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The most valuable experience I gained from the time I spent working in a coffee shop was learning how to conduct a tasting. In a sense, because it involves learning so much about coffee – the difference between arabica and robusta beans, where coffee grows and the nature of terroir (in the sense of “the taste of the place”), various processing methods, roasting styles and finally blends – it’s an involved and intricate process. In another sense, because it is, after all, simply the use of three things almost every human being has – a sense of taste, smell, and the ability to describe – it is a profoundly simple and accessible experience.
I must admit that I was very intimidated by the whole thing the first time I participated in a tasting. I was offered two samples of coffee which I could only describe as “Tastes like coffee” and “Also, tastes like coffee”. I was disturbed at the fluid yet alien descriptions of my fellow tasters and I kept sipping and sniffing trying to find the “mossy notes” and “ample tones of blackberry” and “subtle hints of cocoa layered with complex earthy aromas”. To be honest, I thought they were simply making these things up as they went. I almost felt like a daytripper touring Bedlam – “Pleased to meet you, Jesus and Ceasar. I’m Natalia Henceforth, illegitmate grandprogeny of Queen Victoria, late ruler of the Brittanic realms. Lovely weather we’re having, eh? Yes, this coffee does taste like moss. Delicious!”
That is, until I had my own tasting epiphany. I was given a sample of the rare Ethiopia Harrar and some blueberries. I dutifully inhaled the aroma of the coffee, took a small sip allowing the coffee to sweep across my tongue, swallowed and contemplated. Then I had a little of the blueberries and a lightbulb flickered on above my head – aha! I could actually taste something like blueberries in the coffee. It wasn’t something vivid enough to jump out and announce itself as an obvious flavor, yet it was undeniably there if I applied a sort of mindful savoring and sought it out.
I grew to love participating in, conducting and teaching others the art of tasting. I waxed eloquent and fanciful in my own descriptions. Whenever a customer inquired of the difference between the Arabia Mocha Java and the Arabian Mocca Sanani, my assistant manager would wave me over to repeat the contrasting description I’d concocted – Arabian Mocha Java is like Rock Hudson – woodsy, comfortable, casual yet hearty and warm, exactly the kind of coffee one could enjoy while camping in the great outdoors on a bracing early autumn’s evening. Arabian Mocca Sanani is like Cary Grant – complex, sophisticated with a suprising amount of depth, exactly the sort of thing best appreciated within a well-appointed Manhattan library curled up on a plush couch near a cheerful little fire in a grate.
Of course asking a writer to please describe is akin to “Hey, kitty, how ‘bout some catnip?” It simply doesn’t take much coaxing. Yet what I loved most about participating in this process wasn’t just the frequent opportunity to display my own verbosity – it wasn’t the acquisition of new comparison tools or the expansion of my own powers of description. What I loved most about tasting was the constant rediscovery of mindful savoring.
It’s an experience I’m reminded of every time the topic of commentary or criticism is readdressed here at Lit. It’s an experience I’ve struggled to put into words because I see similarities in the art of tasting and the task of criticism.
The most immediate similarity is that they both require moving beyond the most instinctive responses – “This is good” or “This tastes like coffee” or “I’ve had better”.
There is also a frequent protest which is attached to both experiences – “Eep! I’m not qualified to make critical comments” or “I’m not smart enough to learn tasting terms” or “Isn’t that just something for snobby people with too much time on their hands?”
Nope. See, the first rule of any tasting is that there are no wrong descriptions – just some better, more apt ones. The process of learning to form better descriptions is one which takes time and practice. It can be helpful to have a wider vocabulary just as it can help an artist to have a wide variety of hues from which to choose – but it’s not strictly necessary, as Picasso’s Blue Phase or Mark Twain’s plain speech can handily prove.
I believe the best gift a reader can give to a writer is not praise or encouragement, nor is it unsparing criticism. The best gift a reader can give to a writer is mindful attention, the contemplation of detail, underscored by an honesty which is both generous and pliant, selfless and openly subjective.
Pretensions, I believe, are what ruin good descriptions – whether biased toward the rarified or the common, the exotic or the familiar, the inherent blindness attached to pre-formed preferences is what impedes the kind of assessments which lead to valuable insight. It is humility, the deliberate mindset that every offering has some value which can be discovered through slow and careful absorption, which leads to continuous enrichment for any and every participant of these practices.
I’ve noticed that the most common response to discussions of criticism or commentary at Lit tends along the lines of “I tried to provide good criticism for a while but I didn’t get very good responses so I just stopped trying.” The irony of this statement is that I’ve only rarely seen writers at this site explicitly convey a disinterest in criticism. Rather, what seems to happen is that commentators become frustrated by a perceived lack of response – their comments may have little visible impact or provoke little notable reactions from the writer whom they have addressed. Yet, is it reasonable to expect that one very well written comment will change the whole of the state of poetry or literature in the idle space of a mouse click?
I’ve taken two realizations from these protests and my own experiences. For one, I’ve grown to value the worth of questions as useful tools in the application of criticism. After all, unlike a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, you can actually ask a writer what impact they are attempting to place on their audience. For another, I’ve learned to view my own criticism as simply taking place within a wider, highly engaging and endless conversation, rather than as continuous exerpts from my personal manifesto of What Life Should Be.
I’ve learned, overall, that I do not need any kind of perceivable response in order to find value in the work of criticism. If I can find nuance in the supple mouthfeel of a cup of Sulawesi, or reverence in the gaudy haze of a heartwrenching sunset, or simple perfection in the altering of one intransitive verb in an otherwise flawless haiku, then I have returned, again, to mindful savoring – a state of graceful contemplation which fulfills it’s own reward.
"All the darkness in the world
cannot put out the light
of one candle"