Artisan? What does it mean? It seems to be an ingredient in just about everything from coffee and chocolates to denim and leather goods. What is it all about? As I’m fond to do in most blog pieces, first a quick call to Merriam.
Ba-ring, ba-ring …
“Hello, Merriam? Sump here. Quick question. What’s this artisan thing all about?”
“Well, it generally connotes an individual -usually a worker, i.e., not a mere hobbyist, who practices a trade or handicraft.”
“Uh, pardon the interruption, but did you say ‘handicraft’, with an ‘i’ and in “handi’? (12 year old boy in a grown man's body snickering)
“Correct. In addition, it suggests something produced in a limited quantity -often using traditional methods.”
“Alright then, so it does not in anyway say anything expressly about quality. Correct?”
“Not expressly, however its assumed under a 10,000 hour theory -a la Malcolm Gladwell, that one who ‘practices’ a trade regularly will gain a proficiency and mastery of the trade in question.”
“Ok, so essentially artisan means small batch made goods using traditional methods by someone who has dedicated his or her life (or a significant percent thereof) to the practice in question and through such practice monies are earned and a living is made. Is that it?”
“I’ve gone as far as I can go with you. But that get in the top 10 of a Google search.”
“But I have more questions, like how small of a batch qualifies? and how long does a method have to be practiced before it occupies the position of traditional method? Does it mean only roasters with cast iron drums? and atmospheric burners? What about the person who practices a trade and along the 10,000 hour trajectory they innovate? Now innovators, but not artisans? Does a stainless steel drum mean not artisan? Say we roast on an IR 2.5 drum roaster, are we more artisan than an IR 12 or a P 12? Or is only L 12 artisan and the P series means ‘poser’? Or is it a strict cut off 12 kg or less? And what about how sincere everyone seems to be about declaring their artisan practices and products produced therefrom? If I sound more pained, more honest, more passionate, more raw about my emotions toward the thing crafted is it more artisan? Emo-artisan coffee. Does it make it better? Is it just a mere desire to make the best that merits the title?”
So many voices (as in websites) herald how their small batches are the best, most sincerest, artisan crafted coffees. By-the-by, what does ‘best’ actually mean? The best coffee? The best chocolate? The best denim?
“Merriam here again. Best is typically understood to mean better than all others in quality or value.”
“What a minute Merriam, your definition comes across a bit like a tautology by throwing the word better in there. The best is the best because it’s the best. If you have three things and one is better than the other two, it’s not only better, but also best. Not sitting well with me. Also, such a claim of best is extremely relativistic and mathematically improbable/impossible. Then there is the whole thorny issue of what criteria a thing is deemed better than all other things.”
So the take away seems to be -at least in the loose context of coffee is: (i) “artisan” suggests something like we are not the other big, bad actor in the market, the 800 pound gorilla, the one’s abusing the ‘craft/trade’ or materials or people or etc. Those others who are reckless in their stewardship of the ‘craft’ and who are ‘large’ and/or who are using large scale machines (robots and shit) to make mass quantities; (ii) “small batch” is perhaps, our equipment is tiny -by both design and by our budget (also market position -wee small); (iii) “sincerity” then is, a dollar is not all we chase, nor do we wish to create what the big players have done -“it's different, please come take a look” said holding back both a tear and rage; and (iv) “best” would suggest then different than currently offered -done in a deliberate attempt to elevate and redefine an experience that has become fixed, common place, impersonal, socially unconscious, lacking comfort and thought.
Obviously, ‘best’ is the most thorny and pernicious. It carries heavy tones of the Highlander’s credo of “there can be only one.” It also suggests something finished or final. Instead more words need to be folded into the mix, something like “We have made a conscious effort and purposeful undertaking to be in this field (trade) and it has been done at the risk of our own capital, muscle and bone; wherein, we work to create an experience around the cup that is not common -i.e., not something occurring or appearing frequently. We are small, because we are small -it’s a tautology I know, but an ant is ant no matter how hard it tries to be other -’nuff said. Being small means, being individual -so an individual palate drives decisions, not collectivism, not focus groups, not statically relevant sampling, no one is playing to the middle, or slow pitching the experience. The individual often perceives and creates things the collective is unable to or is constrained from doing -see Newton, Einstein, and Whitman -as well as the flops (or not) like the Flowbee. So it shouldn’t be about the best or who is most sincere, but instead, the individual, the individuals who have risked everything to bring something ‘individual’ to the market and by definition -at least initially- it will be in small quantities -coffee, chocolate, beer, denim or otherwise. Which ultimately means there should be as many seats at the table as there are mouths with cupping spoons in them -which is also not to say it will all be awesome.