Lee Knuttila, Owner of Quietly Coffee, began his coffee journey as a barista at Sam James Coffee Bar in Toronto. During this time, he was completing his Ph.D. at York University, where he wrote his dissertation titled: “Trolling Aesthetics: the Lulz as Creative Practice”. We chatted with Knuttila to learn about the philosophers that have inspired him and how he hopes to see specialty coffee evolve.  

- How has your academic background, specifically your work looking at the internet, informed your online presence as a business and your approach to social media? 

My Ph.D. research mostly focused on the tensions between anonymity and the rise of social media, which does not scream ‘how to roast coffee’. However, there are some connections!

The scaling of social media has led to a much more uniform online experience in which content is tailored to specific algorithmic trends. Granted, the information (or misinformation) varies within communities, but the overarching culture of feeds, playlists, reaction videos, and so on will focus on the viral and, by extension, adopt a homogeneity or sameness. As much as these platforms rely on narratives of facilitating diverse voices, divergent opinions, or dynamic conversations, an algorithm which amplifies the already popular (economies of likes, influencers, playlists, views, etc.) means that we end up with very similar feeds and a closed online experience.

So coffee? I think the big dream of the third wave was to do away with sameness. By moving away from massive brokers who would collect and amalgamate crops and massive companies who would all roast dark, small-scale producers connected to roasters and cafes who wanted to find the unique and interesting sensory elements inherent in fresh crop coffee (and of course get paid for their intense labour). Rather than burning every batch into a similar charred state, we get a vivid set of fruit, berry, or cooked sugar notes that reflect the variety of plant, the conditions of growth, and the producer’s crucial choices in processing. An open experience built against sensory sameness.

However, as with most counterculture movements in late capitalism, there is also an increasing ‘sameness’ across the coffee landscape. Shops stock bags from the same small set of large roasters, roasters source from a small pool of producers, producers rely on limited ‘innovative’ processing approaches, and so on. The result is not an ever-expanding exploration of the unique, but rather a limited sense of specific roast styles, ‘funky’ processes, and name brand farms that constitute a ‘good’ aka high-scoring cup. Like an algorithm wholly focused on the popular, there is a danger of losing out on the surprising, individual, challenging, and beautiful possibilities in the cup…    

- What do you hope to see change or evolve in specialty coffee?

I hope to see the ‘networks of coffee’ put more energy into amplifying the voice of producers. Too often farmers and cooperatives are treated like static points in which coffee is extracted and then ‘unlocked’ by the roaster and brewer. Moreover, when we do talk about producers, it's often within narratives of either oppression or conquering adversity. Conversations about the farm’s values, interests, aims, actions, and opinions open a much more interesting discussion and do not diminish agency within the network.

- As a roaster, how do you work to showcase the uniqueness of each coffee?

Showcasing the unique is always the goal of building a roast profile. Rather than arbitrarily ending roasts using time, percentages, or degree markers, I always go to the cupping table to consider taste! I ask how much sweetness, bitterness, and sourness are in the cup, so that I can build out the flavour impressions. For example, I can isolate a sour-bitter that has a citric quality, or a sweet-sour that exudes some stone-fruit notes, or a bitter cocoa-like aromatic that really heightens the cups overall perceived sweetness.

Increasingly, the biggest strategy at Quietly is to bring in the same producers harvest after harvest. The benefit is two-fold: first, it adds stability in a volatile market if producers know they have a guaranteed buyer. Second, it allows shops and home brewers to develop long-term connections to specific farms and cooperatives. Returning favourites perfectly foster both the unique and the familiar, as you can taste the small changes in terroir and approach over time.

- You often quote philosophers or other writers in your blog posts to help illustrate ideas surrounding coffee. Is there one philosopher or idea that has helped you form your approach to coffee? Or is there one you are currently interested in or inspired by?

A lot of my coffee friends give me a very reasonable hard time about the philosophy side of the blog, but I always find inspiration in my bookshelf! If there is one philosopher that continues to guide my choices at Quietly, it would likely be Bruno Latour. His simple idea is that individual actions are always occurring within a much broader set of collective actions, and by extension, we are entwined in ‘alliances’ with our networks of people and things. The logic follows that we are responsible for our networks. As much as we want to say we are making ethical choices by sourcing coffee from farm X or Y, the rest of the people and things in the network matter. How are we shipping it? Where do our bags or boxes come from? Do we have benefits for our employees? The questions are endless and they are the ones that keep me up and night (and writing obtuse blog posts).

November 30, 2023 — Zara Snitman

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