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A fear of pretension

September 26, 2012

“A part of me thinks that an eagerness to simplify speciality coffee as just good or tasty, as well as dumbing down narrative and context is an attempt to reach the largest possible audience; but a deeper part of me thinks that it could be a symptom of a ‘fear of pretension’ that is waiting at the doorstep of speciality coffee.”

This is how my last post finished up and I do indeed see reaching the largest possible audience as highly valuable.  In fact the last article, setting the stage, aimed to display that achieving this goal is more complex than it can seem.  Ironically reaching more people is not as easy as just simplifying everything, with misleading narrative actually hindering accessibility.

Below are a few definitions of pretension:-

- Attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture etc than is actually possessed.

 - Characterized by assumption of dignity or importance.

 - Claiming or demanding a position of distinction or merit, especially when unjustified.

 - False or hypocritical profession.

Lastly this Urban Dictionary explanation is very useful to show how the word is often used:-

- Its meaning has also become the complete opposite.  In the English speaking world it has become a catch all phrase to criticize anything or anyone that is vaguely heartfelt, intellectual, earnest, sincere, artistic, non-conformist or non-commercial.

I would add to this, that when the word pretension is used in regards to speciality coffee, there is also a referencing of other words such as ‘snobby’ – one who affects an offensive air of self-satisfied superiority in matters of taste or intellect.  And ‘elitist’ – a person or class of persons considered superior by others or by themselves.  ‘Elite’ can also be used positively to suggest the best of something although in this context we will be using it negatively.

Naturally in speciality coffee there is uncertainty and a worry of misinterpretation.  I do believe that a rational caution and a continuing assessment of what we are doing is highly valuable.  To strive not to be off-putting, with approaches that are intimidating and alienating, is a key goal for speciality coffee.  The concern of being labelled ‘elitist’ or ‘snobby’ is a fear that strikes through the heart of speciality coffee.  It is the fear of either real pretension or of being labelled ‘pretentious’ or of encouraging pretentious attitudes. All of which can be very damaging for speciality coffee.

In order to traverse the thin ice that awaits and establish positive foundations we need to embrace an open explanation of how fascinating and wonderful it all is.  We need to display our excitement at what coffee is capable of.  There needs to be an understanding of the complexity of taste or else risk the snobbery that other fields of taste inhabit.

Trying to simplify and dumb down speciality coffee will not help avoid pretentious type-casting.  We are after all the speciality coffee industry, we think coffee is special, we weigh doses and we weigh water, we are interested in extraction yields and we care about how all this affects taste.

The suggestion that speciality coffee is just ‘good tasty coffee’ that doesn’t need any context is especially problematic, and this idea itself can actually go a long way to confirming pretentious labelling. Philosophically this line of thought is dangerous, in so far that it is highly snobby, it ignores the complexities of the product, and the different relations people have with coffee.   Suggesting that speciality coffee is just a ‘good’ or ‘better’ version of the product shows snobbery that the other approaches are inferior.  It infers that if a “balanced” speciality espresso with acidity and all sorts of intense aromatics and flavour is not at all up your alley compared to a more traditional, commercial shot then you are just a tasteless fool.  When we consider that coffee is often used as part of a cocktail (Coffee as a Cocktail) with sugar or cold milk in a filter, then speciality coffee isn’t always as good an ingredient.  To turn our nose up at the individual who likes a continental style espresso with sugar, or just as awfully, to assume they do not know any better, is why we will be labelled pretentious.  Saying speciality coffee is ‘just better’ does also not consider the fact that most coffee consumed is not on a cupping table.  I think speciality coffee has parameters for quality based on collective agreement within a field (Isn’t it All Essentially Subjective, Just a Matter of Taste?) but that doesn’t mean it’s what everyone wants and it doesn’t mean that other parts of coffee’s wider world outside of this field do not also suit peoples’ needs.  It is pretty arrogant or simply naive to think everyone can or should agree on what tastes best. The only way to avoid pretension is to accept differences and understand many viewpoints by talking about different goals and then judging quality once goals have been established.

The solution is to be open and honest about what we value, that there is a valuing of provenance in our field, rather than looking for an espresso that works with sugar or mimics a traditional Italian style espresso and so forth.  The solution is to shout loud and proud about our passion for the aspects of coffee that we pursue, the kind of passion that encourages writing about coffee in the very way I am now.  Why would we want to hide the passion and love of our product that keeps us hooked?  Maybe we are embarrassed.

One thing that really must be considered when exploring pretension in coffee is that the very aim of eradicating all suggestions of pretension is unachievable.  The field must come to terms with the fact that however we present ourselves, speciality coffee will have the terms pretentious, elitist, and snobby pointed squarely in its direction.  Going to such lengths to understand and explore the intricacies of any subject (especially one that it is taste orientated) will be labelled pretentious, elitist, and full of snobbery by some.  I am not saying that we should not be careful and thoughtful about how we represent ourselves but that the very nature of what we do will be subject to such accusations.

Here are two thought processes that stem from the notion of flavour and specialism in coffee:-

“Life is too short to make all of this fuss about coffee, it’s silly and over the top.  Just leave it as it is and drink it”

“Life is too short not to make a fuss about coffee, not to explore its possibilities and enjoy its complexities”

Neither of these two opinions is wrong.  They are just based on different priorities and different world views.  I realise that speciality coffee folk are not really worried about the top quote.  They are actually more concerned about the in-betweeners, and rightly so, with many a barista/coffee person lurking out there who embraces the elitism and exclusion that speciality coffee is capable of.  There is nothing more worrying and damaging than the individual that lords their coffee preferences and knowledge over others, especially as their expertise are often much smaller than boasted and therefore pretentious. The most skilled baristas have learnt that there is a lot to know and still a lot to learn, retaining an open-mindedness and curiosity, and because of this they are often more approachable (not always). I firmly believe that an open dialogue and discussion with customers around coffee and its different aspects, increases the understanding of both the coffee maker and the drinker.

The pretentious presentation of coffee to an unsuspecting drinker without a modicum of service in mind has already made a damaging indent into speciality coffee’s reputation. Add to this branding that promotes the same old product as special, and the idea of a complex product that’s worth getting all fussy about begins to seem highly pretentious. To cite these as problems however is rather easy. More complicated is the assessment of an effective way to counter these problems. It is not only the barista that acts outwardly snobby that dents credibility, it is also the perfectly nice barista or coffee person who is not in the slightest bit pretentious but who also feels they cannot share their knowledge; the barista who stays quiet and believes they need to simplify things for their customer base to understand. This also does very little to combat perceptions of snobbery, widening the gap between speciality coffee and the consumer.

As a business selling speciality coffee we have needed to be aware of the bigger pretentious problems that occur elsewhere in the industry that in turn can set a negative stage for people before they have walked in to our store. What happens next is important. This is indeed where a fear of pretension can skew solutions.  Simple friendly service is an attempt at damage control, to douse the flames of a labelling that can engulf all that is positive about speciality coffee. But this is just hiding from the problem. All that will heal this burn is an industry that gives clear and logical reasons for why it does what it does, and acts as a field that empathises (not conforms) with other coffee cultures and tastes.

A common counterargument to this implies that an informative passionate approach may put off those who don’t respond well to coffee fanaticism. My counter to this would be, that when passion is displayed earnestly it will more often win out, nudging opinion away from the judgment that specialism equals pretension and towards the judgement that specialism equals a love of what you do.

I can see two perceived gains from getting rid of narrative or just explaining speciality coffee as tasty. The first is the argument that staying quiet lessens the chances of being seen as patronizing or condescending. The second is the suggestion that it is more respectful and effective to let people discover the approach on their own terms.  This argument can go both ways though.  I can just as easily argue that simplyifng the product shows a lack of respect for the customers’ ability to understand the concept in the first place, and I can also argue that it is misleading due to the lack of context which then confuses the discovery altogether.  This can very easily become a ‘choose your side of the fence’ situation. The reason I find it hard to sit on the silent and simple side of the fence is that silence leaves a neat little space that misunderstanding likes to occupy; Snap judgments (based on previous experience) will happily set up home where words don’t hold court or offer support. The label of pretension holds firm in a silent arena. The solution requires a bit of both sides - to not overcomplicate and exclude but also to not dumb down, undermine and mislead.

I must say that it is possibly misleading of me to use moral markers, questioning amounts of respect, when really both sides show a respect if displayed well. The question is then not about respect (as this should be a pre-requisite) but is indeed a question of usefulness.

Ale really is a wonderful analogy.  It contains the same notions of provenance and flavour as wine but doesn’t suffer the close relationship with pretension, a fear of suffering from the pretension that wine can suffer from can then lead to a poor assessment of what is valuable in terms of description and presentation within that industry.

When you walk into a pub with a range of ales on and ask for a pint, the barman will ask a few questions, and these will revolve around descriptions of flavour.  Would you like hoppy, citrusy and light, or creamy and malty? And so on. You may try a few samples, but all along the suggestion that they are all just tasty would have been of little or no use to you unless you knew the beer companies or are friends with the barman (he knows your tastes). This is no different to wine info, unless of course we are talking about obviously pretentious taste descriptors such as “it is like dancing through fog when a waft of sea air hits you.”  These kinds of descriptors can be fun depending on how you see it, but are hardly useful and potentially off-putting. In the bar, information is given regarding flavour and provenance as a useful tool and guide for the drinker. In fact it will be deemed bad service if the products are not adequately explained. When narrative is useful it is anything but pretentious but when narrative/information are seen as superfluous and unnecessary that is when the word pretension comes out to play.

I think the main symptom that stems from a fear of pretension is a miss-allocation of blame regarding the presentation of speciality coffee.  Dialogue is really the only way forward I can see to display that we have thought about coffee in depth, but also that we have thought about others’ taste and what that means, and to then use dialogue and communication in order to show that we love what we do and are eager to share it with others. That is of course if they are interested, otherwise it is just a case of giving some simple useful advice about the product and approach. Dialogue either increases or stops at this point. People will then realise that the shop, the roaster, or the employees are not there to be part of an elite club, or to recognise what good coffee is whilst others do not. They will realise that we do not think speciality coffee and the various formats involved are just better and nor do we think that those who disagree are just wrong. Otherwise the fear of pretension itself will do nothing to help shift the negative tag that is so eager to sit around the neck of speciality coffee.


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