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A Whole Forest of Useless Trees
Trying to make qualitative decisions about the coffees we buy—and the world around us.
Hi friends! I’m taking a break this month. While I’m away, I’m re-publishing some of my favorite pieces from the Boss Barista archives, which will probably be new to many, if not most, subscribers—including today’s piece, which I wrote in the very early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m excited to share this with you!
While I’m gone, I have one request: It would make so much difference to me and my work if you considered becoming a paid Boss Barista subscriber. One of the reasons I decided to take a break—beyond the fact that we all deserve time off—is that this publication is not yet economically sustainable for me.
I’d really like that to change. The best way to support my ongoing work at Boss Barista is by becoming a paid subscriber:
This article was originally published on April 24, 2020.
What does it mean to be the best during a crisis?
A few weeks ago, I gave a quote to GQ about what the “best” coffee subscription was. I can imagine the intended reader: a person who likes going to their local coffee shop, but now that the COVID-19 pandemic has completely altered our lives, wonders how to make good coffee at home.
I spent about an hour talking with the writer, and just a few of the ideas we chatted about made it into the piece (this is a very common and necessary practice). Like them, I’ve been commissioned to write dozens of article searching for the “best” whatever in the past. But lately, I’ve been wondering what it really means to be the best.
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In my conversation with the author, I told them this: Start local. If you have a favorite coffee shop in your neighborhood, go to their social media pages and see if they’re selling beans. If you’re lucky enough to live in a town with a roaster, go to their website—they likely have a subscription service.
Recently, I returned to this local-first line of thinking. I just started reading Jenny Odell’s “How To Do Nothing,” and one of the ideas she introduces at the beginning of the book is bioregionalism, which has various meanings and applications rooted in Indigenous practices. Odell describes it as “not only familiarity with the local ecology but a commitment to stewarding it together.”
It was timely that this term came up in Odell’s book. I had just had a conversation with a future podcast guest about the way that coffee is traded, and how a global market that dictates the price of coffee serves the interest of market actors—like traders and investors—but doesn’t serve the folks who actually grow and sell their coffee. There are layers and layers between the people who dictate the price of a global commodity and those whose lives are irrevocably affected by that price.
Towards the end of our recording, one of the solutions my guest posited was a focus on locality, and consuming goods produced closer to the place you live. Shortening the gap between the person who made a thing and the person consuming that thing, in other words. (As previous podcast guest Karla Boza, a third-generation coffee grower from El Salvador, has shared, her coffee is much more profitable when it’s sold and consumed within El Salvador.)
This is not a cure-all, but it’s a good place to start. Not only do you remove intermediaries who must profit as a good or product moves through a complicated chain, but there’s something special about directly engaging with the person you’re buying from. It’s not simply about honoring their humanity (although I’m sure one-on-one interactions are a useful exercise to combat the alienation most of us feel as consumers), but it’s about a kind of connection that can’t be found elsewhere. Your transaction is a small part of their complicated lives, and you’ve been interwoven into their existence—and vice versa.
These conversations brought back to mind that GQ article. The piece is literally called, “13 Best Coffee Subscription Services in 2020,” and I wonder what it means when we’re all racing to the top of lists like these—and what it says about how we should evaluate goodness (to be transparent, I’ve written articles with similar headlines).
As individuals, we all like things for different reasons. This is obvious, but in the context of an obsessive pursuit of “the best,” what we like is suddenly placed under close scrutiny. Some judgments feel fair and justified (I wouldn’t want to support a place that has harmful employment practices, or pays its employees poorly). But otherwise, what makes something I love different or better than something you love?
The pursuit of objective superiority is not only impossible, but it breeds sameness. Think of that homogenous “coffee shop” aesthetic that we’re probably all familiar with: wrought iron, exposed wood, some plants hanging somewhere. Or think about coffee competitions like the United States Barista Championships or the Good Food Awards, where the same coffees win the top prize over and over again.
Being “the best” feels like an obvious goal (even while it’s also fleeting and unstable). But just how is “the best” determined, and at what cost does the pursuit of being “the best” affect “the rest”? For every coffee shop that doesn’t look like what we see on Instagram, or every bean that doesn’t end up on a world stage—where do they exist? If we’re all pushing for the same goal, we end up naturally replicating the results we’ve seen be successful in the past.
All of these factors only constrain our choice, and make it harder to find the things we really connect with.
In Odell’s book, she shares a story about a useless tree by Zhuang Zhou. A carpenter sees a large tree but passes it over because he deems it useless—the tree is too crooked and rough to be used to make things. I’m paraphrasing a bit, but the tree, which comes to the carpenter in a dream, essentially explains that by being useless—being undesirable to the carpenter—it escapes being chopped down.
The tree points out to him that fruit trees and timber trees are regularly ravaged. Meanwhile, uselessness has been this tree’s strategy.
So what does this have to do with coffee? At this moment, the pandemic is shutting down the majority of our nation’s coffee shops. There’s no end in sight, and it’s uncertain when or if most of these places will open again. Customers are struggling to figure out which coffees to buy, or which roasteries to support. How are we supposed to make decisions—about coffee, or food, or anything, really? These circumstances particularly make the case for refocusing our attention away from “best” and towards “local.”
Odell goes on to imagine a future with a whole forest of useless trees:
The shape of the useless tree does more than just protect it from the carpenter; it is also the shape or care, of branching out over the thousands of animals who seek shelter, thus providing the grounds for life itself.
This idea comes up later in Odell’s book, in a chapter where she talks about connecting with our neighbors and the things around us. “A community in the thrall of the attention economy feels like an industrial farm, where our jobs are to grow straight and tall, side by side, producing faithfully without ever touching,” she writes.
I imagine local coffee communities to be these useless trees. They grow in multiple directions, unpredictable and uniquely suited to their area. The branches curve in together, weaving themselves tightly through the nooks and crannies of a neighborhood’s roads and valleys. One could not simply pick up the forest of useless trees and move it somewhere else—it exists symbiotically within its surroundings. These trees don’t exist to be the best. They exist to be present.
The metaphor might not fit exactly as Odell intended, but it invites us to consider the whole by focusing on the minute. It reminds us that to exist and care for your community is enough. You don’t have to be the best to be useful. Your usefulness is not measured by your ability to grow in the same direction as your peers around you.
Ultimately, I don’t care about coffee because it tastes good. I don’t care about coffee because there are rare cultivars that exhibit new and unique flavors. What I care about is coffee’s potential to create community, and I can’t value the community-building aspect of one coffee roastery or café over another.
I can tell you that the coffee shop I love the most is called Four Letter Word. It’s a few blocks from my home. I like having coffee here because I know the baristas and feel welcomed in every time. I feel nourished and connected to my community when I’m here. That experience isn’t replicable at all. I can’t expect someone from somewhere else to feel what I feel when I go to Four Letter Word.
Sometimes, a “best of” list makes me question where value is placed. Is it valuable to be considered the best, or is it valuable to simply exist and maintain those things around you that you cherish? A focus on local takes back that value, redistributes it, and gives it back to individuals to nourish their communities.
So when someone asks me where they should buy coffee, this is what I tell them: Buy local, and buy what you like. You’ve built a beautiful community around you. Tend to it. Bask in the shade of a useless tree.