In recent times, I’ve taken a great interest in coffee. Over the course of several months, I dedicated myself to learning all that I could about what goes into a good cup of coffee. I researched coffee:the agriculture of the bean; the importance of their geographic origins; the roasting process; as well as the equipment used to prepare coffee (grinders, presses, filters and such). In short, I took it upon myself to learn the whole nine yards.
One evening, I expressed my new found interest to an acquaintance. “Why do you want to learn about coffee?” he asked me. I was surprised at why he was asking. Considering that he’s European, I expected him to be more of a coffee snob and therefore would understand why I wanted to learn more about coffee. But then again, he was the sort of guy who likes Illy and hates wearing suits. Anyway, it was a good question.
I paused, thinking for a moment to formulate my response. I expected my answer to be florid, a romanticized exaltation of some sort. But what I actually said was surprisingly simple. “I enjoy it more that way.”
Connoisseurship is a way to extract more pleasure from the little things. I am a suit enthusiast. Not only do I enjoy wearing bespoke suits, I enjoy knowing about them. Knowing what goes into the making of a bespoke suit is comforting to me. It’s not enough to simply know that the suit is made just for me, and that it fits well. I need to know why it fits so well, and the history and tradition behind bespoke clothing.
I take this desire to gain expert knowledge with me in all of my interests. Whether it’s coffee, suits, self-defense, computers, or films, I believe in educating oneself to gain a truer appreciation for things. When I understand something, my enjoyment of it becomes enhanced: I have conscious knowledge—as well as the ability to articulate that knowledge—of why I like something. A good looking suit becomes a suit that looks good because it is well cut to a man’s silhouette; a good film becomes a film I love because of the psychological drama that unfolds between the characters on the screen and the clever use of mise en scene by the director; a great novel becomes a beloved novel because I can trace the genealogy of the character’s misery to my own. Greater clarity of vision yields greater beauty, and the search for greater beauty is connoisseurship at its truest.
Connoisseurship can often be confused with elitism though. While I have been accused of being an elitist, I don’t find myself to be elitist at all. An elitist uses culture and odd interests in order to separate himself from the crowd, keeping the layman at bay so that he may bask in the glory of exclusivity. I, on the other hand, invite others to partake in my enthusiasm. My passion for bespoke suits, for computers, for coffee, for oldies music: whatever it is, I welcome others to enjoy those things that I find so much joy in. My defensive stance towards true enthusiasm is easily misconstrued as elitism though. I just happen to believe very very strongly that people should approach any new hobby or passion with the right attitude in order to gain the most benefit and enjoyment from such a pursuit.
Take coffee for example. It certainly is hip to be a coffee snob right now (emphasis on snob). The true hipsters are always on the hunt for a new cultural phenomenon, and I believe coffee is object of this ever-present effort. It wasn’t too long ago when Starbucks was popular yet not ubiquitous. Now that Starbucks has emerged as a dominant pop culture icon, it has become popular amongst those in the counterculture to hate on Starbucks. The next step in the evolution of the hipster would, naturally, be to rise above the mass consumption of corporate java and to enjoy exclusive specialty coffees.
To achieve a greater separation between themselves and the masses, hipsters of course turn to more esoteric variations of coffees. To separate the sheep from the shepherds, they choose the espresso. The espresso is a coffee beverage that demands a high degree of skill to make. Everything from the temperature of the water to the pounds-per-inch pressing down on the coffee grounds must be controlled. Would-be baristas must exercise an exacting mastery over the creation of an espresso. The espresso is an art form, and hipsters are the budding artists (or so they would have you believe).
For those who do not have the inclination, skill, or resources to become an espresso artist, the French press pot serves as an alternative badge of distinction. Because the French press pot is not necessarily common in the American household (although it certainly is coming back into vogue), snobs and hipsters have appropriated it as a symbol of a deeper appreciation of coffee: a way to thumb their noses at the masses, if you will.
Of course, I have no issue with people thrusting themselves into the world of coffee. Things can only improve: with greater demand comes greater competition, which is always a good thing when it comes to businesses. My real issue is with those who blindly leap into any realm of expertise without being properly prepared.
There are lots of folks out there who jump right into the latest hip thing to do. My contention is that these folks don’t actually deserve to be considered connoisseurs as they are by the unknowing general public. In fact, they should be outright banned from the hobby. They are nothing but snobs, hipsters, elitists who pervert the good nature of connoisseurship for their own narcissistic needs. My reasons for delving into the coffee world were not to distinguish myself: I simply wanted to have a good cup of coffee.
Having a good cup of coffee can of course become quite an investment. That is why I thoroughly researched the topic of coffee equipment before I plopped a single cent down. Connoisseurship is something to be respected, and there is a proper way to go about it.
The first step is knowledge. More specifically, one should have a deep understanding of one’s own needs. To purchase an espresso machine when one doesn’t even know how to appreciate the difference between an espresso and a plain ol’ cup o’ joe is a travesty to the beauty of coffee. Without an understanding of the nuances that go into coffee, such an acquisition serves only one purpose: to be shown off as a symbol of prestige and status, to mark oneself as one of the haves and to distance oneself from the have-nots. One should evaluate one’s needs: do I really enjoy espresso enough to justify the purchase of an expensive machine?
Conformity often guides people’s actions. Instead of thinking for themselves what really suits their needs, people often conform to what is popular. It’s why Moleskine’s are now all the rage. Do most really need fancy acid-free paper and oilcloth binding? Not really. Most people would do just fine with any other brand of hardcover poc ket journal, but the Moleskine has become a hip thing to own. And your average person doesn’t any better but to follow the trend. Conformity is the answer to the consumer question of, “What should I waste my hard earned cash on?”
That’s how Apple makes their money: by creating a very special brand of culture where early adopters make the product hip to own, thereby trickling later generations of the product down to the average consumer. The iPhone is a cultural icon: it is a status symbol. Or at least it used to be.
It is true, I am the owner of an iPhone 3GS. But I did not purchase it in order to fill some spiritual void or to make a statement. I wasn’t looking for some way to make me seem special. No, what I was looking for was a way to consolidate my gadgets. I came to realize that although I loved the idea of a BlackBerry, what with its heavy emphasis on messaging and connectivity, I didn’t actually have all that many people to message. I did, however, listen to music a lot. I was already comfortable with the iPhone OS because I had an iPod Touch. So the most logical thing to do was to ditch the BlackBerry and combine my cellphone and MP3 player into one device; hence my ownership of an iPhone. As you can see, I evaluated my needs and made a decision based on such an evaluation. My decision wasn’t based on the status of owning an iPhone. Rather, it was based on pragmatism and grounded in reality.
So when I got into coffee, I could’ve easily just jumped onto the espresso bandwagon, spending up to $1,000 on a quality espresso machine and $800 on an equally impressive grinder. But I’m no hipster. Instead, I evaluated my needs. I concluded that I could benefit from improved coffee. I did enjoy coffee and found both instant and percolated variations to be lacking. As such, I took the appropriate steps to better the quality of my coffee.
As I was thinking about coffee, I remembered an episode about coffee on Good Eats that I had seen years ago. I recalled that Alton Brown was a proponent of grinding and brewing your own coffee. He used a simple blade grinder to grind the beans and proceeded to make his own drip coffee without the need for a machine. I followed suit as my kitchen has no space for a coffee machine (that, and I don’t drink coffee on a daily basis anyhow). The very first beans I started off with were a house blend and a full city roast from Cafe Excellence.
After getting comfortable with making my fresh coffee, I decided that it was time to take it to the next level. While the full city roast was satisfying (the house blend had too much acidity for my tastes), I was ready to move on to richer and more sumptuous coffees. I knew from experience that I preferred a more viscous drink, something more substantial than I was getting from my drip coffee. I wanted my coffee to have a full body, smooth and sweet while remaining dark. I decided to explore the multitudes of coffee beans from all over the world that were available to me and ended up getting three different types of beans (from Mexico, Sumatra, and Costa Rica), as well as a Bodum press pot and a refurbished Baratza Maestro Plus conical burr grinder. For a little over $200, I upgraded my coffee setup.
Now, I haven’t tried it out yet as the packages haven’t arrived yet, but the reason I illustrated my own journey is to show that I took what I deem to be the proper path to connoisseurship. You see, my initial interest was in espresso; and, were I a hipster, that’s what I would’ve jumped straight at. But one should start out with the basics and work his way up.
After evaluating one’s needs, one needs to gain basic knowledge. This involves a lot of legwork: researching various websites and browsing forums can take up a whole day or two, maybe even a week or longer depending on your chosen interest. The reward, however, is a vital depth of understanding of the fundamentals.
Fundamentals are the building blocks of connoisseurship. There are no shortcuts. Those who have a genuine interest in becoming a real connoisseur will take the time to learn as much as he can about his given passion. Education is absolutely essential to becoming a connoisseur. It is the beginning of a long road, the road to true connoisseurship. But if you don’t take the time to learn the basics, if you don’t take a realistic look at your own needs, you end up being nothing but a big phony.
Thus, a true connoisseur has expert knowledge, or is at least working to gain a higher level of understanding. A deep and true comprehension of the matter at hand is what separates the mere elitist or hipster from a real connoisseur. Hipsters—as well as other wannabes—are superficial in their education and learn only what is necessary to create an illusion of expertise. Where a hipster may be able to impress the layman with lingo and other nuggets of esoteric knowledge, the connoisseur expresses a knowledge grounded in an education that took time and effort. Without the foundations of a well-established comprehension of the fundamentals, all the fancy lingo and esoteric knowledge that comes spouting out of your mouth is nothing but a lot of parroted nonsense. In short, shortcuts are for those who merely want to impress people.
Assuming that you are not a hipster, once you have built up a strong foundation from the fundamentals, you can start enjoying the fruits of your education. In the coffee realm, your first cup of freshly ground drip coffee, whether delightful or God awful, is a special one. It serves as an initiation into a world of fragrant aromas and complex tastes, some which you will find pleasing and others which you may prefer not to experience again. But with your education, you will be able to identify what it is that you like and what it is that you do not. Your decisions will be informed by intelligent reason, rather than being affected by what makes you look hip or cool.
I suppose that while a hipster’s social currency is a product’s uniqueness itself, my currency is knowledge. Knowledge, and not social status, wealth, or mere possession, is the requisite for connoisseurship. It is akin to the tailor who holds expert knowledge in suits, yet does not own one because of his modest earnings. Simple ownership of something rare does not make signify anything other than material status. It is the expert knowledge and a deep appreciation for the form and history of a thing that defines the connoisseur.
As for my own future as a connoisseur, I have much to learn and have a long way to go. Will I ever reach the point of becoming a barista skilled in the art of espresso? I highly doubt it. As fashionable as it may be, I simply have no need for such a beverage. I like my big mugs of coffee just fine thank you. But I will say that I have the dedication to learn all I can about coffee. ¶
Thanks to piovasco for the image.