Written by Tim Kim
A friend was over last night. I don’t know him well so I hesitate to make any sort of character judgment. But I do note that it was interesting to hear him talk about coffee. He related to me that his friends often tease him, declaring him to be a coffee snob. While chuckling, he readily conceded this determination. He said that he was cringing while looking at the bag of SoDoI coffee sitting on the counter, and then preceded to dismiss all the common shops in Berkeley, finally ending with an almost reluctant, acknowledgment of Blue Bottle as one of the few decent places. When I asked him about what he didn’t like about SoDoI, he said, “They just try too hard you know?” He then quipped, “Sometimes I go to San Francisco just to get coffee.” I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to this awfully ordinary statement, to which I presume he is used to some sort of recognition.
I woke this morning and amongst other things, my mind floated to Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class. Veblen argues that there exists a phenomenon called “invidious distinction.” This term is related to this idea that we like to communicate our uniqueness and superiority through exterior displays. In other words, much of our consumption is not rooted in the material, but the social. You’re not really talking about the acidity and tones of the coffee, but instead you are saying something about who you are and where you stand in relation to others.
Elitism appalls me. To casually dismiss a fellow man’s pleasure is to acknowledge one’s complete self-absorption. Suppose a man cannot distinguish his wine, yet laughs and sips slowly with the same gratification all the same. Who I am to tell him that his gratification is of an inferior kind? My “taste” is less a testament to my “cultured-ness” and sophistication, and more a recognition of privilege, having the time and money to sit in leisure, sampling wine and learning to taste.
That being said, I want to add some nuance to this idea of elitism and taste by acknowledging that “taste” is not something to be completely and wholly dismissed as classist arrogance. I do recognize that the human’s capacity for sensory perception is a complex and beautiful mystery, something that can be cultivated and developed. Why should we not learn to taste deeply? This life we have been given but once. I find it admirable that some savor it with an intensity, eager and attentive to all the varieties of this earth.
To be clear, it is possible and indeed necessary, to distinguish between what is good and bad. My point here is that it is a distortion to somehow transfer that value judgment of the object, onto yourself and others. Good coffee is good. And bad coffee is bad. But being able to identify good coffee does not make the subject essentially good or superior. And alternatively, enjoying bad coffee, does not make the subject essentially bad or inferior.
Good taste involves self-awareness, an ability to dissect and know the experience of pleasure and what exactly is calling it forth. A good index for taste I argue, is vocabulary. If someone professes to be of cultivated taste, yet lacks the words or framework through which to think about it, their expertise is highly suspect. I feel compelled to elaborate on why vocabulary is so crucial to perception, but that likely necessitates a separate post altogether, and so I will leave that for another time.
I also feel strongly that a true expert exhibits a certain love for their fellow man. Discussion should not be about sharing one’s superiority, but joyously seeking to share with others, opening their eyes to new wonders- cheerfully savoring the gift of beauty, and the even greater gift of collectively experiencing this beauty.
These are just some of my thoughts on the coffee snob and how he is different from the coffee expert.