A while ago Gwilym sent me over a link to this video. It had been sitting, unwatched, in my links repository for a while – despite the fact that I’d watched and enjoyed the previous film from the film maker.

Give it a watch now – it is a worthwhile ten minutes – and best watched before reading this.

Made by Hand / No 2 The Knife Maker from Made by Hand on Vimeo.

I really liked a lot of what he had to say – he was engaging and clearly passionate. I liked hearing about spending a lot of time practicing and being ok with not being very good. I enjoyed hearing about developing technique to the point where you feel comfortable to start making art. I agree completely about mistakes being really, really great ways to learn if you are open to that.

The thing that he said that I had a negative, visceral response to was, to quote him,

This tag “handmade” on its very, sort of, basic face value means quality. If it is made by hand it’s made with great quality. If you think of a handmade suit, you think of something that’s, like, perfect. That’s why you pay more for it. Or a handmade car. To me that’s the sort of the value of handmade.

If we’re honest, the speciality end of the coffee industry has traded and marketed hard on this idea – all the while knowing that it simply isn’t true.

Something is not imbued with a greater level of quality simply because it is made by hand. One could argue that it attains some form of value, some cultural capital. I could understand if people believed that because it was handmade it was worth more, but it isn’t of higher quality.  His knives are worth more because they are a combination of skills, vision, materials and art.  In his eyes would he believe the knife would be better, more functional or long lasting,  because he didn’t use any of his machines, and did everything by hand?  Is he compromising his quality in return for commercial gain every time he switches on a lathe?  I don’t think so – and I would be surprised if he thought so too.

This inevitably leads us to thinking about divorcing the ideas of value and quality – something we’ve tried very hard not to do in coffee. It makes us think about things like tradition in a different. A particular process may have some worth because it is traditional, because it is a cultural artifact that is worth preserving. In food, and in coffee, there are many processes that are retained because of their cultural value – because we see them as having worth. It easily brings us to an awkward word and idea that, so far I’m glad to say, coffee hasn’t had to contend with: Authenticity. (An entirely different post could ask, and stumble around the answer to the question, “Is authenticity even possible in coffee, with so many opportunities for input along the way?”)

This intersection of quality and cultural value popped up again in the interview in two parts of the NYT wine critic Eric Asimov. (Part 1, Part 2) When asked why he is against blind tasting he says:

I think it’s infantilizing. It gives consumers the illusion of a level playing ground. I think we’re all very open to the idea that because we’re Americans and we’re democrats with a small d, aristocracy is a fiction and if everybody is given the same opportunity, then everybody can shine equally. I think there’s a lot more to it than that. I think that’s a dumbed down way of looking at wine.

I think for evaluating wine, there’s a great deal to be learned by knowing what you’re dealing with, the history, past performance, past experiences. It seems silly to me that only wine critics are asked to shut their eyes to that. (Emphasis added)

You could argue that in the past 10 years speciality coffee has done a better job selling the story of the coffees we drink than it has done selling geuinely excellent cups of said coffee. You could argue that the great success of Kona or JBM is the ability to sell the story to the extent that it becomes and brand and an idea where the price becomes totally divorced from the actual value.  Going back to Asimov’s point – would a tasting have greater impact if you ran it blind, or if you talked through the coffees – their provenance, their meaning – as you tasted them?  (This is an open, rather than rhetorical, question.)

More than this – as specialty coffee gets to a point where we have to look at sustainable pricing – is focusing on increasing the cultural capital of a cup of great coffee a route with greater returns than just focusing on everything in the cup?  The challenge of increasing the cultural value of coffee (because right now it carries very, very little cultural value) takes us to a similar place to wine – a world tripped up by pretension and snobbery, and where people seek to manipulate the value of things through exploiting what we have decided is valuable about it.  a

I hadn’t planned to bring this post to a rousing finale, more to think out loud.  It seemed worth commenting on the way we can misuse words that could be really useful to us when used properly.  It also seemed worth noting that lots of people and industries have the same issues, challenges and current solutions we do – and I’d be fascinated to know how they think coffee is doing compared to them.

  1. I already feel entirely out of my depth on this subject so I should stop here.  (back)