Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

The Ethics of Artisanship: Or, No, You May Not Put Milk in Your Coffee



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.

caffedbolla storefront

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.

From “Educate and Elevate! The role of the artisan coffee shop”:

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.

caffedbolla siphon 2

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.

Images courtesy of Drew Anderson via Flickr; John Piquet, Cafe D’Bolla.
Edited by C. Thi Nguyen


  1. This is great Thanks, Matt. Two anecdotes and a question: I was in Charleston at a nice, laid back new bar with all local drafts, some fancy-ish cocktails and maybe sherry on tap, or something. (Punch? I don’t remember.) They were open throughout the day with snacks and served coffee, too. It’s in a good location and does pretty good business. The bartender/owner recognized the roaster and said, “Hey, could we buy your beans?” He said this like he was doing the guy a favor (which he might have been, financially). The roaster looked around skeptically and said, “How would you serve the coffee?” Bartender said, “I don’t know, we’d probably do french press.” The roaster said, “Huh. No, I don’t think so.” The bartender was shocked, looked at me like I might translate, looked back at the guy and laughed. “Ok! Let me know if you change your mind.” The roaster smiled silently and raised his beer.

    I roast my own coffee and have been thinking about selling beans to a few people so I can support my habit (and buy a fancier roaster). This has caused me to think about artisanal ethics a lot. Exactly how to educate people in, and enforce, artisanal ethics is a worry for me. I’m WAY too likely to go on WAY too long about it. And educational pamphlets start to have the look of manifestos. Maybe this is just a problem with my pedagogy. But here’s a concrete example: a couple of weeks ago I roasted for my neighbors after they asked what I was doing on my porch, what that smell was, and otherwise expressed interest. I asked if they had a grinder. They did. I refrained from asking what kind (baby steps). After I gave the beans to them, they reported back that it “doesn’t quite work as well” as their usual french roast from Trader Joe’s. (Polite!) It was then that I found out they were using a Keurig. I said, “Aha! Well, that explains why it didn’t work as well,” and said something about steeping time. But since there’s just no saving that technique, I’m disinclined to waste more of my beans on it. But telling them this seems jerkish. Also, not giving them more beans seems a bit jerkish. So I’ll brew them coffee sometime? Hard to tell which of my many jerk moves is the least jerky.

    As I think about this, actually selling coffee seems a bit more freeing. There’s something about being an amateur and giving coffee to neighbors (whom you don’t know all that well) that is MORE constraining on artisanal ethics talk than having a shop. Or a shoppe. Maybe I should roast professionally so I can feel freer to proselytize. (Is this a weird intuition? My shop my rules vs. the etiquette of not lecturing a guest.)

    Again, interesting post.

    • I lecture my guests, but I try to frame it in a non-insulting way and I certainly wouldn’t prevent someone from adding milk to their coffee if my effort to persuade them failed (I tried to stop a couple aestheticians at Camp Aesthetics from putting milk in an Ethiopian coffee I had roasted and when they demanded milk I was like– ok give me the Ethiopian, I’ll drink it myself and brew you a Columbian coffee that I roasted with this exact scenario in mind). I also tell people not to watch certain movies on their laptop. I’ll even invite people over to my house to screen a movie properly in order to prevent them from watching it on their laptop. I think this sort of mild snobbery is nothing to shy away from as long as you’re also sensitive about the other party is experiencing the interaction. Someone who rolls full Keurig is probably not someone I would try to win over to very high end coffee (at least not directly), but surely a cappuccino on the porch sometime wouldn’t hurt?

  2. The idea that there is a “code of ethics” by which those running businesses must forget or otherwise abandon what the purpose of a business is, is just bizarre. What is being described here is little more than the fringes of the most insufferable version of hipsterism.

    I am a food enthusiast myself and a (very amateur) chef, but I can’t imagine a more nightmarish hour spent then the one described in the essay:

    “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.”

    Far from seeing this as a “priceless education,” as described by the author, such an experience would be much more likely to make me dump the coffee over the man’s head or — if self-control failed –to punch him, for exceeding permissible douche-levels.

    • It says something—not particularly flattering—about you that your response to “insufferable hipsterism” is to want to physically assault someone and poor scalding hot liquid on them. Perhaps instead of artisanal ethics you would be more interested in learning something about the ordinary kind of ethics?

    • We don’t get a lot of hostile comments from random forum trolls at AFB. I’m flattered by your attention, we’ve really hit the bigtime.

      • Sorry, but I found the heart of the piece absurd. Happens sometimes when one posts things in public. Not trolling at all. Simply couldnt imagine a sillier business owner than the gentleman in the article.

      • Please feel free to delete my comments if you only want positive ones. It’s all good.

        • I think there was a less hostile way to make your point but whatevs. This business has been open since 2004 so apparently the business plan works. I personally like to be bossed around by experts in fields I am interested in. I like going into a restaurant and being told what to order. I like old school Chinese tea shops where a tea master helps focus your attention on aspects of the tea drinking experience that you otherwise may not notice. This is the coffee equivalent of this. I think it’s a rare and wonderful treasure and I’ll swing by every time I visit SLC. And I do think there’s something ethically dubious about pretending to be a high end coffee seller and charging high end prices but then selling preground coffee to customers who think they are getting a high end product.

  3. Great piece, Matt. I enjoyed the part about how Yes it’s totally obvious that our tastes are really just random glob of external forces pushing us to and from various things. I also love the snotty comments and your unflinching responses. There’s of course an equivalent here in craft beer culture, and I’d be willing to bet you could say many of the same things about craft beer ethics and the business ethics of it and the trolls wouldn’t so much as notice–OF COURSE there’s a right way to serve and drink a beer!

  4. When we represent principles with sentences, it makes it look like all the important stuff is contained in *what* the sentence says. But, surely, *how* we honor what the sentence says can make all the difference.

    On a recent visit to my Wyoming hometown (a place reliably and adorably about a decade behind on everything), I patronized a newly opened downtown Third Wave coffee shop—it didn’t even have a sign up yet—whose owner opened the place because he was, as he put it to me, “tired of operating under the assumption that the people here wouldn’t or couldn’t appreciate really good coffee.” The owner was behind the counter one afternoon, running it all, as small-business owners often have to do, when a customer, curious about the place, ambled in from the dry heat and asked for a Frappuccino.

    Now, my hometown is the kind of place where the most popular places to eat are Applebee’s, Red Lobster, and the like, and the kind of place where “going to a coffee shop” means hitting the Starbucks drive-through for some caloric, artificially sweetened affair. The owner knew this too. I have a deep, inexplicable fondness for, my Wyoming people, so let me say: this customer was the sort for whom a dinner at Olive Garden was a fancy night out, for whom Blue Moon is the fancy beer on tap, and so on. You get the picture.

    The owner apologetically explained that he couldn’t make a Frappuccino exactly, since it requires pre-made powders and artificial sweeteners, and he didn’t have those things . . . things I’m sure he was thinking to himself represented everything wrong with the Starbucks phenomenon. But he kept that thought to himself and proceeded to describe what he *could* make, “something sorta like a Frappuccino, but I think you’ll end up liking it more.” He made it as the customer watched, and explained what he was doing. When he finished he put the drink up on the counter and told the customer that if she didn’t think it was better than a Frappuccino, she didn’t have to pay for it, and either he would make her something else or she could just take it and go. He told her what smells, flavors, and textures to look for, describing them by analogy when needed. The customer left having experienced something new and having received a small education in (how one might enjoy) coffee. I saw her in there the next day.

    You can imagine the many more stiflingly snobbish ways this scene could have played out. Here, though, the owner quickened an appetite the customer didn’t even know she had. He honored (what I imagine was) his Third Wave principle of serving a quality product the way it should be served. But it was the way he did these things that made all the difference.

  5. If we are really talking about ethics here, I think first we have to agree on a starting principle of allowing the individual to determine the hierarchy of values that govern their conduct, or we don’t get anywhere. I’m thinking about the work of Elizabeth S. Anderson, or at least what I’ve read of it in magazines, anyway. Let’s also agree that determining where ACTUAL conduct impinges on the rights of others is another matter entirely.

    A retailer selling a product is not unlike a citizen espousing a value. Their “ethical calculus” may be more or less congruent with that of their audience, and it is their prerogative to modulate those expressions in light of the consequences. This may include spending time to negotiate a preferred position from their audience.

    As a medical provider with training in mediation, my approach with a patient or any other negotiant is to navigate through someone’s expressed position to find a way to meet their need in a way consistent with my values. Perhaps this is an ethical obligation, and perhaps it is a functional strategy.

    Any salesman will tell you a similar thing. They do not sell goods or services; they sell solutions to unmet needs, which in effect involves selling needs. Caffé d’Bolla is selling an exclusive aesthetic experience, Starbucks is selling a mass-market comfort item, and it’s something of a coincidence that the products are both called coffee. It’s in the retailer’s best interest to cultivate a customer base whose desires are congruent with its products, which may involve preëmptively turning away a customer whose incongruent desires will go unmet.

    More specifically in the case of Caffé d’Bolla, an exclusive aesthetic experience is served by exoticization, mystification, or some other kind of exaltation of the product and expertise being sold. This may be a retailer’s disingenuous strategy, but it may also be a sincerely shared belief. The customer who pours milk in their lightly roasted, single estate grown, washed-process product is assaulting that mystique.

    Here’s where I think it gets ethically interesting, and highly relevant. There is a marketplace of ideas (and actual products), and we are free to contradict values espoused by others. Again, this may be a matter of sincere belief, but it may be a matter of disingenuous self interest: is not McDonald’s in a position to sell more coffee if they can convince consumers that high-end coffee is not better, or even a scam?

    In my opinion, the world is a diverse place and needs a plurality of coffee purveyors. It’s nice to have a decent cup of dollar coffee, and also to have an hour-long aesthetic experience. We can point to objective markers of quality on these competing scales of value, like chemical compounds that are positively correlated with subjective coffee evaluation, or difference in price point. Yet we are presented with actors like the commenter Daniel Kaufman everywhere: someone who thinks that a different set of values regarding coffee is an assault on their tastes, and perhaps even their identity, such that physical violence—or at least the jest thereof—is warranted.

    Let’s be clear that I am not trying to shame Mr. Kaufman for his behavior, nor am I suggesting that he poses a clear and present danger to society. He simply emerged as a ready exemplar of a puzzling phenomenon: why do we care so much how our neighbors take their coffee?

  6. Imagine being forced to listen to someone “chastise” you for an hour on how your preferences suck.

    Yes there are clear rules to coffee roasting, but this is just pretentious. The whole point of coffee is it’s versatility in it’s preparation. Some people might genuinely like coffee a certain way, regardless of how you explain how it’s supposed to be prepared. Hell, some people would argue that spending an entire HOUR to drink a cup of coffee is counterproductive because it runs the risk of getting cold. Regardless, preferences are really the whole fun of crafting coffee, especially when you bring culture into play. To say milk isn’t supposed to go in coffee is one thing; to say the customer is WRONG is different altogether, and I don’t even put milk in my coffee regularly.

    And all the comments about how some people are using the wrong machine is just hilarious. Don’t get me wrong, Keurig sucks to me, but if people didn’t like it then they wouldn’t buy it. I prefer Moka pots personally, but I commit the grievous sin of tamping the grinds because I like my coffee really strong. I’ve tried not tamping it, wasn’t a fan. Am I still wrong for having a preference outside what you elitists deem correct? Your lack a desire for experimentation and creativity and instead rely on placebo to make your coffee taste good—seriously, who sits with a customer for an HOUR talking about how great their coffee is and how shitty everyone elses is? That literally seems like gaslighting.

    I also bet the coffee is ridiculously expensive to make up for the fact that no normal person would want to go there.

  7. Coming to this very late, but I think the headline of the original post might’ve misled some readers. I take it that it wasn’t the author’s admonition to the world, but rather a report of the cafe owner’s attitude. And I take it also that Cafe d’Bolla is not a cafe you drop into when you need a hit of caffeine on your way to work, bur rather a purveyor of a particular kind of experience. You shouldn’t and woudn’t go to a wine tasting and insist you prefer to make a seltzer out of the Petrus. Even if you could afford it, and even if you had bought it with your own hard-earned money, that would be vandalism, and analogously here.

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