As an industry we often talk of our need for criticism, that the lack of it holds us back, stunting our development, leaving us somewhat immature. Inevitably this leads to emotionally charged conversations and discussions, but these discussions never really see to progress anywhere. I believe it is because we haven’t fully decided what we believe criticism to be.

Dual definitions

The umbrella word fosters two different but intertwined meanings: it is the expression of disapproval based on perceived flaws or mistakes, and it is also the analysis an judgement of something (typically we might use this meaning when discussing art).

Our emotional responses to the idea of criticism will vary according to whichever of the definitions we are referring to, though this is often lost in our discussions

The other issue I see is that when we elicit feedback we’re often not clear on what questions we are actually asking?

How was your coffee?

Let’s divide critical negative responses into two different camps: Criticism based on the failure to meet the expectations of the customer (a service based failure first and foremost), and the failure to meet the expectation of the business (primarily a preparation based failure).

When I ask you how your cup of coffee was then I should be looking to interpret your answer through one of these two ideas. When I ask you this question I might be asking “Did I serve you something that met your needs?” or I might (rarely I hope) be asking “Did I/we brew this cup of coffee properly?”. Tensions arise when you intend to ask the first question, and your customer answers the second one.

My own personal experience, where people may want technical criticism on brewing, and I can answer honestly without causing great offence, is not one available to many people. Imagine pulling a customer you’ve never met before an espresso, you ask how it was and they explain that it tastes a little fast and a little long. You thought the shot looked ok, and now you are left in a dilemma of not really knowing the validity of the criticism. Does this person know a great deal about coffee, or are they just an overconfident amateur looking to use their experience to bolster confidences in their own skills?

We say want criticism but we really have to be clear who we want to get criticism from – I know I have written a little about another aspect of this recently.

I am am aware that this question is often used as a tool to start a conversation, to open up a little dialogue with a customer – I see the value of this opening gambit though I wonder if this is the best question. If it isn’t meant – as so many disinterested mid meal “So how is everything?” check-ins are  – then the effect on the customer’s experience can be quite negative.

This roast is way too light

There has been an increasing amount of discussion and negative commentary on an increase in the number of companies trying to roast coffee lighter. This is difficult criticism to interpret. The negative response may come from the taster’s expectations – their idea of how coffee is best presented. This opinion may have been the result of repeated exposure of a specific level of roast,e.g. thirty years of drinking French Roast. This is usually rather unhelpful criticism as it fosters homogeny. We are surpringly unwilling to accept that there is more than one way to present coffees. I don’t believe my preference for roasted oolong teas is grounds to dismiss, on a technical level, the greener ones available.

This doesn’t mean that light roasts are above criticism, but valuable criticism does require an understanding of both the technical roasting process as well as the raw materials and their capacity also.

What are you owed?

This is a slightly more awkward aspect to the discussion. You might ask someone in the industry for some feedback, and in many cases you might really be asking to be taught something, to be given information. In some cases the critic may feel they have an obligation – they might be the supplier, they may be a good friend – but often they may not be. They may even be a competitor – should they feel they owe help and assistence to a competing business? (the recipient may also devalue and distrust the information based on the competitive nature of the relationship rendering the entire transaction an awkward valueless experience).

We’re generally a friendly and inclusive industry, with strong community, but we can’t continue to pretend that all knowledge is valueless especially when people incur significant costs of time and effort to attain it in the first place – and may even rely on it for their livelihood.

Food writing

In thinking about coffee criticism I inevitably looked at food criticism, which sits within the broader aspect of food writing. Food writing, the really good stuff, is often a form of criticism in that it is often assessment and dissection of an aspect of food. This kind of writing often helps shape ideas of food within culture, its place within our lived and of its wider value beyond nutrition or a delightful gustatory response. These can sometimes offer benchmarks for more technical criticism and feedback to be anchored to or measured against.

One might argue that coffee lacks the breadth of depth and topics required to foster writing like this, but I don’t really agree. Especially considering some of my favourite food writing often evoke broad ideas from narrow subjects. The little coffee writing we’ve had we’ve reacted negatively to – not seeing its value in buiding up an validity to our coffee culture and industry’s fascinating complexity.

And your point is….?

I’ve wanted to write about criticism for a little while, to throw my 2 cents into the debate. My ultimate point is that if you think criticism is vital and lacking then you need to be more precise about exactly what you think is missing. When you wish to elicit feedback from individuals then you need to be very clear about what question you are asking them. You must also accept that if they’ve paid for their coffee then they owe you nothing, the transaction is over and ideally the necessary value realised for both parties. You should be on even footing and demanding more puts the cafe, the barista, or the roaster into debt. What is that criticism then worth to you?