it by focusing attention on a more established repertoire of signs, namely those in the realm of the visual. Since visual signs can be viewed by many while the espresso drink normally has only one consumer, the visual performs better as a means of establishing an objective standard. Objective here is derived from the Kantian notion of that property of an object which is trans-personal and intersubjective. This sensorial sleight-of-hand renders all judgment ironic, distanced, and absurd, as well as conforming it to other objectives, namely those of verisimilitude.

Foam art competitions are the most obvious way in which Third-Wave coffee culture expresses its kitsch sensibilities, but there are other ways in which the entire culture is saturated with this sense. In addition to foam art, there are competitions for roasting, brewing, and cupping. The arena of competition makes kitsch of its subjects, as the purpose of their labor is no longer the judgment of the product, but the judgment of the labor itself. The perfectly roasted bean doesn’t win the medal; the roaster does. The beautifully floral cup of coffee doesn’t receive the ribbon, the cupper does. These competitions therefore also diffuse all judgment of the product, removing it from the realm of art and placing it in the territory of kitsch, cultural productions that are meant to be judged for their conformity to criteria established by previous art. (This is Clement Greenberg’s early formulation of kitsch in his famous if uncomfortably strident and pedantic 1939 essay “Avant-garde and Kitsch.”)

In its transition from artisanal craft to standardized commodity to kitsch, the cup of coffee seems to parallel smoking tobacco. In the nineteenth century, tobacco was smoked primarily in the form of cigars, hand-cut and hand-rolled, with particular rollers achieving quite decent pay and notoriety. Cigarettes, each identical and anonymous, developed with the advent of mechanized cutters and rollers, expanding the consumer base while alienating the labor and undercutting laborer rights and protections. The cigarette is increasingly being replaced with the vaporizer, where tobacco has been removed from the experience of its enjoyment, distilled, purified, and blended with other flavors. Smoking now resembles most closely the medical inhaler, the model for vaporizing technology. Though it therefore shares with coffee a turn towards kitsch, the denaturalization of smoking embodied in its distillation and blending has run the opposite direction from coffee.

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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.