December 6, 2010

Of Coffee and Aesthetics

I have said, of late, an awful lot regarding intellectual inquiry. This is not by accident, of course, as I tend to fancy that sort of thing. Furthermore, I tend to think it's too often ignored, in favor of more frivolous considerations.

But consider the aesthetic for a moment. Consider face value, first blush; judge the book by its cover. Or in this case, judge the latte by its aesthetic.

This consideration, like many, was made possible by an off-hand comment. I made a latte, attempted something like a rosetta, and instead created something that looked vaguely like an onion. This was abstract latte art then, or perhaps a more romantic image of the humble vegetable. Perhaps I was making a statement, contrasting the not dissimilar flavor profiles of bitter and sweet, offered in the cup and pictured on it. Perhaps I was doing something like that; or perhaps, I simply failed.

I paused, pitcher in hand, swirling the milk that remained. My lips twisted to the side, my eyes focused on the drink, and I said "Eh. Not my best work."

This is the sort of shop-talk that baristi might share, but not typically what one would say in front of a customer - specifically, the one that payed for what I may have just called a sub-standard drink. But if he was put off by this honesty, he didn't show it. He smiled instead, offering the encouragement that "It'll taste just as good; and it still looks pretty anyway."

He was right, of course. Latte art does not make a drink taste better than it might otherwise. And I had steamed the milk well enough to create something beautiful in the espresso; I simply hadn't performed the pour with proper skill. So yes, the drink looked lovely; and I imagine it tasted very good too.

But he was wrong, too, on some level. He was wrong, if he meant to say that the aesthetic of a latte is in no way related to the taste. It's easy to dismiss concerns for the visual as trivial, to call such things shallow and be done with them.

I would like, now, to break in to something of a defense of aestheticism. But I have neither the intellect nor the information at hand to offer such a defense - at least, not one I'd be okay publishing. So I will say this, and hope it is good enough for our purposes: The appearance of a thing is not merely that, and shouldn't be dismissed as having no implications beyond. Which is to say, in short, that a cover is very often a good indicator as to the contents of a book.

What that means, in this case, is that the barista who can consistently create quality latte art will almost certainly produce lattes that taste good with even greater frequency. That's because latte art isn't possible without well-steamed milk; but more importantly, it isn't possible without a barista who cares enough to create it. And it's that attention to detail which is the best indicator that a drink will have the proper consistency and flavor.

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