Early 2007 Musings on the Coffee and stuff.
Posted February 28, 2007 7:10pm
Neglected again. Sorries.
What with blogging being so popular these days, I ask that you excuse me if this page doesn't update as often as many websites do - after all, I've been "blogging" this site (and my personal site) for many years before the word "blog" existed - so I guess I'm a bit burnt out (tip - if you want to delve into the 100s (I think) of posts made to this blog, just visit the Archive).
But since this is the place for my personal thoughts, albeit, with a coffee-related focus, I do have a few things to get off my chest.
...Same as the Old Boss
I guess first is, I'm quite soured on a lot of stuff going on in the coffee world right now. Have been for some time in fact.
Probably foremost is a line from The Who's more famous songs - Won't Get Fooled Again: "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss..."
It just seems to me these days there's a cadre of new upstarts in the business who are more or less doing what a lot of the old farts have been chided for in the past (and ironically enough, by the very same people who are now following that same path): elitism, belittling or singling out anyone who disagrees with them, and probably worst of the bunch - really tossing aside notion that consumers could actually know a thing or two about this thing we call coffee and espresso. Some have big voices. Some don't. And it's bugging the shit out of me.
Coffee for me combines two things - taste and culture. Human discourse. Discussion as we know it today owes a lot of its roots to coffee's established role in western culture. On the taste side, I fully recognize that when it comes to coffee, we're mere babes, and when it comes to espresso, we're not even out of the womb yet. That's how little we know about the substances.
In the past seven years, I've been called upon to be more and more of an "authority" when it comes to coffee. The press expect me to provide facts, resolutions, and givens when it comes to coffee. The reading public of CoffeeGeek expect the same. And for years, I fell into a trap - speaking definitively - this is the best, that's the only way to do it, this is how it has to be. And when someone disagreed with me, well, they were wrong.
But over the last year or so, maybe longer, I've come to the realisation that every aspect of coffee and espresso is not only challengeable, but should be challenged. Even if you believe in your heart and mind what someone is saying is false, at the very least, what they have to say should be considered. Now I'm not talking about situations where someone tells you coffee isn't good until it's six weeks old, or a shot of espresso should be 5 ounces in 20 seconds.
I'm talking about situations where someone wants to change the curve a bit - someone finds, for instance, that maybe after all there's something to this whole 14g / 2 ounces brewed thing vs. the current trend of throwing 21 grams of coffee at 0.85 brewed ounces. I'm talking about people who do know enough about the art and science of espresso and coffee to maybe really think through a paradigm in a different way than you may have thought about, or been taught.
This is happening - today. The Internet has given voice to a lot of people who have made the decision to not follow the trends, and explore in their own way how to present coffee and espresso. They may not always be right, but at the very least, they have the right to explore and make their own mistakes along the way, and blog it for all they're worth.
There are still others who actually have the "gall" (in quotes because it's not really gall as far as I'm concerned) to challenge current conventions, or stand up and say "well, I don't actually really like so and so's coffee, and here's why". Or challenge an idea in their own right. Or question, well, pretty much anything about coffee or espresso, from the producer side right up to the retail and presentation side.
And all this seems to bother a few people. They don't think people should do this kind of thing. They shout them down, call them idiots, and say how dare you.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
I've done little to hide the fact that I'm just semi disgusted at the state of things in parts of the professional, specialty coffee world over the last few years - I've podcasted about it, I've written about it on Coffeed.com, and I've made a few mentions here and there on CoffeeGeek.
The SCAA's one area. I think I wrote sometime after the "financial crisis" (ie, it was revealed that Scott Welker, the Financial Officer for the SCAA allegedly stole $100s of thousands of dollars from the organization in September, 2005) that I would give the SCAA a break and not write anything overly critical of the .org for a year.
That year has come and gone. I had hoped that the SCAA would be completely energized and, as I wrote elsewhere online in the past, would fully come into the 21rst century in terms of being a dynamic, forward thinking .org that would finally live up to its mission statements and serve its members year round.
That hasn't happened yet. There's been a lot of talk (something the SCAA is always good at), but no concrete actions. And this year, there's zero focus on the consumer public at the SCAA trade show in Long Beach in May - by design.
I swear, I could write 10,000 words about how I am just so disappointed in the SCAA and where it's going (one SCAA member did write quite a bit, and you should read it). I'm not talking about where they say they're going - I'm talking about what they're actually doing. It's still all about the SCAA trade show and convention / seminars, a cash cow for the org most years... it's like the .org ceases to exist for the other 11 months.
Instead of just ranting, I figured I'd rehash some suggestions I wrote on Coffeed; but first, let me show you the very first item listed in the SCAA's own bylaws document about their mission:
The objects and purposes of the Association are to undertake by all lawful means the following:
(a) TO PROMOTE PUBLIC INTEREST by increasing consumer awareness, understanding, and consumption of specialty coffee.
I've seen very little of this in my five years being involved with the .org outside of speaking points. And there's virtually none at all this year at the trade show. In the past, I've taken active part in trying to turn the .org around on working with consumers (as one example, here's a pdf of a booth proposal for the 2004 SCAA show I submitted, but never went anywhere).
Here's how the SCAA can do a 180 on their ability to reach consumers.
- Not only start up the "Consumer Track" at the SCAA trade show again, but put some teeth into it.
- Restart a "Consumer Committee" within the SCAA that has a defined budget for educating the public through a variety of channels.
- Start providing easy-to-use educational tools (PDFs, "How Tos", videos, still photography, guidelines, you name it) for retailer members to be able to easily reproduce and distribute to their customers
- Start organizing monthly (or even bi-monthly) Consumer education and information events around the US and Canada. They can be tied to regional barista competitions as a "separate but equal" event, or held on their own.
- Encourage, through its own ownership of the USBC and WBC, a more "popularization" of the barista competitions to make them more interesting and fun for consumers, and for television and other events.
- Start producing videos (listen - I know of several companies and individuals who are already offered time, gratis to do this) for public awareness of the entire seed to cup story.
- Get involved as sponsors in the production of professional films and videos. The National Film Board gave a grant of $10,000 to a film maker who went on to produce an excellent 3 part mini-series on coffee called Black Coffee, which has extremely limited distribution right now. The SCAA could have not only provided the funds, but stock footage to enhance the film, and could have been a distributor for the final product - a DVD which is very much worth the viewing. $10K may sound like a lot to some, but to be brutally frank, it's a pittance compared to how much education and appreciation for quality coffee it can drive. As a side note, Krups and their recent "Espresso Shorts" project is rumoured to have provided $2K per film to the film students who produced some pretty interesting film short subjects on coffee and espresso. The SCAA should be doing this very thing with film students.
A lot of the above costs money. And the SCAA has long been great at talking about good ideas, but short on actually moving forward with these ideas - money is more often than not the reason. But a lot of the above could be sponsored. Back in 2004, I did a 3 year budget plan for reaching out to consumers, as part of my involvement on the consumer marketing committee (since disbanded). On my own initiative, I reached out to several retailers, vendors, and manufacturers to come on board as sponsors. That was a big mistake on several levels. First, I was told by the SCAA that simply wasn't done - they would have to put out a "call for sponsorship" so as not to offend other members not involved; and when the budget plan wasn't even tabled at the SCAA's board meeting, I lost a lot of face with these potential advertisers, who I assured this was a great idea that had legs and would give them great exposure.
It still can happen. There's money in the coffee world for this stuff. There's money from Krups, from the Intelligentsias out there, the Illys, the Whole Latte Loves, the 1st in Coffees, from a whole lot of them. But the SCAA has to move first. The time for talking is over. The time for action is almost over too. When I see where the .org is going, who the future leadership is, and just more and more talk (they have a podcast), it just makes me shake my head.
I write all of this not to once again just bash the SCAA. But I write this because the last year has seen a personal turn for me. The SCAA is just one reason. I've decided that in 2007 and beyond, I'm getting back to my own roots, and doing what I do best - talk to consumers and work on educating consumers about quality coffee. My trend the last few years was more and more industry involvement. The trend in 2007 and beyond is moving away from that. At SCAA Charlotte last year, 75% of time was spent at the USBC. The rest divvied up between seminars and the trade show floor.
This year, those numbers are going to be reversed. I won't be spending much time at the USBC or covering it - maybe a total of 3 hours - maybe the finals only, and seeing a few of my friends compete. I don't even plan on being "in the pit" taking photos.
What I do plan on doing is covering the culture and human interest side of coffee this year. Interviews and discussions with producers. Interviews with companies genuinely interested in educating consumers about what quality coffee is about. Covering the trade show floor with a special interest in companies that serve consumers. Attending only the seminars that have an interest for consumers.
I have two reporters also attending the show this year, and their mission too is to focus on the consumer. Since the SCAA itself has stated there's no focus on this segment of the market, we'll have to rely on the producers, the retailers, the manufacturers who do want to speak out to consumers on their own.
In the future, if the SCAA does get back on mission, and does so with teeth, I'll not only be happy to cover it and report on it, but I'll be happy to take part. But for now, it's back to my roots, back to the thing I actually enjoy most about this whole coffee thing - the human interaction with people discovering quality coffee and all the great things that go along with it.