A word I dislike

Most of the time when I write here my views form part of the way I work and the business I do – I very much try to have honesty in the work I do and no separation between the products and service I ship and the opinions I hold.

With this one though there is a conflict because some of the product I ship carries a label I’m uncomfortable with. In the past few years this term has developed a meaning within our industry and communication often involves a compromise between what you want to say and how words are understood and interpreted.

That’s a real long winded way of saying I don’t like using this word but I understand why we, and every other company I respect, seems to.

So, heirloom…

We use this word to describe the varieties of some of the coffees we sell, particularly those from Ethiopia. It’s not the right word.

The word is used in a context separate to it’s original one, but I like this bit from Wikipedia, (there are stories there, I like stories)

In popular usage, a heirloom is something, perhaps an antique or some kind of jewelry, that has been passed down for generations through family members.

The term originated with the historical principle of an heirloom in English law, a chattel which by immemorial usage was regarded as annexed by inheritance to a family estate. Loom originally meant a tool. Such genuine heirlooms were almost unknown by the beginning of the twentieth century.[1]

In the relevant context Wikipedia describes the term as

An heirloom plantheirloom varietyheritage fruit (Australia and New Zealand), or (especially in Ireland and the UK) heirloom vegetable is an old cultivar that is “still maintained by gardeners and farmers particularly in isolated or ethnic communities”.[1] These may have been commonly grown during earlier periods in human history, but are not used in modern large-scale agriculture.

In the area of bread and wheat (if you’re a fan of Dan Barber, I solidly am), or in tomatoes (if you’re a fan of farmers markets, I also am) this term works really well.

Varieties that were commonly grown in certain areas in history were part of the fabric, the terroir and the flavour of that region and were lost as industrialisation, best practice and rising costs challenged traditional approaches. Modernisation, development, higher yields and a kind of progress was encouraged with the initially less visible side affect of mono-culture in the name of greater good. The latent desire to return to  these lost flavours speaks a great deal to a modern society’s perceived disconnect to nature and an entitled and educated (and beautifully cyclical) feeling that I’m pleased to share.

This is not the case in Ethiopian coffee – the varieties picked and processed are not recovered traces of a lost ideal, they’re the still present product of a system that hasn’t progressed or developed in generations – these coffees are wild, uncultivated, changing, evolving, dynamic – this is exciting and worthy of conversation – It’s a part of speciality coffee’s story, raising questions that are important beyond it and coffee generally.

I think we sometimes use terms like heirloom  because we worry about our ability to tell new stories – We’re afraid of being too niche to tell our own truths, and we are eager to piggyback on trends and fashions. I think that’s a little sad, it risks not communicating the amazing work some people are doing.

We can be proud of our questions, and our progress and our challenges.