The Simulacra of Specialty Coffee

Imagine you are standing looking down at a flat white, its beautiful latte art is glossy and pristine. This is a real coffee. You pull out your phone to take a photo, noticing there is a smudge on one part of the cup so you angle the photo to not show it. Is this a real coffee in your photo now that it omits part of the reality of the coffee? What about after you adjust the saturation, the sharpness, the contrast? What if when you text it to someone it loses quality, there are now visible pixels but there are no pixels in real life? At what point is the thing you’re looking at no longer a real coffee? At this point it has become a simulacra. The image is not the reality it states to depict, instead it covers up the fact that what it is depicting isn’t real at all.


A concept like specialty coffee has many attributes to define it. It isn’t one thing but a collection of people, objects, ideas, and experiences. As modern coffee has progressed the industry has created a collection of aesthetic norms which are signals to use in cafes or as part of the design of coffee bags which communicate this thing is specialty coffee, that this thing was made with specialty values. These signals are how we market specialty coffee but over time instead of the values dictating how we market coffee many have found that what is more powerful is the effectiveness of demonstrating the aesthetics without the values they purport to convey.


Companies write the type of processing on the bag of coffee and in doing so they not only communicate something about the experience the consumer will have but something about the company itself and what it cares about. What we choose to communicate is decided by prevailing value trends in the industry. You are more likely to see reference to how your coffee was hand picked over when it is machine picked. Machine picked coffee can itself be specialty but the story of machine picked is less so. That means the real coffee risks losing status by revealing an authentic part of what it is. Maintaining the aesthetic has become more important than the reality. We see the simulacra of specialty coffee not authentic specialty coffee.


When a culture moves from prizing the simulacra of something over the real thing there becomes new ways of attaining power. Power is no longer marked by who does the actions that are authentic but by those that can most efficiently deploy the ascetic that is perceived as authentic. It is easier to buy high commercial coffee and put it into a specialty styled bag than it is to actually source specialty coffee.


During this wave of coffee it is becoming more and more difficult to see what is real, we are now experiencing a hyperreality. This is where we can’t tell the difference between what states itself to be real but is not and what is truly real.


Although it is fair to argue over what part of reality matters more, what is clear is that reality is mattering less and less. The power of truth is that it equalizes people. In a community that cares about truth a lesser powerful person can become powerful when confronting the lying of a more powerful individual or group. As specialty has moved from a challenger niche industry to a trend setting one we must protect our dedication to truth and to do so we should look to find ways to dismantle the hyperreality and re-establish trust or we risk becoming completely irrelevant.


Finding a new way of signaling specialty is needed for the next wave. As we have seen the large chains are adopting the look pioneered in small owner operated specialty shops. We have seen some of the biggest commercial roasters begin using the language of specialty to market their coffee. We see big finance becoming aware of the opportunity in specialty for returns which will demand the most efficient expansion possible with or without values.


The only way forward is to create a new definition of specialty and a new set of signs and symbols to communicate it, signs and symbols that are not so easily co-opted. We could look to the labour union movements and the rise of the “union shops” as a tool to differentiate. What if there were a union of specialty coffee companies with defined commitments that are auditable? What if there were an organisation that instead of just a fee to join there were material obligations to protect the ideas that the community believes are important?


As we stand looking at the next wave of coffee we can choose to focus on mass scale adoption like what is happening everywhere or instead focus on establishing a new standard of what it means to be specialty.


- Josh