Namisha Parthasarathy on Romanticized Coffee Relics

Namisha Parthasarathy on Romanticized Coffee Relics

The co-founder of Ārāmse on Indian coffee tools, colonial history, and the problem with flavor wheels.

My guest today is Namisha Parthasarathy, the co-founder of Ārāmse, a multifaceted platform dedicated to bringing slower, more intentional thought to coffee drinking. Namisha and her husband, Raghunath, have a YouTube channel, a coffee subscription service based in India, and a newsletter that highlights three exciting facts about coffee every week.

In this episode, Namisha speaks on the themes that show up regularly in her writing, including how the legacy of colonialism still influences perceptions of coffee in India today. She also discusses why the ubiquitous South Indian filter brewer hasn’t shown up on specialty coffee shelves, despite the fact that so many people use it.

We also talk about flavor, and how tasting notes we code as “common” are only common within a very narrow scope. I’ve talked about blueberry notes in coffee in the past, and while drinkers in the Global North might think of the fruit as ubiquitous, Namisha explains that blueberry is not a typical flavor reference in India. Listen as she unpacks all the ways that traditional flavor wheels can remove drinkers from their own coffee preferences and cultural contexts.

Just a quick note: I had a hiccup with my main recording device, so my audio is a little fuzzy—I had to use my backup audio file—but this episode is too good not to air. Here’s Namisha:

Ashley: I was wondering if you could just start by introducing yourself.

Namisha: Yes, of course. I'm Namisha Parthasarathy and I'm the co-founder of Ārāmse, a company that we started—me and Raghunath started—in early 2020.

Ashley: Did you grow up with coffee in your life?

Namisha: I did, very much so. A lot more because of my grandmother, who lived with us, and my [other set of] grandparents who we used to visit—my own parents didn't drink as much coffee, but it was around home all the time.

Ashley: At what point did coffee become the thing that you were gonna do?

Namisha: Oh my gosh. You know, it never sort of was like a decision that, “Oh, hey, you know what? I think I wanna have a career in coffee.”

It's been such a roundabout route getting here. So I spent a majority of my career in finance. I was a trader at a hedge fund and at an investment bank. And Rag, who I run the company with, used to run a design firm. We'd always talked about doing something together and doing something that felt more meaningful to us.

We took a month-long trip in South America for our honeymoon, and we'd begin each day being like, “Okay, so where do we get a good cup of coffee?” It just became this daily ritual. And then when we were figuring out, “Okay, what do we do after quitting our jobs and trying to do something very different?” this became an organic next step.

So we started with, “Oh, we're just brewing coffee at home. We're trying to figure out what we wanna do with our lives.” We were spending so much time doing that. We're like, “Oh, why don't we just do workshops around brewing coffee?” And it sort of grew from there.

That's how it became a career. And I think for me personally, coffee has been so unique and special because when I used to trade markets, a lot of it is obviously publicly traded markets, so I didn't do equities as much, but I did a lot of foreign exchange. I worked in emerging markets and then we also traded commodities. So I always thought about things like coffee, gold, oil—all of these things from the other side. And then to see it—I used to see it sort of more top-down, but then to see it bottom-up felt like I'd come full circle. Coffee, in that way, is really special to me and to both of us. But that's how we began.

Ashley: How would you describe Ārāmse? I feel like you kind of do a little bit of everything. You have a YouTube channel, you sell products, you have a subscription service, you write a fair amount … how do you describe what the goal of Ārāmse is?

Namisha: Yeah, that's a great question. And I think the reason we do so many things is because of how much we've had to adapt since we began.

We started Ārāmse as in-person workshops, over half a day, with people coming together and using no technology. People would have to switch off their phones and kind of be immersed in the process of coffee brewing. And that was maybe two months before COVID happened…

Ashley: Great timing!

Namisha: Yes, exactly—so we were like, “Well, that model's not gonna work out.” So we had to flip it on its head and be like, “Ok, we're gonna go digital, but how do we maintain some of the ethos that we started with, to bring it into the online world?”

We started doing the coffee subscription because we got a lot of requests on Instagram, especially during lockdown, being like, “Hey, where can I get good coffee? What coffee would you recommend? I've been stuck in India—what are good local roasters? I don't know anything about the landscape here…” and stuff like that. That became a very natural thing for us to do.

So you are absolutely right. It's basically three things. We do the subscription, which is India only. We do products—I would say Sofi and the Coffee Journal and cups—those are the three main products that we've done so far. And then we have the YouTube channel. So yes, it's three different verticals and we kind of use all three channels essentially to try and tell the story of coffee and through a slightly different lens.

Ārāmse actually—it's sort of a Hindi phrase and people use it colloquially to say, “slow down,” or “do things with ease.” And I think that's essentially why we started the whole company. We were like, “Okay, how do we slow down and be more intentional and meaningful about something as simple as this drink that we drink every day? Those are the three channels that we use to promote that ethos, but sometimes we feel like we're spread a little too thin.

Ashley: I mean, when you're in any sort of content creation vertical, I feel like that's easy to do.

Namisha: Yes!

Ashley: You kind of look around and you're like, “I exist everywhere. There's my face on YouTube, there's my name on this.” And you're like, how did this happen?

Namisha: [Laughs] Everywhere and nowhere. That's what it feels like sometimes. We're like, “We're not growing fast enough. But then we're like, “Ok, we need to be true to the name of our company, slow, steady.”

Ashley: I totally understand what that feels like, and maybe this is more of a personal conversation that we can have later, but something I struggle with a lot is this idea of growth, and how should I be pursuing it. I'm constantly told I should be, but I'm also not necessarily into the idea of growing a lot. And I'm very critical of people who put growth kind of before anything…

Namisha: Front and center.

Ashley: Right. Yeah, exactly. Because that's the spirit of capitalism and that's how people get forgotten. I could wax poetical about how capitalism is destroying how I feel about my productivity…

But I wanna talk about Ārāmse, I wanna talk about those three buckets of information that you posited as your three main goals.

So you have the subscription service, and I was wondering, you said it's for India only, so I was wondering if we could talk a little bit about coffee in India specifically. I was reading some of the articles that you've written and something that you mentioned is India is the sixth-largest producer of coffee, which I think is something if guests hear this, if people listening to this episode hear that information, they'd be like, “Oh, I didn't know that.”

And you acknowledge that in some of your writing. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the landscape of coffee-growing in India. This will be a big question, so maybe we'll break it up as we discuss it, but why do you think India's been anonymous in the specialty coffee industry?

Namisha: Exactly. I wouldn't be surprised if people were surprised by that statistic.

I spent most of my life living outside of India—it's only been three and something years that I've actually lived in India and all of my time living outside, I would say I can count a handful of times where I saw India being listed as an origin on the menu of a coffee shop. And this is not necessarily specialty, although specialty is typically where you see origin countries being listed.

I think there's a few different reasons for this. I think the biggest issue is perception. So for some reason, India's gotten stuck with this perception of, if you think about Indian coffee, people think about Monsoon Malabar, which is just one very specific processing method and not even anything to do with the actual coffee beans themselves. And then we just kind of got pigeonholed into this “India equals Monsoon Malabar,” and that was maybe—

Ashley: Can you describe what that is for people who maybe have never heard that term?

Namisha: Yes. So legend has it that coffee beans were being transported by ship and they'd been left in a coffee bag on the ship in very, very damp conditions and for an excessively long period of time. The resulting bean basically ended up having very, very little acidity. I would say it's probably at the point of being slightly rotten, exposed to a ton of oxygen, created a very different flavor profile to what people had been used to.

So this process, which was a complete accident, was labeled Monsoon Malabar and has been exclusively associated with Indian beans. And to be fair, this was well before this sort of quote unquote “third wave” of specialty came to be. But then I think because of this historic association and then a combination of India not promoting its coffee on a standalone basis…

So I think a lot of times, Indian coffees were just seen as an afterthought. So it's like, “Oh, this is gonna be a great base for your blend. This is a great export to Europe that roasts coffee extremely dark because it's gonna be great for espresso.” No one had really taken the time to tell the story of Indian coffee, and I think that's why we've kind of just remained anonymous.

By the time the specialty movement picked up and third wave came about, I think Indian coffee was just seen as boring. It was basically like, “Hey, this thing has been around for a long time. Everyone who's in coffee, who’s an exporter or an importer knows, in this very small circle, that India makes coffee, but there's nothing really new and exciting thing about it. So we're gonna use it in blends. We're gonna use it in this overly dark roasted coffee that's ground and sold and commoditized and sold. But this isn't the special new fun thing that's come into the market that we're gonna highlight as a single origin.”

There weren’t that many voices in India that took care to like promote the story and and there wasn't a lot of interest abroad.

The one last thing I would say about Indian people talking about Indian coffee, I think there was a lot of like—I wouldn't say shame, maybe embarrassment. It's a big overhang of colonialism when you feel like you need approval from the outside world, a lot of times the Global North and the Western world, in terms of validating what you have to offer.

You would see a lot of Indian people feel shy and afraid to highlight the uniqueness of Indian coffee when you saw these very confident voices elsewhere highlighting coffees that were quite different in profile to what India had to offer. I think it's all of those things.

Ashley: That makes 100% sense. I think one of the overarching themes just in coffee discourse in general that can feel a little bit—not hard to grasp, I think it's easy to grasp, but that can feel kind of like a blanket statement is coffee is a product of colonialism.

Yes, it's a thing that we talk about a lot in coffee, but I think your example really contextualizes how colonialism specifically affected coffee in India. And not to say that you gave like a complete answer—because another thing that you've written in one of your articles is that 99% of farmers in India are small-holder farmers, but they account for less than 30% of the actual coffee that's being produced—again, another relic of colonialism and the way that land is passed on.

But going back to the cultural implications, which I think are not as often talked about ‘cause it's like, “Oh, colonialism happens and now it's gone. Bye, see you later.” But we don't think about the ramifications that colonialism has on the cultural ways in which we consume a thing. And I think it's really interesting that you point out that there's still this need for acceptance on a Global North spectrum essentially.

Namisha: Absolutely. I mean, in so many different ways, right? It permeates into every aspect of our lives. As an Indian consumer—and even I'm guilty of this sometimes—you don't question when something costs a specific amount when say, it's an American product, but then when it's a local product, you question it a lot more.

I think a lot of these things—we're not fully aware of it into how much it's impacted us. And you know, of course I wasn't around when India was under British rule, I'm three generations down, but it still makes such a big difference because everything is passed down from your grandparents to your parents. You sort of buy into a lot of the culture and you kind of act in certain ways that you're not even fully aware of until you really break it down and you're like, “Huh, why do I feel this way?”

For us sometimes it's like, now that we're trying to do that thing where we create a product and people start to question it, we're like, “Oh, interesting that this is some of the feedback that we get.”

It's the same thing with coffee. I think there's just a lack of confidence a lot of times when I see the previous generation of coffee professionals out of India. We look a lot for validation elsewhere. It's just the sad reality of it. And I think people are aware of wanting to change it, but it's very much present. I think it's one of those—it's sort of like a spillover effect. It's not the immediate effect, it's the aftermath of colonialism and how it kind of lingers.

Ashley: One of the ways that it seems like you're trying to tackle that head-on is through challenging perceptions of quality and flavor. One of the ways that I became familiar with your work is through a video that you folks did with James Hoffmann about challenging perceptions of what the flavor wheel is.

So for folks who maybe don’t know what a flavor wheel is, there's this wheel, it's an actual wheel, and it has all these different flavor notes, berries, blah, this, that, and it's often used as a reference point for coffee professionals to evaluate quality.

That being said, there are things on the flavor wheel that either don't grow everywhere—it's a very Westernized version of what fruits and flavors are, and there are things that don't grow everywhere. There are things that are prohibitively expensive and then there are things that are coded as bad that wouldn't necessarily be bad in other cultural context.

I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the video that you folks made and how you've been specifically tackling the flavor wheel.

Namisha: Yeah. that's a really great question. I think your description of the flavor wheel was absolutely on point. The flavor wheel was obviously intended to be an objective measure of flavor and quality, which I think in and of itself is problematic because something like flavor is just so subjective.

If you look at the four quadrants, it's meant to be objective. But then when you have, say the bottom left quadrant, which has potential defects or undesirable notes like phenolic, which is obviously something that's undesirable, but then sort of nestled in between that you have things like earthy and woody—in India, something earthy isn't necessarily seen as a bad thing.

In fact, a big part of Indian cuisine is making—a few different states do this—they'll make yogurt or curd, as we call it locally here, in mud pots. And the best part about that flavor is sort of like this muddy, earthy flavor. It's something that a lot of people that enjoy Indian cuisine might love. For someone like me or other people that are used to Indian cuisine, that's a great flavor. If someone's like, “Oh, this tastes earthy,” I don't think it's negative at all.

But then you're told, when you're in specialty circles, especially in the Global North, even though the flavor wheel is meant to be objective, it becomes sort of this like prescriptive shorthand for how to tell good coffees from bad coffee, and earthy is not as desirable. You want something with higher acidity.

Then that brings me to the other point, which is what are the fruits that you find on the flavor wheel? In India, we have apple—you do get blueberry here, but it's extremely difficult to get, it's extremely expensive. The average Indian is not gonna have strong associations with blueberry. It's not something we grow up eating a lot of in our diet. And then we have a ton more tropical fruits, which obviously don't make its way onto onto the wheel. So in that sense, the wheel, even though it's supposed to be this very balanced representation of flavor with four equal quadrants, for someone in India and the cuisine and and flavors we're used to here, it's not balanced or equal at all.

We have so many more fruits that don't represent the flavors that we're used to. We have a lot fewer of the florals that may might find their way onto the flavor wheel, and then things that are negative elsewhere are not necessarily negative here. So I think the wheel, once it sort of made its way into the consumer market, became very confusing. It’s a bit of a confusing tool for people in the Global South and then more specifically in India because it’s like, “How do I reconcile what I'm being told is good coffee versus the things that I actually enjoy?”

I think there's two aspects to something like localizing [the flavor wheel] and why we would even think about doing it. One is obviously for the consumer, when they think about flavors, how do we make it relatable to them and say, “Ok, what if this coffee is amazing: Maybe it reminds you of something like, I don't know, jackfruit,” or we have an Indian gooseberry called amla—or other Indian flavors, so that the consumer feels included in this whole movement of specialty coffee.

I think the second thing, which would be even more amazing if we could realize even a little bit of this dream—I think that would basically have the maximum impact—is from the producer side, which is so many producers in India, and I'm pretty sure this is reflective of other producing countries as well, many farmers don't tend to drink coffee. A lot of Indian farmers will drink tea, so there's a big disconnect.

If you can bridge that gap, and producers can have the tools and vocabulary and the language to kind of talk about flavors in coffee too, I think that would be amazing in terms of localizing the flavor wheel because there's no way that, if we talk about, I don't know, rosehip and blueberry, that a grower in the hills of Chikmagalur in India is gonna find that relatable.

Ashley: It's interesting that you mention farmers in your answer because something else that you mentioned too is that a lot of coffee grown in India is consumed locally. So [there’s] this amazing opportunity for feedback, really immediate feedback, and instead it seems like you're struggling to combat these Westernized versions of what coffee should be.

Namisha: Yes, and it's so interesting that you say that. So obviously a lot of India's highest-quality coffee still gets exported. I think a lot of that has changed post-COVID. So a lot of the bigger estates in India that were relying on a lot of export had to look to the local market during COVID to basically take a lot of their produce because supply chains were so destroyed.

So India still exports a lot of coffee, but very rightly there is massive domestic consumption that happens in the country as well. Typically it was concentrated in the South of India, historically, because that's where coffee has grown. And the North of India drank a lot more tea, but this new wave of coffee or whatever the new movement in coffee is, especially amongst millennials and the younger generation, is sort of India-wide.

I think that, like you said, there is a very strong feedback loop because yes, it might be concentrated amongst a very small handful of estates that can provide specialty coffee as it stands, but it still lays a great foundation because we don't need to look elsewhere to create this movement and drive the narrative. We essentially have a blank slate when it comes to specialty. We can create this, you…

Ashley: Can do whatever you want.

Namisha: Exactly. And I think it's maybe just having the confidence to do so because—so I think, yes, we can do whatever we want, but then the Indian consumers also watching James Hoffmann's channel or Lance Hedrick’s channel or knows who Morgan Eckroth is.

So they're looking outside for all of this because there's so much information and they're looking outside for all of the cues around what is happening and what is hot in coffee, but then they have local coffee that they need to consume. So I think that’s the tussle that the Indian consumer faces, which is they wanna be part of this global movement and feel connected to people all around the world, which I think is amazing about coffee. But then they have this local produce that's quite different to maybe some of the coffees that other people are consuming—and [the question is] how do we use the language and the tools to kind of bond with other people elsewhere over it.

Ashley: Speaking of tools, we're talking about more abstract tools like the internet, like Reddit forms, like looking at YouTube, but we're also talking about concrete tools, and one of the tools that you folks have been focusing on is the South Indian filter, and finding ways to modernize that and bring that to consumers now.

Something that I found really interesting—again, I'm going back to some of the things that you wrote—is you have this one quote that says:

Internationally, the South Indian filter is almost entirely unknown. Indian cultural exports, long associated with ancient wisdom, the mystic and the holistic, are romanticized in the west.

And it seems like, from the writing that you've published, it seems like things in India kind of exist in these two realms—it's either you're trying to find these Westernized versions of things, or there's this like, nostalgia culture.

Namisha: Yes.

Ashley: There's no existence for modern [things] that is different and distinct and specifically Indian, but doesn't rely on this ancient holistic wisdom. And I was, “Oh my gosh, yes.”

Can you talk a little bit about that and how that's influenced the way that you think about the South Indian filter?

Namisha: Yes, of course. So the South Indian filter is a very simple brewer. It's usually available in India in stainless steel and brass, and it's essentially a percolation brewer. You put coffee into a top chamber, you pour hot water onto it, and it drips very slowly into a collection chamber and forms a concentrate—in India we call that a decoction.

It's used very similarly to espresso because people tend to mix it with milk and make milk-based drinks. Here the drink that it's long been associated with is called filtered kappi. And it's basically boiling hot milk mixed in with the decoction, and then a lot of sugar, and then you froth the drink and then you drink it.

I've tried or we've tried to do so much research on the history and it's nearly impossible to find out how this thing even came about. We know that it's probably at least a hundred years old or probably around a hundred years old because our grandmothers were brewing with this when they were like, six years old or something.

So we're like, “Okay, we can do a little bit of back-of-the-envelope math and we think maybe it's like a hundred years old, right?” But I think it's another reason or another overhang of colonialism because it's like […] when you had a country like India that was colonized, local history and culture and the preservation of it was not very important. When you had locals drinking out of this filter was just not important enough to preserve the history of it or anything.

It's something that anyone who's grown up in South India—me and Raghunath are both South Indian. So we've had it at home, it's just always there. Even if people don't drink coffee, like my parents don't drink coffee, they're still gonna have a South Indian filter at home. It's kind of like this South Indian home staple, and every home has their own recipe. Every home thinks that their recipe is the best recipe.

When we got into coffee, we never really looked at the South Indian filter in the context of specialty. And so we started exploring, why is that? A big reason for why that is is because there isn't just one brewer that's “the South Indian filter.” It comes in different sizes, it comes in different shapes, the holes are all over the place. But no one has ever really taken it upon themselves to standardize or modernize it because of exactly like what you said—things from India kind of tend to fall into two categories.

If you look at the West or people in the Global North, they kinda have this view that India is this faraway land, you think of it in the context of “Eat Pray Love.” It's a place where people find themselves, “There's so much richness! Oh the colors and the smells!” and then it just puts a lot of pressure on Indian products to do so much more than just like … brew you a cup of coffee.

Ashley: Be?

Namisha: Exactly, they just can't be. It kind of puts India, or Indian products—it boxes them into essentially being tools for nostalgia. It's like, “Oh, I have this really cute little brewer that I got from India that's gonna be on my counter, but I'm never really gonna make a serious cup of coffee out of it.”

I think that's what we really wanted to challenge because, for example, if you took the South Indian filter and just like, just shed it of all its baggage and hypothetically you gave it to someone from the Global North and you're like, “Hey, why don't you try and market this?”

We could be like, “Hey, this is the original no-bypass brewer. It doesn't use any paper filters, it doesn't create a lot of waste. You don't need electricity. It's very durable. You don't need to buy a ton of them. One will likely last you a lifetime. It brews you a concentrate that's akin to espresso.” But none of those stories are told, like it's made using sustainable materials. It's sort of all about like, “Oh, my grandmother's recipe, I wanna recreate that,” or, “I got this thing from this small little shop in India.”

A lot of it is manufactured nostalgia. So I think, because we saw the South Indian filter in the context of specialty, especially in India: none of the specialty cafes serve a South Indian filter. You have to go to streetside cafes or these older food—and I don't know how I would describe them, like sort of like takeaway or fast food—but local fast food restaurants. So you think of street food and getting in from these tiny little shops but no specialty cafes in India serve. And we're like, “Why?” It absolutely deserves a space in it and we'd love to change that or make that happen. So that’s what we’re trying.

Ashley: You made so many good points in that—because you're right, anytime there's a cultural export that's not from the Global North, we tend to box it into this tool for nostalgia. I think in turn that makes us not take it seriously as a viable item.

Namisha: Exactly!

Ashley: Like you were saying, if you go to a third wave shop in India, no one's brewing on the South Indian filter, because it's not taken seriously. Which is interesting because I think going back to the flavor wheel conversation—and I think there's an interesting dichotomy to be had here to explore—is that so much of what coffee is and so much of how we view coffee comes from us.

It comes from the people who have coffee shops, who are prominent in the industry. And again, I'm going back to something that you wrote about: You wrote this article I keep referring to—two articles that you wrote. One you wrote for Sprudge about the South Indian filter, and another one you wrote for the Specialty Coffee Association, the SCA, about the state of coffee in India. One of the things that you did was you quoted Tim Wendelboe, who is a very prominent figure in the coffee industry, owned a very well-respected and well-regarded roastery in Norway.

And something that you quoted him as saying is that the things that we want from coffee, the things that we think we want from coffee or the things that we have created a consumer market for, aren't consumers telling us that. It's the tastemakers saying that this is the thing that they're interested in.

And not to say that they’re doing anything bad—I’m not saying this is bad at all. I’m just saying that there are tastemakers who have said, “These are the things we like and want to share with you.” So we actually have a ton of power in crafting the world around us. So sometimes I think it's kind of like—it's almost giving up when we say other things aren't worth that regard when we say that, “Oh, this relic is not worthy of being part of this cultural discourse because consumers aren't demanding it,” or, “The flavor of woody is not worth it to us because consumers aren't demanding it.”

But it's like, “No, we're the tastemakers.” We can talk to people about why this is desirable or why this is good and maybe it doesn't catch on, sure. But we can try. I wonder for you as you're working in this space, how do you see yourself as, I guess as a tastemaker and a changemaker at the same time?

Namisha: It’s a great question, and I think you very rightly pointed out none of what he said is is a bad thing. In fact, it should be encouraging or motivating to the rest of us to feel like, “Okay, you know what? We have the power to do that too.”

When I think about India or Indian coffee, I think a lot of it has just been a lack of confidence. We are getting all these signals from elsewhere that are saying a coffee needs to taste like this, a coffee needs to taste like that for it to be considered good. Our coffee may not fit into all of those categories.

How can we make it happen? Are we just not specialty? Should we just relegate ourselves to, “Ok, you know what? We're gonna be this anonymous bog-standard run-of-the-mill, just be the foundation for an espresso blend in a big cafe.”

I can guarantee Tim Wendelboe’s diet growing up and mine were extremely different, if not polar opposites. So it's not surprising that maybe our preferences in coffee might be similarly different. Then to say that there's gonna be this one standard amazing flavor when it comes to coffee, I feel like it's a fool's endeavor. If we have all of this variance in food, there's gonna be all of this variance in preference in coffee.

I think the one amazing thing that COVID did—and also India's very punitive import restrictions has done for Indian specialty—is it's created this entire market of consumers that are looking for specialty that have to only drink Indian specialty. It's created a market for this wild amount of processing methods—I know that this is happening elsewhere as well—but it's almost as if Indian specialty completely sidestepped “washed coffee, seeking out clarity and a clean cup” phase entirely. We've gone straight from in the North, we didn't really drink coffee [and] in the South, we had this very commoditized coffee to suddenly, like, there's this growing specialty market and everyone is talking about this 72-hour Champagne fermentation and pineapple fermentation, blah, blah blah.

Because it's like, well this is what appeals to the Indian palate, and so we've been restricted to drinking Indian coffee and then we've been cocooned during COVID, so we're gonna explode with this really wild coffee. I think that's been really cool to see.

Ashley: It's very encouraging.

Namisha: Yes, exactly. And I think that's the same thing about flavor. It's silly to ever have anything prescriptive when it comes to flavor, because I cannot imagine that flavor is anything beyond a cultural construct in terms of preference, because so many things are acquired, so many tastes are acquired.

When we see people around us, people whose opinions we value, consume something, it automatically makes us want to like those things, even if we may not inherently like them. So to say like, there is this thing that is great coffee in terms of this is the best flavor to find in coffee, just feels—I don't know. For lack of a better word, silly, but then also just a fallacy.

Ashley: Yeah, exactly. And it's interesting that we use flavor as an indicator of quality in this way when we have such a myopic understanding of flavor.

It also doesn't seem to line up with the reality of what coffee is and what coffee will be in the next 10, 20, 30 years—talking about climate change, talking about places where we will likely no longer grow coffee anymore and shifting to places we will likely grow a lot more coffee, like India. We will probably be seeing a lot more coffee in India, in China, in Vietnam. We don't have a great lexicon for talking about coffees from any of these regions really. And it seems like we're holding onto this one idea of quality, and it seems so confusing to me like we define quality so narrowly.

Namisha: Yes.

Ashley: But to no one's service, to nobody's benefit.

Namisha: Absolutely. And I think even as a consumer, it's so confusing because when you conflate flavor and quality as a consumer, it becomes very problematic because you are making assumptions.

When someone talks about high-quality coffee as a consumer, you might be making assumptions about the conditions under which that coffee was grown, right? But then actually a lot of the time what we're talking about when we're talking about quality is actually just flavor, which is exactly like you said, is so myopic and can create massive problems, and it helps no one.

Yes, the landscape of coffee is changing so dramatically that we just have to have the tools to think about it more broadly. I know the SCA put out this white paper on redefining what specialty is and looking at it in a broader sense. But it's tastemakers and influencers everywhere. It isn't like coffee cultures are being dictated just by the SCA. I think when we think about quality to conflate it with flavor, it feels like something that we need to stop doing. I'm always trying to think about the vocabulary that we can use to make these distinctions because I think they're important distinctions to make.

Ashley: Yeah, I agree. I agree that conflating flavor with quality is incredibly confusing and just seems to serve nobody in the specialty industry, especially when the goal of specialty coffee is ideally, like you were saying, to make people's lives better.

I think that's [part of the] new definition of specialty coffee. I think beyond it having to be a certain score or whatever, it should impact everybody along the supply chain better, but if we define quality as just a metric of flavor, then we make a lot of assumptions, like you were saying, especially for consumers who we ask to do a lot of work, we shouldn't be asking them to do this much work.

Namisha: Totally, yeah.

Ashley: We make all of these assumptions about what quality actually means, but for so much of coffee that is bought and sold, quality is really only a metric of flavor.

Namisha: I was just gonna say, as someone who used to be just a consumer of specialty, if I saw 80+ on a bag, I'm sort of bombarded with so much information that I'm like, “Oh, if someone's saying this is specialty, the number may not mean a lot to me,” but I'm not thinking, “Oh, this bag [has] a great cup score, which means it tastes really good.” I'm making assumptions that, if they're calling this specialty, maybe it was grown under really great conditions. Maybe the farmers’ lives have been improved, maybe they're getting a lot more money than they would otherwise. Maybe this is biodiversity-friendly, all of these things.

As a consumer I would imagine it's a much more holistic approach and that's what I would be hoping as a consumer. But the reality is it hasn't been like that. It's just been, “Oh, this cup tastes great and so this [is a] high-quality cup,” but anyway.

Ashley: Right. And we can make quality more diverse. We can make quality a more diverse metric.

Namisha: Yes, absolutely.

Ashley: As we're wrapping up this conversation, I was wondering, is there anything that you want people to know about you or about the work that you're doing or about Ārāmse in general?

Namisha: Oh that’s a great question and maybe one I hadn’t thought of before …coffee is the way through which we wanna create a meaningful life for ourselves and try and make an impact on the people around us.

Ashley: Thank you so much for taking time to chat with me. I really appreciate it.

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