It must be said right up front: we are huge Hamilton Nolan fans, and have been following his work with Gawker for the last five years, which might as well be five decades in blogger time. Therefore, taking umbrage with Mr. Nolan for writing a dismissive feature on “off-putting and obsessed coffee snobs” is absurd. Or is it?
It isn’t. Hamilton Nolan’s recent piece for Gawker – “Might the Coffee Nerds Be Right?“ – contains a couple of statements we think are perilously and irresponsibly ill-drawn, to the point of being beneath the numerous talents of a writer like Mr. Nolan. If you’re unfamiliar with Hamilton Nolan’s work throughout the Gawker Media Network, peruse his archives backlog here and you’ll be sure to find something of interest relating to news, culture, journalism, and the human experience. Or you can just skip right to the really good stuff, which are his zooming, exhaustively detailed boxing features, some published by The Awl, the rest by HBO Boxing and Deadspin (particularly this marvelous feature on Adrien Broner and the boxing publicity machine).
But there’s a couple of big stinkers in Hamilton Nolan’s coffee article. Here’s one:
… the difference between the world’s most expensive cup of coffee and a cup of Folger’s that I make in the morning in my shitty drip coffee machine is really not that much, when you get right down to it. They both taste like coffee. Maybe the good coffee is 20% better tasting than the average coffee. Fine. That’s not a respectable margin upon which to base an entire lifestyle.
Hamilton, this would be like us telling you that the difference between watching Floyd Mayweather fight and watching a Michigan Juggalo amateur wrestling rumble is really not that much, when you get right down to it. They both involve dudes beating up other dudes. Maybe Floyd Mayweather is 20% better than Kush Josh, or whatever, but that’s not a respectable margin upon which to base an entire lifestyle.
This line of logic obscures the fact that Floyd Mayweather actually IS more than 20% better than Kush Josh, backyard Juggalo wrestler. And in the same breath, we’re equally as sure that coffee with quality as a benchmark – from growing to processing to importing to roasting to brewing – actually IS more than 20% better than your cup of Folgers. Be it sports, food, booze, writing, music, and yes, even coffee, there are whole worlds, whole constellations of enthusiasts who know enough about what’s good to revel in the vast gulfs of what’s better. Are some people douchey about it? Yes. But getting called a douche and actually being a douche are very different things.
Here’s another pull quote:
If I sat around all morning meditating upon the feel of one pair of socks on my feet versus the feel of another pair of socks on my feet, I’d have some flowery things to say about socks, too. But from a more reasonable perspective, I’d still be wasting my life, meditating upon a single mundane and rather superfluous item. “Yeah, he’s a sock guy. He’s really into socks. Knows tons of sock trivia,” people would say, politely. “We’re really trying to find him a date. Do you know anyone? No?”
I’m sure the coffee is good and all though.
There are people who think things like boxing or journalism-ism are mundane and rather superfluous, and inasmuch as anyone can deal with absolutes, we’d say that those people are categorically wrong. We think topics like boxing and media critique are fascinating, and we’d cite pieces of your own writing as evidence to anyone who disagreed. You, Hamilton Nolan, are every bit as wrong about coffee, and as evidence we’ll cite the work of Liz Clayton and Erin Meister over at Serious Eats, much of Oliver Strand’s work for T Magazine and The New York Times, and Matt Buchanan’s coffee features for The New Yorker and Eater National.
Consider for a moment that coffee might be more than just the brutish fuel that helps speed up your synaptic responses. For some, it’s not just something that gives the brain a jolt of alacrity; it’s something for the brain to actually appreciate, savor and derive joy from. Does that make you a sinner for taking your coffee for granted? No, actually, not at all – that coffee came from a farmer somewhere, after all, and personal tastes are what they are. You do you. Some people want McDonalds, some people want the burger at Lot 2. Just don’t pretend like these items are within the same 20% margin of deliciousness.
We really are huge fans, Hamilton, but a fight like Ward v Gatti 1 is more than 20% better than your neighborhood backyard royal rumble, and you know it. Starting from the baseline, there exists a quantity of better above your 20% for most things, including coffee (and to be clear, your Folgers really is the baseline). What if we told you there were coffees out there every bit as good as the best prize fights? And baristas on par in their craft to fighters like Mayweather, Broner, and Andre Ward?
The coffees we love aren’t just good, Mr. Nolan, they’re completely delicious. New York City in 2013 is a saturnalia of delicious coffees and awesome cafes; you’re drinking flat champagne at the bacchanal, and for no good reason. Did we make enough boxing analogies? There are some coffee experiences out there that will really just knock you out…