Sometimes I put milk in brewed coffee. I do so when I go to I-HOP for a plate of International Pancakes and a bottomless cup of diner swill. Sometimes I buy coffee at the airport. It’s usually godawful sludge that’s been over-roasted and brewed too strong before stewing in a hot coffee urn for god knows how long. You better believe I add some milk to this stuff; it’s too ghastly to drink black. Milk can make bad coffee less bad. It also of course has its place in a number of venerable espresso drinks.
But what about good brewed coffee? There are some coffees that you just shouldn’t add milk to. The term “Third Wave” refers to the movement that treats brewed coffee as an artisanal product. High quality, well-processed beans are sourced from small farms, roasted to exacting specifications meant to highlight the coffee’s origin character, and brewed precisely one cup at a time. Every step of the process is oriented towards doing justice to a high quality bean. Adding milk to Third Wave coffee is antithetical to this aim. Milk masks the origin character, changes the mouthfeel, drowns out the subtle details.
But what if you really just prefer coffee with milk? What if you are willing to shell out hard-earned cash for a nice, freshly made cup of Third Wave coffee, but only on the condition that you may add milk to it? Just as most high-end steakhouses will ruin a steak for you if you ask them to, most Third Wave Coffee shops either have a carafe of milk out on the counter or they will give you some upon request. They might discourage you from adding milk to your beautiful vacuum siphoned Kenyan coffee, but they won’t stop you. This obligingness traces back to a core principle of American consumerism: the customer is always right.
Such is not the case at Caffé D’Bolla in Salt Lake City, one of the best coffee shops I’ve ever been to.
I visited D’Bolla recently on the insistent recommendation of Thi Nguyen, who promised the single most important culinary experience in the city. When I arrived, I was greeted by owner/roaster/barista John Piquet. I told him a friend had sent me there and he remarked, “your friend must be weird.” I asked for a vacuum siphon coffee, whichever beans he recommended. He immediately set conditions: black only, recommended one hour minimum to sit and experience the coffee.
I certainly wanted my coffee black in any case, but I was intrigued by Piquet’s rule. Is the customer not always right?
What I discovered was that this is a coffee shop with a code of ethics. Piquet has posted several pieces online about artisanal ethics, focusing on the question of whether Third Wave coffee shops should sell pre-ground coffee. When coffee is ground, it begins rapidly losing volatile aromatics. Within minutes it is a shadow of its former self. Pre-ground coffee from a good roaster will be much better than shitty pre-ground coffee, but much, much worse than freshly ground coffee from the same beans. Piquet thinks that this generates an ethical obligation for the roaster.
From “The Ethics of Being an Artisan”:
The value of the pre-ground coffee would decline by the hour, by the minute, by the second. What are we looking at? Thirty hours? Thirty minutes? Thirty seconds until the relative value of that coffee is zero? Remember, the baseline is the whole bean, so you are not comparing it to other coffees, you are comparing it to itself. If you are selling single origin, small farm coffee for the reasons a coffee shop or roaster sells that quality of product, then by all measures, isn’t the value approaching zero as soon as the bag lands on the shelf? Even if it were ground on the spot, the relative value would essentially be zero when it reached the customer’s home.
It’s your job as a seller of artisan goods to educate your customers, it’s not on the customer to come to you already educated. Selling high-end ingredients assumes that you are not trying to sell to everyone, but rather you welcome everyone who is looking for something better.
The artisan coffee provider has an obligation beyond the average coffee shop, an obligation to educate the customer to help them elevate their own coffee experience. The customer looks to the coffee shop owner, to the barista for guidance. To outwardly speak of cultivars, sourcing, brew ratios, and craft, and then sell the customer ground coffee demonstrates a pure and calculated facade. When a customer comes to buy coffee to take home, the care for the coffee does not end in the coffee shop, it begins at the grinder in the customer’s home.
Piquet, here, is offering us an ethical framework for being an artisan. We can formalize this framework as a cluster of principles:
- A seller that presents itself as artisanal/high-end incurs ethical obligations that other sellers don’t.
- Artisanal sellers have an obligation to sell products in the best condition possible, even when their customers request otherwise.
- When customers request products in sub-optimal condition, it is the obligation of the seller to educate the customer about standards of quality and disabuse them of whatever misconceptions they have.
- If they still want a product in a sub-optimal condition, there didn’t want an artisanal product in the first place and they are at the wrong store.
What is the basis of the ethical code that Piquet sketches? Two sorts of considerations seem to stand behind it. The first is the nature of artisanship and the promise that is conveyed by assuming the label. Most consumers know much less about coffee than coffee roasters and professional baristas, so there is an element of trust involved in coffee transactions. If a coffee has qualities that are unfamiliar to us and the barista tells us it is supposed to be that way, this gives us a reason to try to appreciate that quality rather than seeing it as a flaw. To take a simple example, someone raised on Starbucks dark roast, who has never had light-roasted East African coffee, might balk at a very high-end cup of coffee being crisp, bright, and juicy. If the barista explains that these are desirable qualities in this particular coffee, this gives the customer a reason to taste the coffee again and try to appreciate it. They may not like it, but they are learning something about coffee. Maybe what they learn is that light-roasted East African coffee is not for them, or maybe they are already on their way to acquiring a taste for it. The key is that the barista is trusted to play the role of educator in a way that no one would ever expect of a barista at an airport Starbucks.
The second sort of consideration is an obligation generated by the high quality of the product. A high-end coffee seller deserving of the name starts out with high quality beans. Such beans are relatively rare and it takes a lot of work to grow and process them. They ought not be wasted. One might even think that people further down the supply chain incur an obligation to do justice to the work of people higher up the supply chain. When a farmer works hard to grow and process some very nice coffee beans, this gives the roaster and barista an obligation not to ruin them. This is why many people are disturbed by the thought of someone ordering well done steak with ketchup at a nice steakhouse: it’s a troubling thing to do to a high quality product.
When we proclaim that “the customer is always right,” we imagine ourselves as reliable optimizing agents who just need enough choices to live our best lives. We treat our existing subjective preferences as reliable guides to living well. But of course we all know very well that most of our subjective preferences were formed through a combination of random chance and corporate manipulation and that it takes openness and work to bring them into alignment with what would actually be best for us. Someone who balks at light roast coffee at first but is open to being educated may later turn into a passionate Third Wave coffee enthusiast and be better off for it. This sort of personal growth is encouraged by businesses like D’Bolla and stunted by places that just aim to pander to the customer’s existing preferences. I didn’t need to be convinced to take my coffee black, but I have plenty to learn about coffee. After Piquet brewed me a silky cup of Rwandan coffee, he instructed me not to touch it for about nine minutes while it cooled to around 155 degree—the temperature where heat no longer dominates flavor. Without his instructions I probably would have given it only 3 or 4 minutes. He then talked me through the entire hour or so it took me to savor the small cup of coffee, gently chastising me for my misconceptions and overconfident pronouncements while explaining the pros and cons of various home roasting devices and brewing methods. An educational experience like this is priceless, but in any case the whole episode cost about what you’d expect to spend on an unremarkable glass of wine from a mediocre small plates restaurant.
All this is not to say that everyone ought to buy a conical burr grinder and start drinking artisanal coffee. There’s an embarrassment of aesthetic riches in the world and no one can or should go in for all the good stuff. If you’re not into coffee or you’re happy with Starbucks, there are plenty of other areas to spend your aesthetic energy. But if you do decide you want to explore high-end coffee, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to trust that a shop advertising itself as high-end holds itself to a code of ethics like D’Bolla’s?
Notes on the Contributor
Matt Strohl is a regular staff writer for Aesthetics for Birds, and Professor of Philosophy at University of Montana, Missoula.