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In defence of the subjective: a response to Colonnaandsmalls

July 13, 2012

This post is a response to a strong argument by Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood that quality in coffee requires an objective framework, or risks collapse into self-defeating relativism at the hands of subjectivity. I agree that Maxwell raises an important issue, and accept some of his points – however I wanted to offer some responses to those I disagree with 🙂

Subjective/Objective
All taste is subjective. Taste is a person’s experience of a thing (their sense-data), so it cannot, by definition, be objective. Coffee has objective qualities that might be used to judge quality – e.g. relative balance of component  compounds. The subjective/objective gap is between what an individual’s experience when tasting a coffee and the objective, quantifiable qualities of the coffee that are responsible for that experience. It is not simply that what tastes we each enjoy are different – rather, a person’s taste experience (sense data) is unique to them and may be different, even radically so, to our own.

Avoiding the relativist pit
There are two avenues available to avoid the yawning pit of relativism, which dismisses all issue of quality as a personal value judgement. The first is an appeal to expertise – roughly, this person is an expert (a Q Grader, Cup of Excellence Judge, whatever), which means their subjective judgement holds greater value than that of a non-expert. The second is an appeal to popularism – coffees which either appeal moderately to a large portion of consumers, of appeal strongly to a subset of those, are good. I don’t wish to express an opinion on these at the moment – suffice to say, I think we can adequately avoid extreme relativism without an objective framework.

For customers
As I have argued in a previous blog post, our taste descriptors are not clinical. They are ladened with both explicit and implicit emotional and personal content. Giving customers likely taste descriptors for them is helpful. However, communicating our subjective experience is even more valuable. I’d much rather receive a good coffee from someone who loves it, than a great coffee from someone who doesn’t. If the barista’s personal enjoyment of a coffee can be communicated to receptive customers, in the right way, it can give license to those customers to take equal joy in their coffee.

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13 Comments
  1. Jason permalink

    All right. I don’t generally yell at people on the internet. However, when you call someone out, and tell everyone that they are wrong, I feel like you should make damn sure you both: a) understand what they were saying in the first place, and b) have a logically consistent rebuttal. I appreciate that everyone’s entitled to their opinion. Here is mine.
    The objective/subjective gap
    We can all agree that there are objective qualities that make up coffee. I think we can all agree that what we find pleasing or not in a coffee is subjective. However, I don’t agree that we can’t gain objective information from our senses. Let’s take a washed Yirgacheffe from a specific Co-op, and let’s say it’s floral. Virtually no one thinks it isn’t floral. It’s very floral. Is that an objective or subjective statement? It’s hard, but in coffee, in the context in which we are operating, I would have to say that it’s an objective statement. We can all say that a coffee is citrusy, we can agree that a coffee is sweet, we can concur that one is smoky. In this sense, we can come to gain objective information about a coffee’s character. Why can we do this when our senses are radically different from one another’s? You may taste that Yirgacheffe and have a radically different experience that me (I very much doubt you do), but we can agree it’s floral. I’d say that it’s an objectively floral coffee. On a very fluffy philosophical level, we can argue that the floral taste of a coffee is subjective… but you can do that with anything. It’s useful, within the context, to define “objective” as something that most people with a normal biologically functioning olfactory centre would agree on. It seems that we might be getting into trouble here, but I doubt it. Describing a coffee as floral is just predicting that a person who drinks it will agree that the coffee tastes floral. It is exactly equivalent to saying that a painting has a lot of the colour “blue.” I don’t know what your experience of “blue” is like, but I can look at a clear sky and predict that other people will also recognise that experience as seeing “blue”. There aren’t many that would dispute that. The subjective/objective gap comes when deciding what makes a coffee GOOD.
    Avoiding the relativist pit
    Here is where your argument really falls on its face. You see the threat of relativism, but you want to be able to judge a coffee’s quality. However, you don’t want to appeal to what you see as objective qualities. You suggest two possibilities. First, there is an appeal to expertise. However, an appeal to expertise is inherently an appeal to objective qualities. How else did they become experts? It’s not a popularity contest; they got there by testing their palates against objective criteria. I feel that an appeal to expertise is logically inconsistent, if you want to avoid an appeal to objectivism. The second idea isn’t logically flawed, but I don’t think speciality coffee would be the same if we just let the masses decide what coffees were good. Starbucks seems to be using that trick, but I can’t say much for their quality. What Maxwell is trying to do is figure out how we could sustain and grow within the field of speciality coffee. To produce coffees that would win a Cup of Excellence or a Barista Competition. I think he does so nicely with subjectivity within a framework of objective criteria.
    I appreciate what you are trying to do. You want to avoid the potentially limiting factor of objective criteria. I think your view of what is objective isn’t relevant to the industry; it’s a wider philosophical view. I can dig that, it’s just not very useful in this instance. I would also hate to see flavour notes reduced to, ”this coffee reminds me, personally, of when my gran used to make apple pie on Christmas morning” or “Yeah, it’s really tasty…” That’s really special and all, but I couldn’t care less. Let me know where it’s from, what it is like, and why it’s significant.
    I feel that your last paragraph is your most damning.
    “I’d much rather receive a good coffee from someone who loves it, than a great coffee from someone who doesn’t. If the barista’s personal enjoyment of a coffee can be communicated to receptive customers, in the right way, it can give license to those customers to take equal joy in their coffee.”
    An unenthused barista is a bad barista. If she’s not striving to pull the best shots, and make the most out of her coffee, she just won’t pull a better shot. As much as I hate romanticism in the industry, this much is true, as it is true of any craft.
    You also throw around “good” and “great” as descriptors of quality, but I don’t know how you’re coming to that conclusion in the purely subjective framework that you’ve established. You would rather have a “good” coffee than a “great” one… where is the difference, if you are enjoying a “good” one more? You can appeal to overall experience… which I think is very important, I just don’t think it was in the scope of Maxwell’s blog post on subjectivity in coffee (well covered in other posts). It’s just another issue.
    The quote also showcases a fatal flaw in having a purely subjective framework. There is no separation between personal taste and what is excellent. For example, I like the Starbucks Doubleshot tins from the supermarket. So sue me. They take me back to university. They are not good, but I enjoy them. I don’t think there’s any shame in that, but I would be wrong if I said they were good coffee. Wrong because they lack balance, they are over-roasted, they are cloying… a whole host of objective negatives that allow them to be ignored in the field of speciality coffee. How do we exclude coffees that are not objectively balanced, if we only operate with a subjective framework? If you enjoy something, does it deserve a place in the field of speciality coffee?
    I think it’s the last part that really bugs me the most. I don’t give anyone ‘license’ to enjoy or dislike anything. That’s just terribly arrogant. As a barista, I have knowledge and experience that I would love to share. If prompted, I may even give my subjective take on a coffee, but I will tell them WHY I like it, using objective descriptors. Nobody needs my permission to like or hate anything. If I’m a specialist in the field, I should be able to accurately describe a coffee. The customer can use that information to make a decision, and make future decisions. I don’t coddle them, or tell them what to like. That’s the elitist attitude that so many people have come to resent in this industry.

    • Hi Jason. First – thanks for the reply. I’ll try and address your comments in order, but first I’d like to make a general clarification on the spirit of the post. I really liked Maxwell’s original post – if I didn’t find it interesting and important, I wouldn’t have felt the need to reply to it. If my blog post came across as rather unforgiving, I apologise for that. It wasn’t a “calling out” – it was a disagreement. I’m thankful for your post, because it has helped me develop my thinking on the subject. I firmly believe that honest, open minded disagreement between friends will bring us all progress. If I failed to communicate that spirit of friendship, I’m sorry.

      “It’s useful, within the context, to define “objective” as something that most people with a normal biologically functioning olfactory centre would agree on. It seems that we might be getting into trouble here, but I doubt it. Describing a coffee as floral is just predicting that a person who drinks it will agree that the coffee tastes floral. It is exactly equivalent to saying that a painting has a lot of the colour “blue.” I don’t know what your experience of “blue” is like, but I can look at a clear sky and predict that other people will also recognise that experience as seeing “blue”. There aren’t many that would dispute that. The subjective/objective gap comes when deciding what makes a coffee GOOD.”
      I agree that we can define “objective” and “subjective” in these ways, as long as we make it clear this is what we’re talking about. I don’t agree about it being a useful definition – I think there is a real benefit in coffee professionals considering the philosophical subjective/objective gap – but it’s a semantic disagreement rather than a substantive one.

      “First, there is an appeal to expertise. However, an appeal to expertise is inherently an appeal to objective qualities. How else did they become experts? It’s not a popularity contest; they got there by testing their palates against objective criteria. I feel that an appeal to expertise is logically inconsistent, if you want to avoid an appeal to objectivism.”
      I disagree that experts test their palates against objective criteria. There is a major reason that cupping competitions ask competitors to judge relative difference, rather than asking them to identify flavours – flavour descriptors are far less consistent than we’d all like to believe. I remember reading David Walsh’s blog – http://theotherblackstuff.ie/thoughts/stats-of-excellence-2-the-restatening/ – which brings up the lack of agreement in descriptors. It’s also been my experience, that in blind cuppings of coffees, tasters rarely come up with the same descriptors as each other on their own – even for apparently distinctive coffees such as yirgacheffes. They frequently agree with other’s descriptors, and even change their own descriptors to match, but they rarely come up with the same descriptors in isolation from each other.

      “The second idea isn’t logically flawed, but I don’t think speciality coffee would be the same if we just let the masses decide what coffees were good. Starbucks seems to be using that trick, but I can’t say much for their quality.”
      I disagree. My experience has been that most people like speciality quality coffee more than lower grade coffees – all things being equal. If you used a commercial quality coffee and a speciality grade coffee, roasted both equally, brewed both equally and presented both in nondescript, identical containers, most people would prefer the speciality grade. If Starbucks and other chains have success with less good coffees, it’s because customers aren’t buying based on the coffee beans’ taste. They’re buying the brand and the experience. To borrow a quote from Steve Leighton – “People like tasty coffee.”. I honestly believe coffee is a great example of popularism matching our own intuitions on quality.

      “An unenthused barista is a bad barista. If she’s not striving to pull the best shots, and make the most out of her coffee, she just won’t pull a better shot. As much as I hate romanticism in the industry, this much is true, as it is true of any craft.”
      Point taken. I entirely agree – but I think there is still an important issue there, about the ability to communicate that enthusiasm effectively. That’s really a different blog post, about what I value in customer service! For me, the customer service can elevate a fair coffee into a great coffee, and can likewise pull down a great beverage into something I’ll immediately forget. I’ll aim to make that thinking more coherent for a future post, which I hope to see spirited analysis of 😉

      “I think it’s the last part that really bugs me the most. I don’t give anyone ‘license’ to enjoy or dislike anything. That’s just terribly arrogant. As a barista, I have knowledge and experience that I would love to share. If prompted, I may even give my subjective take on a coffee, but I will tell them WHY I like it, using objective descriptors. Nobody needs my permission to like or hate anything. If I’m a specialist in the field, I should be able to accurately describe a coffee. The customer can use that information to make a decision, and make future decisions. I don’t coddle them, or tell them what to like. That’s the elitist attitude that so many people have come to resent in this industry.”
      “License” was a bad choice of phrase. I believe that many people who try speciality coffee could appreciate it much more than they do. That they could love coffee. But that they don’t feel comfortable considering it as more than a warm and wet beverage. For me, we as professionals need to provide an experience to customers that helps them appreciate our product – the coffee – to the greatest degree possible. To my mind, presenting tasting notes as objective risks alienating, by suggesting it’s a fact, and that failure to taste something is a failure of the drinker. I always view tasting notes as suggestions – and highly personal from the writer.

      Thanks again for commenting – it genuinely means a lot to get such a challenging reply.

  2. Jason permalink

    Excellent. I’m glad you posted both my reply and your response. I’ll take this opportunity to say how much I loved your Craft, Art, Science post.
    I think it’s useful now to restate the thesis, as I understand Maxwell’s to be. I’m also going to restate it WITHOUT referring to subjective vs. objective. This way we can actually argue about the same things. Above, I attacked you on the idea that there NEEDS to be a purely subjective framework necessarily. I then also attacked the framework itself. Two different problems. What I’ll try to do now is make sure we’re not talking past each other.
    How do we judge quality? To put it simply, you take some people that have sensitive palates (test with cupping, known presence of flavour taints, etc…). You get them to share a vocabulary. You get them to share some goals (this is important, as it’s not merely a matter of taste). You make sure they are agreeing with each other on WHAT they are tasting (consensus starts to build flavour notes). You get them to judge a coffee with provenance and overall balance in mind. They rate the coffee (they should rate similarly, as they are all calibrated versus each other, they share the ability to taste the same things, and they share the same goals) on overall quality. Done. As a sidenote, they may rate a coffee highly that they do not personally enjoy (one might recognise the point of difference a Pacamara has, recognise it’s balance and value to the field, but not personally enjoy it as much as something else… which they may rate lower due to lack of overall balance etc…).
    Objective, as Maxwell is using it, is just the consensus on a coffee’s traits. What is subjective is what flavours we (in the field of speciality coffee) want to exclude (taints), and the traits we are looking for, and the more complex interplay of what is good with provenance and history and current trends in mind. We have subjectively chosen to pursue certain goals, and our definition of “quality” is contrived. That is, we look for specific objective traits that we subjectively find desirable in our field. We also use our personal subjective tastes to help rate something… but we have already bought into the ideas and goals of speciality coffee.
    I guess I don’t really know what you disagree with in Maxwell’s statement. I think both of us are having a disconnect with subjective and objective as words. You are very strictly defining objective as the physical reality of coffee, i.e. it’s chemical make up. I am very strictly defining subjective as something that is completely personal, merely an opinion… with no basis in the physical world i.e. how much you like something.
    “ I agree that we can define “objective” and “subjective” in these ways, as long as we make it clear this is what we’re talking about. I don’t agree about it being a useful definition – I think there is a real benefit in coffee professionals considering the philosophical subjective/objective gap – but it’s a semantic disagreement rather than a substantive one.”
    Cool, I’m happy with that. I still don’t agree that it’s USEFUL for coffee pros to argue metaphysics, except in an armchair philosopher sort of way. I’ve got too much respect for philosophy to think that you or I will come up with anything spectacular in that field. We can disagree happily there, we’re not two philosophical professionals, we’re coffee people. As long as our terms are the same, we can discuss things.
    “ I disagree that experts test their palates against objective criteria. There is a major reason that cupping competitions ask competitors to judge relative difference, rather than asking them to identify flavours – flavour descriptors are far less consistent than we’d all like to believe.”
    I’m honestly just confused by that statement. What else, if not objective qualities are people tasting? When I do a triangle test, I don’t perceive that I LIKE one cup more than I LIKE the other two… I’m judging how similar two cups are to each other, or how different one cup is. Based on flavor, aroma, and mouthfeel, the test is one of recognising objective differences in 2 coffees. It would be just like having a colour test. 2 shades of colour, 3 discs, choose the odd on out. I don’t think anyone would find that a test of PURELY subjective experience. Furthermore, a Q Grader must be able to tell the difference between the different flavour taints… it’s not just about how much she likes the coffee, she should be able to glean important objective information about a coffee. E.g.: does it have a potato defect?
    In fact, you CAN’T test some one’s subjective recognition… as it’s purely subjective. So once again… how do you create professionals in your purely subjective framework? You can’t test subjective taste, by it’s very definition.
    You bring up the fact that many people describe coffee differently. I don’t think that it necessarily means that it’s a purely subjective experience. Let’s do an example. Let’s take a painting, Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night. If you sat 100 people in a room and had them stare at it for 15 minutes, then ask them to describe it… you will have 100 different descriptions. Art experts will be able to more accurately describe it (to other experts), but even so, people will describe it differently.But I don’t honestly believe that people are really seeing 100 different pictures (even if they are having 100 different experiences). Each of them can refer to specific elements of the picture. There was a lot of blue, the stars were large and swirling, There was a cityscape… no one will disagree on those things. The painting is right there, you could look and see that some one is WRONG if they say that the painting is mostly white. It’s not, you can look and see that. If they honestly believe that, they should see a doctor. You can’t be wrong if it’s purely subjective. They are welcome to disagree on what the painting MEANS or how they FELT while seeing it… but they should be able to describe it. I could look at it and know that people with normal functioning eyes will see that there is a lot of blue. Keep in mind, I don’t think it’s useless to have subjective descriptors… I just think it’s useless to have PURELY subjective descriptors.
    Dude A, “What was the painting like?”
    Dude B:“Good! It brought to my mind the idea of insignificance in the grand scheme of things…”
    A:“Sure… what did it look like?”
    B:“It was like looking in to the face of God.”
    A:“Oooookay… what colours did he use?”
    B:“He used the colours of the heart, and the brush of the divine.”
    A:”Erm… I’m gonna go…”
    It’s the same in a cupping. The reason that people can come to an agreement on other people’s flavour notes is because they are all generally tasting the same things. They are having different experiences, and they have different vocabulary banks based on past experiences… but they are each “seeing” the same cup of coffee. Otherwise, people would never agree on what someone else said about a cup of coffee… except by pure chance. I taste at work all the time… some people seem to be particularly adept at picking out specific types of things. Saltiness, or mouthfeel… but when they draw my attention to those things… I can see that they are there. It would be like pointing out something on a painting, you can refer to something that is objectively there, even if the person hadn’t noticed it yet. I think that phenomenon points to the fact that we are tasting things very similarly. It’s just like eyesight… some people can see detail, some people can see far away, some people can barely see at all. There are no “eyeglasses” for tasting, so it’s easier to assume there isn’t a clear consensus. But there is something there that is physical and it is causing us to have these reactions to it. We can predict the reactions others will have to that object. What is objective in taste is just what someone with well functioning olfactory systems will taste. It’s just like colour.
    “My experience has been that most people like speciality quality coffee more than lower grade coffees – all things being equal. If you used a commercial quality coffee and a speciality grade coffee, roasted both equally, brewed both equally and presented both in nondescript, identical containers, most people would prefer the speciality grade.”
    I want to work in that world. I would honestly love it if this were true, just because it would be easier. In my experience… it’s just not the case. (Also, it’s an oversimplification to roast all the coffee the same way… I’m assuming you don’t do that at Hasbean… It’s part of their definition of their drink, and it’s part of ours in speciality coffee.) People will almost always choose a well brewed speciality coffee over a poorly brewed one. Which is cool, and goes to show that there are things that people pick up on, like over/underextraction (which lends credence to my ideas of objective flavours). However, all things considered, people often will choose a darker, richer cup… if that’s what they are used to. I find that there are MANY people who are new to coffee who would almost always choose the speciality cup. But we have the most trouble with customers who “love their coffee”… and want something “dark and bitter”. This has to do with expectation. They have become accustomed to a specific drink/flavours and find value in the flavours. The want a RICH FULL BODIED WEIGHTY HARDY drink and want that experience when they drink coffee. Take something like a Monsoon Malabar. If you are used to that, and enjoy a musty, woody SMOOTH cup… you may not like speciality coffee in comparison. Yet a Monsoon Malabar wouldn’t make it past the first cupping for a Cup of Excellence competition. It’s distinct flavours and aromas would be considered flavor taints. Why? It’s not because no one will like it. It’s proven to be admired by plenty of people. It’s because it doesn’t meet the objective standards laid down by CoE. However, plenty of people like it, (they have every right to) Maxwell’s post was, in part, a way to explain that polemic. I don’t really have a problem with the taste of the masses. I’ve already argued that we are generally tasting similar things when we taste something. I think the problem lies with ONLY using popularity contests to judge coffee. I think there needs to be that objective framework (for speciality coffee) that Maxwell was talking about.
    Going back to customer expectation… if you order a burger, and someone hands you a perfectly cooked duck breast instead… would you be right to complain? Damn right you are. It’s bad service. However much I love duck breast, I didn’t get what I ordered. If the chef asked if I’d like to try the duck instead… I’d be like, “hells yeah!”, but it’s downright insulting that he just thinks he can take an order, not say a word, and give me something “better”. This is why we spend so much time working on customer service at our shop. We know we are a doppleganger for a regular cafe, but we don’t serve what a regular cafe serves. If customers are expecting their bold, dark, heavier cup, and get a tea-like, lightly roasted, fruity, floral, juicy filter… they weren’t served well. They will complain. They have every right to. What should I tell them? “What you got was better than what you were expecting… be grateful!”? They won’t always thank you… trust me on that. I feel like you must not work in a public shop if you think that everyone prefers what we do. I think that sort of attitude makes people think that it’s fine to serve “duck breast” (speciality coffee) to someone that’s ordered a “burger”(conventional coffee). It’s not fine.
    “To borrow a quote from Steve Leighton – “People like tasty coffee.”. I honestly believe coffee is a great example of popularism matching our own intuitions on quality.”
    Our job is to manage expectation, as well as to serve well-brewed speciality coffee. Steve is great. I love his coffees, I love what he does for farmers, I love the enthusiasm that drives him. He’s very honestly a hero of mine. Started from scratch and built one of the most amazing companies that I have had the privilege to do business with. I don’t have the context of Steve’s statement, but on its own I don’t find it useful. Maybe if I knew the context, or was able to have a chat with Steve… I’d understand better. I think that just serving “tasty” coffee is useless. I work for one of the greatest coffee shops on god’s green earth… yet if I serve the coffee we make (tasty as all hell to me) to someone expecting bitter, dark, and bold (tasty to them)… I haven’t done my job. They didn’t get what they ordered. They are, and have every right to be annoyed. If I let them know they will have a new experience, they may not enjoy it, but they will get what they were sold. If you believe that popularism reflects our own intuitions about coffee… you haven’t poked your head out of Hasbean for far too long. Work in a shop for a bit. I will definitely agree that people new to coffee (or people who don’t like coffee) will generally like speciality coffee filters over Starbucks filter… but more of those people will get a Strawberry Frappuchino instead. Speciality coffee is awesome, I love it, and more and more people are coming onboard, and they love it too. I think that if we carefully manage expectations, let people know what they are getting, and what they can expect, then more people will come to love it. I also think that it’s silly, arrogant, and unfair to serve people speciality coffee when they ordered a commercial coffee (not that you were suggesting that, but I think the idea that people will “just like it more” because it’s “tasty” is dangerous). Some people might like it, but it’s bad for the industry and it turns people right away from us. It should, we’re treating them like children, instead of just being honest about what we are serving, and how different a product it is.
    “”License” was a bad choice of phrase. I believe that many people who try speciality coffee could appreciate it much more than they do. That they could love coffee. But that they don’t feel comfortable considering it as more than a warm and wet beverage. For me, we as professionals need to provide an experience to customers that helps them appreciate our product – the coffee – to the greatest degree possible. To my mind, presenting tasting notes as objective risks alienating, by suggesting it’s a fact, and that failure to taste something is a failure of the drinker. I always view tasting notes as suggestions – and highly personal from the writer.”
    “License” WAS a bad choice of phrase. Enthusiasm is part of good customer service… but like you said, that’s for another post. I can, and should be enthusiastic about the coffee I’m serving. If you think that people would appreciate speciality coffee more than they do… it sort of goes against the idea that “tasty” coffee speaks for itself. It doesn’t. Too many people in the industry think it does. You’re right when you say that posting tasting flavor notes as objective is alienating. It is. We tell customers that it gives you an idea of what to expect, and will help them develop an idea of what they will like in the future. They aren’t graded on flavor notes. I think flavor notes in a shop are a good way for the shop to demonstrate a high quality understanding of their product. We know the water, the brewing parameters… we should understand what the customer is getting, and we should be able to have a conversation with them about what they are experiencing.
    I guess I don’t really understand what you find wrong with Maxwell’s article. You’ve agreed to my definition of terms… so I don’t know why you feel the need to come up with a purely subjective framework. If we use your original definition of terms, you’d have to say that every experience is purely subjective… a philosophical metaphysicial statement that I wasn’t really willing to apply to speciality coffee. I understood why you wanted to find a way to build a framework using only subjective criteria. If we’re using my terms, we should be fine with an objective framework, the one Maxwell posted seems very comprehensive. There are too many holes in your framework, and I’m having trouble seeing what you find wrong with the original post. I do, however, have questions on your subjective framework: In your purely subjective framework… would we be able to exclude Monsooned Malabar coffees from CoE competitions? On what grounds? Who are we getting to judge these competitions? What qualifies them? How are we JUDGING and TESTING their SUBJECTIVE experiences? Why does it matter who judges? Could it be a panel of anyone? Why not? On what grounds can we exclude people from judging? If we popularity to judge quality subjectively… how do we avoid a discrimination of minority tastes? How do you reconcile your claim that taste is subjective with your argument that nearly everyone will prefer speciality coffee?
    I’d also like to clarify the reason I responded so strongly. I felt like Maxwell’s post was a polished piece of writing. A product that was as academic as we really get in our field. If you had merely stated your own thesis, I wouldn’t have bothered to respond. Instead, you very specifically stated that you disagreed with Maxwell. Which is fine. I just thought the overall tone was something more akin to a pub conversation, rather than a professional dialogue. I don’t think that sort of “pub” conversation is bad. I just think it’s not an appropriate response to a polished piece of professional writing. Maybe it’s only that you wanted to sound less abrasive… but you announced on a public forum that you thought another professional in the field was incorrect about something… I think you should back it up with everything you have, or not bother saying it. You know what I mean?

    • Hi Jason,
      Thanks for following up. Firstly I’d like to reply to your final paragraph, about the tone of my post. I agree that my tone was very different to Maxwell’s, and ideally I would prefer that mine was a bit closer to his. It wasn’t meant to be disrespectful. My blog posts do tend to have a somewhat “stream of consciousness” style, simply because I’m very bad at getting posts written. The blog posts I have spent longer re-editing have just never got published.

      “What else, if not objective qualities are people tasting? When I do a triangle test, I don’t perceive that I LIKE one cup more than I LIKE the other two… I’m judging how similar two cups are to each other, or how different one cup is. Based on flavor, aroma, and mouthfeel, the test is one of recognising objective differences in 2 coffees. It would be just like having a colour test. 2 shades of colour, 3 discs, choose the odd on out. I don’t think anyone would find that a test of PURELY subjective experience. Furthermore, a Q Grader must be able to tell the difference between the different flavour taints… it’s not just about how much she likes the coffee, she should be able to glean important objective information about a coffee. E.g.: does it have a potato defect? ”
      The key issue for me here is that first part – in a triangle test you are judging relative flavours, not the abstract flavour descriptors. I agree with your analogy about colour shades, but for me, the step from judging differences to describing is like going from asking someone which if three colour cards is different, to asking them what the name of that shade of colour is. I take the point that there is an objective element, to use the given definition of that term, but my experience is that it’s a very small element and only really evident in comparative taste testing.

      ” The reason that people can come to an agreement on other people’s flavour notes is because they are all generally tasting the same things. They are having different experiences, and they have different vocabulary banks based on past experiences… but they are each “seeing” the same cup of coffee. Otherwise, people would never agree on what someone else said about a cup of coffee… except by pure chance. I taste at work all the time… some people seem to be particularly adept at picking out specific types of things. Saltiness, or mouthfeel… but when they draw my attention to those things… I can see that they are there. It would be like pointing out something on a painting, you can refer to something that is objectively there, even if the person hadn’t noticed it yet. I think that phenomenon points to the fact that we are tasting things very similarly. It’s just like eyesight… some people can see detail, some people can see far away, some people can barely see at all. There are no “eyeglasses” for tasting, so it’s easier to assume there isn’t a clear consensus. But there is something there that is physical and it is causing us to have these reactions to it. We can predict the reactions others will have to that object. What is objective in taste is just what someone with well functioning olfactory systems will taste. It’s just like colour.”
      You paint a very mechanical, Newtonian view of perception, and it just doesn’t fit with my experience. The experience from our senses is frequently misinterpreted, reinvented or altered as our context changes. Our minds fill in gaps and jump to conclusions that fit what we expect. For me, tasting is much more like viewing a Rorschach Test – asked what we see, we create totally different answers. Prompted if we see a crow? Yes. A caravan? Yes. All my experience of when people cup or taste coffee blind, in isolation from other’s words, is that there is rarely agreement on flavour descriptors. I’m not suggesting that there isn’t a common basis, an objective element, at all – but I am suggesting that it is much weaker than implied.

      “(Also, it’s an oversimplification to roast all the coffee the same way… I’m assuming you don’t do that at Hasbean… It’s part of their definition of their drink, and it’s part of ours in speciality coffee.)”
      I did oversimplify, but not by much. We roast all our coffees differently, but our darkest roasts is less than the lightest roast of some other speciality roasters, and our lightest roast is darker than the darkest roast of some other roasters. What I meant was if the coffee beans where roasted to a fair middle ground for them all – exactly what we do when roasting samples from importers/farmers/C.o.E. etc. – then people would consistently prefer speciality coffees

      “However, all things considered, people often will choose a darker, richer cup… if that’s what they are used to. I find that there are MANY people who are new to coffee who would almost always choose the speciality cup. But we have the most trouble with customers who “love their coffee”… and want something “dark and bitter”. This has to do with expectation. They have become accustomed to a specific drink/flavours and find value in the flavours. The want a RICH FULL BODIED WEIGHTY HARDY drink and want that experience when they drink coffee. Take something like a Monsoon Malabar. If you are used to that, and enjoy a musty, woody SMOOTH cup… you may not like speciality coffee in comparison”
      From all I’ve read from Maxwell, and heard from Dale, Colonna & Smalls is one of the minority of coffee shops that pays a lot of attention to guiding people’s expectations. I think it’s very important and underrated, and one of the key elements of customer service. However, that’s not an issue of what taste they prefer. It’s up to us to find speciality experiences that will engage with these customers and offer them a better experience – or to accept that we are unwilling to do what’s needed to engage with them because of what it would mean to us and our other customers. If you want to engage with lovers of traditional Italian espresso, then give them a traditional Italian bar style, a low acidity coffee, etc. – it can still be speciality. But you will sacrifice a lot of what other customers might love. Quality coffee can, and indeed does, cover a wide range of styles and experience, and I think that’s a good thing.

      “a Monsoon Malabar wouldn’t make it past the first cupping for a Cup of Excellence competition. It’s distinct flavours and aromas would be considered flavor taints. Why? It’s not because no one will like it. It’s proven to be admired by plenty of people. It’s because it doesn’t meet the objective standards laid down by CoE. However, plenty of people like it,”
      I would certainly be disappointed if we started using CoE as a criteria for good coffee. That works in both directions – I’ve cupped CoE lots that are distinctly disappointing, and not of the standard I would expect. I’ve also tried coffee’s that I love that would be instantly thrown out of CoE. Whilst I must admit that Monsoon Malabar is an extreme example, I certainly think there’s room for Sumatran, Indian and Indonesian coffees in speciality coffee – particularly as processing improves.

      “If you believe that popularism reflects our own intuitions about coffee… you haven’t poked your head out of Hasbean for far too long. Work in a shop for a bit. I will definitely agree that people new to coffee (or people who don’t like coffee) will generally like speciality coffee filters over Starbucks filter… but more of those people will get a Strawberry Frappuchino instead”
      For context, I have worked at Hasbean for a little over a year now. Before that, I worked as a barista serving Union coffee, and before that in a cafe serving commodity coffee. Before that I was a home coffee geek. Throughout all of this, I have believed in popularism. I have only one friend through coffee (excepting HasBean staff) and I don’t talk to my friends about coffee. However, most of my friends and family have eventually been taken to a speciality shop – or been served coffee brewed at home, and have all enjoyed the coffee. That people choose drinks that don’t taste of coffee (such as the Frappuchino) over coffee does not detract from a popularist view of coffee – it means we’re selling “coffee” to lots of people who don’t want coffee.

      I also disagree about the difference between speciality and commodity coffee. It’s not a hard cut off. There’s a range in quality and in experience – it’s absolutely a spectrum in terms of coffee offerings. There are many shops offering speciality quality coffee in a style which works both for those expecting speciality and those expecting a more commodity experience. For me, the big worry is not that we’ll confuse people by not explaining the difference in our offering – it’s that we’ll overplay that difference and put people off before they even try the coffee.

      EDIT: the quote from Steve was from a recent presentation on customer service, and probably negates any need for me to blog on the subject. It can be found at http://vimeo.com/46111697

      • Jason permalink

        Alrighty then, it just plain looks like I’m a bit of a dumbass, and I didn’t actually reply to your lastest reply. I thought I had… Moving right along…

        “Firstly I’d like to reply to your final paragraph, about the tone of my post. I agree that my tone was very different to Maxwell’s, and ideally I would prefer that mine was a bit closer to his. It wasn’t meant to be disrespectful. My blog posts do tend to have a somewhat “stream of consciousness” style, simply because I’m very bad at getting posts written. The blog posts I have spent longer re-editing have just never got published.”
        I guess my issue is less with tone and more with content. My own tone is terrible. I’m not a good person. I’ll live. I guess I just don’t know why you decided to take a coffee professional’s piece of writing, and publicly state that it is incorrect, without really fleshing out your own argument. You can write however you want. You can even disagree with whoever you want. I just don’t think you put the same time and energy into your response as Max did into his original post. To me, that detracts from the conversation, and doesn’t add to it. If you want to post “stream of consciousness” type stuff… I’m all for that. I just don’t think it’s good form for a public dissent of another professional. I don’t think you meant any malice, you seem like a nice dude. I was just concerned with your logic.

        Speaking of, I’m afraid that I’m going to opt out of our little debate. I don’t think continuing the conversation is useful at all, as we don’t agree on enough of the basics. I’m also a bit annoyed that you didn’t answer any of the direct questions from my lastest response. Instead you responded to claims that I didn’t make. Example: ” I certainly think there’s room for Sumatran, Indian and Indonesian coffees in speciality coffee – particularly as processing improves.” I know, I never said there wasn’t… Another: “I agree with your analogy about colour shades, but for me, the step from judging differences to describing is like going from asking someone which if three colour cards is different, to asking them what the name of that shade of colour is. I take the point that there is an objective element, to use the given definition of that term, but my experience is that it’s a very small element and only really evident in comparative taste testing.” I know that triangle tests don’t involve creating flavour notes, I never claimed they did. I didn’t even bring up triangle tests, you did. They are an objective test, my point was that taste is fairly objective… like seeing a painting… but you could take different things from it. My question was, and I quote, “In fact, you CAN’T test some one’s subjective recognition… as it’s purely subjective. So once again… how do you create professionals in your purely subjective framework? You can’t test subjective taste, by it’s very definition.” You didn’t respond to it. Or ANY of the other direct questions I asked:

        ” In your purely subjective framework… would we be able to exclude Monsooned Malabar coffees from CoE competitions? On what grounds? Who are we getting to judge these competitions? What qualifies them? How are we JUDGING and TESTING their SUBJECTIVE experiences? Why does it matter who judges? Could it be a panel of anyone? Why not? On what grounds can we exclude people from judging? If we use popularity to judge quality subjectively… how do we avoid a discrimination of minority tastes? How do you reconcile your claim that taste is subjective with your argument that nearly everyone will prefer speciality coffee?”

        I also restated Maxwell’s thesis without the words OBJECTIVE and SUBJECTIVE and said that I didn’t understand why you disagreed. No response to that. That was really the important one.

        It just doesn’t look like we’re engaging in a way that I find satisfying. Even if we were… we are both guilty of saying that MOST people MIGHT prefer, but we haven’t done the testing. I’m glad your family and friends like the coffee shops you take them to and the coffee that you brew them. I suspect bias. But, importantly, I can’t prove it, which makes any conversation in that department an exercise in futility. I have my experience serving the public in a speciality shop for 42 hours a week, you served your family and friends… what do either of us know until they do the tests, eh?

        EVEN IF we did the tests, I STILL don’t think we agree enough to have a useful conversation. If you flat out, don’t agree that speciality coffee is different than conventional/traditional coffee… we aren’t even in the same universe. We’re not using the same physics… so we can’t interact with each other. You’ve had a traditional espresso, right? And I hope to gods that you’ve had Hasbean’s espresso… THEY ARE NOT THE SAME. This also applies to Steve’s point in the video. I love Steve. Probably too much. I love his coffee, I love his ethics, I love his red suspenders… and maybe if we sat down and chatted, we’d come to an agreement on everything. I don’t know. I sort of doubt it. I still love my wife, and we disagree all the time. ANYWAY, I don’t think that telling shop owners to “just serve tasty coffee” is useful. I don’t think that it’s “overdelivering” to serve someone a shot of Kicker Blend when they want a trad espresso that works well with sugar. A good Kicker shot is better than a mediocre trad shot, right? Will you “overdeliver” on the sugar too? An organic demerara, perhaps? How nice will that taste in the espresso? Will you tell them that it’s best without sugar? Will they really feel “overdelivered” to when they don’t receive something that resembles, IN ANY WAY, what they ordered? Will you tell them that “it’s like when you started drinking wine and you only had Chardonnay… now you like something deeper, with more complexity… Our coffee is like that! “? So… the customer gets something they didn’t order, it cost them more money, they may have waited longer for it… and now you top it off by suggesting that they have immature taste if they don’t like it? Golden. I don’t think that’s overdelivering. Sounds more like bad service. People like tasty coffee… but what people find tasty IS subjective and some people find dark roast TASTY. Really throws a wrench in things. It’s like giving a 600cc motorcycle to someone that wants a kid’s bike. They might be thrilled, they’ll probably be annoyed. You are taking the liberty of making an OBJECTIVE value judgement FOR THEM without knowing about their own SUBJECTIVE values.

        Again, I just don’t think we see things the same way enough to have a conversation that will be useful for either of us. You probably feel the same way… maybe not, as we don’t agree on much.

        I wish you every future success. I’m sorry we couldn’t solve all the problems in the industry together. We were thiiis close. I won’t bug you on your blog anymore. Thank you for your time!

  3. Mike Haggerton permalink

    Hi Roland. I enjoyed your post and I think it is important that people in the industry (or indeed home coffee lovers) feel able to publish views that are supplementary and contrasting with those of others. Your post is respectful to the Colonna & Small’s one, and as a reader I do not infer any “Maxwell is incorrect” message from it. On a formality scale blogs tend towards the informal end. They do not need to be accomplished pieces. To me they are more often than not a way to get an idea out there and further the discussion, rather than a way to make a point in black and white or try to provide a definitive answer to a question (there are so few definitive answers in coffee anyway, and any that exist are often fleeting). To invest large quanitities of time crafting the perfect blog post is counterproductive, as ‘the perfect blog’ arrogantly implies there is no room for further debate. ‘Imperfect blogging’ (for want of a better phrase) creates debate between unconfrontational readers… whether in the comments section of the blog or in a response on another blog site… that will generally result in the participants all having taken a step forward in their coffee journey, and that matters so much more than semantics, logic, or winning the point. Please keep up the good work for we readers, and I really hope that you keep comments open too. I respectfully hold a different view from Mr Hoffmann’s regarding blog comments (and that doesn’t mean I’m calling him out as being wrong!). I usually find they are a breeding ground for very good thoughts. Most of the time anyway…

    • Jason permalink

      Hey Mike, I hear really good things about you! Everyone I know in coffee (not that many people, but hey) say you’re a really nice guy. I’m hoping not to make an enemy of everyone in the industry before I’ve even started making an appearance in it… but here goes.
      Firstly, I should clarify my issue with Roland’s post. I have to do this because I have been unclear, and I even sound like I’ve gone back and forth. (I didn’t really, but I was wildly unclear. It sounded like I had an issue with tone, which I don’t)
      I don’t think Roland’s response was malicious. I do think that disagreeing with a fellow professional’s finished product, and stating it in a public forum, requires some care. Otherwise we’re not adding to the conversation. We do the opposite, we’re invalidating the discussion by not putting in the work that it deserves. Roland admitted that it was a stream of consciousness type of writing… which I don’t think is a bad thing. I just think it’s not aiding that particular discussion. Had he merely stated his own thoughts, rather than directly disagreeing with Max, I wouldn’t have a problem. Truthfully, I don’t really have much of an issue with people stating whatever they want, in any forum. I found it to be a minor annoyance, to me, personally. I saw it as a flippant response to an almost academic finished article, online, for all to see. Which sounds harsh, but it’s something I could see myself doing. It’s easy to do in this age. I just think it’s something we should seek to avoid.
      We are professionals. We’re not just friends, we’re not a social club. We have a responsibility to the craft we are pursuing. As such, I think we can’t merely have casual, fun chats. We can, and should debate.
      “To invest large quanitities of time crafting the perfect blog post is counterproductive, as ‘the perfect blog’ arrogantly implies there is no room for further debate. ‘Imperfect blogging’ (for want of a better phrase) creates debate between unconfrontational readers… whether in the comments section of the blog or in a response on another blog site… that will generally result in the participants all having taken a step forward in their coffee journey, and that matters so much more than semantics, logic, or winning the point.”
      Is that a statement you really want to stand behind? No one is saying they have the perfect blog… not to my knowledge anyway. Spending time creating something significant is counter-productive? So spending less time on it is more productive? Really? I cannot agree with that. I have a hard time believing that it’s something you agree with. Maybe if you spent a large quantity of time on your reply, you would have said something different. Then again, maybe not. Could be that you really believe that. Which is cool… but if you don’t spend time making sure you get things right, I won’t really know what you mean when you say anything. Which is something I think is counter-productive. I do, on the other hand, really really like your idea of “imperfect blogging”. I think it’s great. People can bring things up, ask the community what they think… there’s not a thing I can see wrong with that. I just think that when a coffee pro, a respected one with great accolades, stands up and announces something… we should listen, then digest it, and THEN come up with a response that takes time to craft. MORE time than the professional spent on their original statement. Why more time? Because they have more experience in the field. If you want to talk at the kid’s table, say what you want. If you want to talk with the adults, you’d better have a point… and be able to defend it. I’m a martial arts amateur, but I’m not going to tell Gemma Gibbons that her “Judo’s good, but could use some work here and there.” It wouldn’t be useful to her, or to anyone listening to the conversation. It would be a waste of everyone’s time, mine included. I haven’t put the same amount of work into it, so I CANNOT help drive the discussion.
      Your last sentence in that quote really bothers me. Semantics and logic are necessary to even have a lucid conversation. Roland and I didn’t sort our semantics out, so we ended up talking past each other. Without logic, we are just lost. We’d just make nonsensical, disconnected points. Winning the point is a hard one. We should all be striving for truth, rather than some social standing. We shouldn’t sacrifice our logic or our craft to win some imaginary contest… but we should strive to find and defend truth. Logic, semantics, and striving for truth aren’t LESS important than taking a step on our coffee journey… they are NECESSARY for it.
      I also don’t think James Hoffman or Maxwell should have comments on their blogs. If I start a blog tomorrow, I will have comments. I have less to give. They’ve already proven themselves in the field, and don’t need smartasses like me commenting on their finished articles (which is what they are, as opposed to blog posts). I feel like Roland and I have a ton to give to this community, and it’s this sort of place, in the comments, that we get our start and fan the flames of our passion. This is where we get dirty and duke it out. This is where we make our mistakes before we start contributing in a more significant way with articles born from industry experience. When that day comes, I think I’ll leave comments off, so jerks like me can’t flippantly make light of it without adding anything worthwhile to the conversation.
      Adding something to the conversation is important. That means you can’t just say whatever you want. You must logically consider the points, and offer a logical response. Not a purely emotional one, not a quick stream of consciousness one, but a considered and logical response. Otherwise, how do we move forward? Does this mean we should check ourselves before we say something? YES! Is that a bad thing? NO!
      I don’t think that Roland made a good decision in publicly stating that Maxwell was incorrect (this IS what happened… putting it another way is sugar-coating it… when you disagree with someone, you both think the other is wrong, plain and simple). I don’t think it was evil, or mean-spirited, or morally wrong. I thought it was bad form, as he didn’t put as much time in as Max had. I do think that Roland is awesome for engaging with me. I very much hope that Roland continues to write, I do like his writing style, and I don’t mind a stream-of-consciousness type of blog. Excepting the last case… obviously… for the reasons stated.

      • Mike Haggerton permalink

        “when you disagree with someone, you both think the other is wrong, plain and simple”

        I disagree 😉 – and to illustrate my point, I don’t think you’re wrong! By disagreeing I am presenting an alternative perspective. I prefer my perspective. You prefer yours. The two co-exist in glorious and harmonious opposition, neither perspective needing to be right or wrong. The human need for being correct is driven by ego and when ego is removed then we can be more accepting of alternate perspectives, a kind of suspended disbelief, and that is how creativity is taught and deadlocks overcome. Sorry to get all Dalai Lama on you, but it does seem that you take a very binary view of the world and maybe you’d be less affronted by opposing viewpoints if you didn’t see them as an attack upon this one and only truth that you hold dear.
        I’ll stand behind my comments. Even a statement that is semantically confusing, logically flawed and lacking in accuracy or truth can still carry the discussion forward. It can do so because the end goal… a truth that works for everyone involved… isn’t found by one person; doesn’t need to be crafted through the intense work of a singular writer. Not when there are others involved. Two heads are better than one and a thousand are better than two. Put the illogical, cack-handed proposal on the table and collaboration does the rest and transforms it into logic and truth, as a secondary outcome of everyone involved having had a few lightbulb moments (the primary outcome). This is why blogs and forums can often be so useful. Crowd-sourcing ideas is more productive than working alone.
        Too hippy? 😉

      • Jason permalink

        Yes. Too hippy. I still feel like there should be an appreciation of expertise and experience. That’s why I want my surgeon to be educated and qualified. I don’t need everyone else’s opinion on whether my spleen is swollen… I want a professional’s. Not everyone’s opinion has equal weight on every subject.
        I also feel like you disagree with someone BECAUSE you believe that they are wrong. Otherwise, why do you disagree? I do see a wider point of listening and responding… but in your model, you don’t seem to have to do that, you can say whatever you want. “Mike Haggerton eats babies,” is not a useful thing to say, and it doesn’t add to the conversation… professionally. You may still personally take the experience, take something valuable from it, but it’s never going to drive the professional dialogue in a positive direction.
        We may be running into the same issues that Roland and I had, where we just believe totally different things. I feel like every response should have as much energy put into it as the original statement. I can see situations where an off-the-cuff, “why not?” might be quite valuable, but I can’t see how you would lose the value of the question if you gave it some thought before you asked. In fact, you might save everyone some time. I do agree that crowd-sourcing is valuable, and it should be used in a lot of situations. I just think qualified professionals in a field have a much more valid and useful contribution to make. Universities have professors, hospitals have doctors, aeroplanes have pilots… seems to work out. Standards can be challenged, all I want is for people to take their time with any dissent of a qualified professional. That’s not weird is it?

  4. Mike Haggerton permalink

    I respect the fact that you adopt a scientific view of coffee, a fact-based approach where there are clear rights and wrongs. But I think we will indeed need to let this go, as I don’t share your sense of certainty, and I’m also wary of anyone in coffee, no matter how many stripes they have on their sleeve, who would claim that their point is undeniable fact. Hoffmann, Davies and Gordon get my vote precisely because they are humble enough to say that even now they are unsure of some things and are still learning. This isn’t academia. I refer you to an earlier post by Roland regarding Art, Science and Craft in coffee… a post which Maxwell enjoyed if I remember rightly. I don’t think he would have been as offended by Roland’s post as you, tbh, but that’s just speculation on my part.
    Anyway, nice talking. I’m off for a baby sarny now.

    • Jason permalink

      That’s not remotely a response to the things I’ve actually said. Which isn’t surprising, I guess, given your views on what you think is useful dialogue.

      I’m sorry we can’t engage in fairly simple dialogue, we’re just having a basic disconnect. I do honestly wish you good luck in your new shop. I know you’re putting a lot into it, and I hope people can appreciate that. I come off much nicer in real life… so maybe our chats will go better in that format. Thanks for taking the time to chat with me!

      • Mike Haggerton permalink

        I wasn’t remotely trying to respond to any of your points in that reply, Jason. Dialogue-by-bullet-points isn’t really very sustainable in an online conversation as it becomes far too much like exchange-fire, so I was just bringing things to a polite close. I’m much more incoherent in real life, so we’re probably doomed 😉

      • Jason permalink

        I was just annoyed that you were trying to paint me as someone with haughty certainty… when the entire time I’ve been advocating caution when you disagree with some one. A disagreement with a professional is a big deal, I just want everyone to check themselves before they flippantly disagree. It’s literally the opposite of certainty. It’s having the humility to recognise that someone else likely has a point… especially if they have experience in the field. I just want people to take time with their responses. I believe it’s hubristic not to. That’s it, Haggy.

        You want everyone to say whatever they want… which isn’t a bad thing. You don’t want people to take the hard line, so you’re not trying to be arrogant either. You want to be able to say the opposite of me without disagreeing. I can dig that, actually. We only disagree on what we think is useful dialogue. I don’t think either of us really believes we know best. We just disagree on how to achieve our goals.

        Yeah, we’re probably doomed. I think we could eek out an incoherent, amiable babble. We’ll try for that when we meet! See you around!

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