As I read Josh Ozersky’s The Perils of Coffee Snobbery, I feel a bit defensive. But at the same time, I also feel like giving him a high five. I half agree with him, and I half disagree with him. Perhaps the reason is that I fall somewhere in between being a coffee snob and being out-geeked by all this coffee stuff.
Let me explain.
I began my career in coffee in late 1994. It was a time when Starbucks had just started it’s aggressive store expansion. A time when the thought of bringing coffee marketed as “bird friendly” to the consumer was a few years away, and the idea of personally travelling to origin to visit a coffee farm was relegated to only a handful industry professionals. It was a time when the idea of calling that guy/girl behind the counter at the coffee shop a Barista (and expecting he/she to pull a flawless shot of espresso) was an alien thought. It was a time when the way to the coffee consumer’s heart – or to bring them into the world of specialty coffee – was through a hazelnut-flavored brew.
Back then, I had just landed a job as an associate editor of a trade magazine that covered several industry segments – specialty coffee included. On the first day of my job, my editor sat me down to explain a bit more about which categories I would cover. When it came to coffee, he looked at me and said, “You’ll be covering the specialty coffee industry because . . . I just don’t like coffee.”
Eager and excited to please, I hid the fact that I, too, was not a coffee drinker. In fact, at the time, I don’t think I had ever consumed a full cup of coffee. It didn’t matter. Now, not only was it was my job to drink coffee, but to understand it.
My first opportunity to really learn about coffee came as the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s Annual Exhibition and Conference approached. I perused the educational session write-ups and carefully chose which sessions I would attend throughout the conference.
I don’t even remember how it happened, but she must have seen me frantically scribbling notes on paper during one of the educational seminars, and decided to take me under her wings. It was Linda Smithers, who at the time owned Susan’s Coffee & Tea in Ohio (She would serve as the SCAA President a few years later). She was – and still is – a tireless devotee to educating about specialty coffee. She isn’t one of those Third Wave coffee people we hear of so often these days. No, Linda is part of the ‘old timers’ group that helped initiate efforts to bring the idea of enjoying a good cup of coffee to the consumer. (Note: old timers has nothing to do with Linda’s age.)
Linda truly was my first coffee mentor who took the time out of her day to share her passion for coffee with me. (There have been countless coffee people who have done the same since). She introduced me to everyone in the industry. She answered my calls, gave me over-the-phone educational sessions, and immersed me into the world of specialty coffee. Our discussions eventually led to the creation of a retailer educational series, called The Coffee Curriculum, which appeared in my magazine. It was that curriculum that led to me being presented with the award for Distinguished Author in the Specialty Coffee Industry – back in 2000.
Jim Reynolds (Roastmaster Emeritus for Peet’s) teaches me a few things about coffee (circa 1997)
It didn’t take long for me to realize that the specialty coffee industry was special. The people were passionate about coffee and willingly shared that passion with others who showed an interest. Those passionate industry professionals were (and still are) truly committed to growing the industry, sharing knowledge with each other – regardless of whether or not they were, or are, competitors. They lived for coffee, and they desired to get the word out about their passion.
It was this passion, and the ability to share the experiences they had with that passion, that made the specialty coffee industry so different from the other industries that I worked within. Too often, when covering other industries, I would attend a trade show and be whisked away into a behind-the-scenes room where I could view a new product that would soon be introduced to the market. The meetings were held behind closed doors in fear that some company would snap a photo of that new product and email it off to China where it would be knocked it off, beating their own product to the store shelves.
That closed-door attitude just didn’t happen in the world of specialty coffee.
Sure, the industry was a bit different then. But the passion still remains, and it is that passion that may sometimes be confused with this snobbery Ozersky speaks of.
Through the years, I’ve interviewed, travelled, cupped and socialized with many specialty coffee professionals, and I must thank them all for taking their time to share their passion with me. For without their passion for coffee, I just might not be drinking coffee today. It is the passion of these people I speak of that gets consumers talking about coffee. (Think about it, twenty years ago the consumer didn’t even know that coffee came from places other than Brazil.)
Coffee farmer in Chiapas
Admittedly, I am not as fanatical about the cup I drink as many of my coffee industry colleagues. I am the consumer who knows a bit more than the average about coffee, who enjoys a great cup (or several) in the morning, but who doesn’t fret over every nuance when I brew my coffee. In fact, I feel out-geeked by so many of my coffee industry contemporaries. I just accept it and move one.
But, the beauty of coffee is that there is something for everyone. While I don’t enjoy drinking many of the commercial coffee branded brews available on the store shelves, I can’t poo poo the consumer who enjoys that coffee. After all, I don’t tell them what wine they should be drinking, (and, certainly wouldn’t like it if they told me what wine I should be drinking). But, at the same time, I have a unique perspective and understanding about coffee that may help them understand something a bit more about it.
I learned very early on in my food-and coffee-writing career that you have to tailor the message to the person with whom you are speaking. I can talk about my experiences on a coffee farm in Costa Rica; recount that time I observed one of the first Cup of Excellence competitions in Brazil, or talk about the importance of a finding the perfect grind for a brewing method. But when I talk of these experiences, I realize that if I offer up too much information, a person’s eyes just might glaze over. It is a tightrope walk of finding the right mix of espousing all the information that we know, and boiling it down to a point where you grab that coffee drinker and take them further along on their coffee journey.
So, in some sense, we need the snobbery. In another sense, we need to check it at the door – or at least know when to turn the snobbery on, and when to just let it go. The message must be different for all those consumers. For the specialty coffee industry to grow, and welcome consumers into the world of coffee, there has to be welcoming arms; There has to be passion; There has to be education. But there also needs to be an understanding of just how much information is too much.
At the same time, we need to rebrand this so-called-snobbery as passion. For without the passion of the people behind the coffee, we all would be drinking some pretty mediocre coffee.
Our Passion: Coffee
With all of that said, several years ago Bruce and I began to talk about re-launching Coffee Universe with a renewed focus on the consumer. It was with the thought in mind that coffee drinkers lie on a spectrum of knowledge – somewhere between extreme coffee geek and just plain old I-don’t-care-about -all-that-stuff, just-give-me-a-cup-of-coffee. The one thing they have in common is that they drink coffee.
The mission of Coffee Universe is to capture the coffee-drinking consumer and welcome them into the world of coffee – wherever they may be on that spectrum. Our goal is to bring articles that speak to all consumers who love coffee, and to nudge them gently along that continuum of understanding.
And to help you better understand which articles are geared towards your level of this coffee-drinking spectrum, we’ve included a rating system with each article. At the top of each article you will notice a 5 star system. One star means the article is suited for everyone – it may be a beginner’s level article, or something simply that appeals to all. A five-star article is for that coffee drinker teetering on coffee-geekdom, or the professional. These articles are geared towards the person who truly has a thirst for more in-depth knowledge about coffee. If you see three stars, the article appeals to those in the middle. It’s a pretty simple concept, but a great way to guide Coffee Universe readers to the content that best suits their ability, level, or just plain interest.
If you feel any hint of snobbery in all this, it’s not. It is just a passion and excitement for what we love – – coffee.
Find your passion with coffee. Take it in, drink it up – and most of all, enjoy your coffee. If you feel like it, go ahead and be a snob about it. After all, coffee is our passion too.