Sometimes I pace around the office soliloquizing on the finer details of coffee or on grandiose generalizations about the state of our industry. Mark, usually eyeballs deep into his laptop, stops and watches me amble and ramble, wondering how deep the well of thought might extend, how it might end, and if there is hope interwoven into my usually-troublesome insights. And that’s why I was glad that Mark went with me to Portland last month to attend the annual conference of the Specialty Coffee Association.
The Specialty Coffee Association. That sounds … well it sounds big to me. But when we told the transit cop on the Portland train that we were in town for a coffee conference, he laughed and said he never imagined there would be an entire conference just for coffee. And he’s right, to some extent. There isn’t an entire conference just for coffee because this one seems to pretend to focus on coffee while its manifestations are everything but. The idea that people actually drink and enjoy coffee as a solitary beverage is one I was duped into believing way back in 2002 by the National Coffee Association’s statistics on coffee consumption in the U.S. But once I opened the DoubleShot in 2004, I realized almost no one drinks coffee. The majority of coffee is consumed in a way that masks the actual taste of the beverage. Which I could understand if we were talking about oatmeal. But we’re talking about coffee. Imagine if almost all the whisk(e)y in the world were consumed with Coke. Wait… Is it? (I digress.)
When I first started roasting coffee, it was with a small fluid bed roaster, a bunch of regional coffees (save one: a single estate coffee called La Minita), and a book entitled “Home Coffee Roasting” by a guy named Ken Davids. I read that book and roasted the coffees and made lots of notes, and over time my skills at roasting and tasting began to develop. In 2006, in the midst of the Starbucks saga, I sent Ken Davids a pound of my Ambergris Espresso Blend, as he was reviewing what he probably called “boutique” espresso blends on his website, CoffeeReview.com. This was an exciting time for me, and I was thrilled when Ken rated my espresso 91 points (or was it 92?) and he emailed to tell me that he was glad my coffee turned out to be one of the good ones. Boy was I glad as well; an affirmation from the man whose book launched my roasting career that I was doing it right. And then I noticed on Ken’s website all the coffees that scored higher than mine had logos next to the review which clicked over to the roaster’s website, and all the coffees that scored lower than mine did not. So I emailed Ken and asked him to put my logo on the site. And that’s when I found out the whole thing was a sham. A pay-to-play scheme in which top-rated coffee reviews were bought with “sponsorship” dollars.
Mark and I went to see Ken speak in a lecture hall at the conference and, still affected 17 years later, I was salivating at the idea of standing up during the Q&A to ask Ken about his shady scoring practices, widely acknowledged throughout the industry but shrouded from unwary consumers. Ken is an affable but awkward old man, and as we watched him stammer around the podium, Mark whispered that this might be his swan song. He talked about a book on coffee he wrote in the ’70s that sold a quarter million copies over the years, the roasting book that got me started, an unheralded book on espresso, and a new book entitled “21st Century Coffee.” Scatterbrained and directionless, he rambled for 45 minutes while I sat sweating and cogitating, but in the end I simply couldn’t attack the poor guy in his last shining moment.
There used to be a waggish monthly I enjoyed, entitled Mountain Bike Magazine. I’ve never been a fan of sitting and looking at pictures or reading descriptions of people doing something I’d rather just be doing, but this magazine was witty and sarcastic and kept me up to date on the latest gear. And then they published an issue with a negative gear review of the latest suspension fork released by the major player in that space. The following issue was thin, and it began with a letter from the editor explaining that the shock company had pulled all its ads because of the low star review. And that was the end of that. So I sort of understand Ken’s dilemma; once you start, you can’t stop.
There once was a man named Andy. He owned a company in California that roasted coffee, and a local Tulsa shop was using it. A barista of that shop would bring by some beans now and then, and we’d brew and taste and talk about it. Then one day, he brought an Ethiopian natural that blew me away. I went to the website and read all about it. About how they’d bought it “farm direct” in Ethiopia, etc etc. Excited, I emailed Andy to find out how he pulled off the thing I’d been wanting so badly to do. I can’t quite remember what happened after that, but suffice it to say I realized Andy wasn’t being completely honest about that whole “farm direct” part. (Unless, that is, we were ALL buying coffee farm direct.)
Feeling slightly annoyed at the misinformation and deception sprawling throughout specialty coffee, I decided to record an episode of my podcast, AA Cafe, entitled “Liars in the Coffee Industry.” We talked about silly stuff and then got into the heart of the matter. I called out Ken Davids for taking money to give good reviews. (Or was he giving good reviews in order to get sponsorships? No, wait, that’s how “Best in the World” and “A-List” market reviews.) I also talked about Andy and his misleading rhetoric with the Ethiopian coffee and his loosey goosey definition of “farm direct.” And then I got ready for the backlash from dissing one of the most prominent authors in specialty coffee.
Back in 2005, one of my customers, Joe Holsten, told me I should start a podcast. I’m not sure why he thought this was a good idea, other than the possibility that all podcasts back then were just long-winded rants, which I was prone to brandishing behind the counter anyway. I didn’t even know what a podcast was, and when he explained it I told him no one listens to podcasts. A couple weeks later, Joe came in and told me Apple was about to add podcasts to the iTunes app, and with that AA Cafe was born. We were certainly one of the first coffee podcasts, along with another called portafilter.net, and today we remain the longest-running coffee podcast in existence. Portafilter was run by two specialty coffee pros named Nick and Jay. Nick turned out to be a loudmouth who got himself into trouble for not paying his bills. And Jay – he started out with a shaved-ice business that morphed into “Spro,” then expanded and contracted as Jay’s interests and acumen developed. Jay brought the fruit loops latte to the barista competition around 2007, and then my favorite, the Lobster Bisque Latte. He said it didn’t taste very good, but he was trying to make a point about the hazelnut lattes being presented during the US Barista Championships. And I told him then and there he should be the president of SCA. But they don’t elect people like Jay. He’s too progressive. Anyway, Jay posted about the AA Cafe episode, “Liars in the Coffee Industry” on a message board (remember those?) called coffeed.com. And the shit hit the fan.
But not the way I thought. I was lambasted for talking about one of my peers in the industry. And I even got poorly written emails from uneducated cafe owners. It seemed like the entire industry was dogpiling on me. People were pissed that I had the gall to publicly impugn Andy, a fellow specialty coffee roaster. And no one said a word about Ken Davids. I emailed the moderator of the site to see if they would give me access to post in my defense, but they declined. And that was probably for the best, because eventually Andy appeared in print, doing his best to defend himself and explain the way he bought this coffee “farm direct.” And then the message board fell silent. Someone asked him to please explain again, and it became blatantly obvious Andy had bought this coffee through a broker, no matter how hard he tried to tie himself to an Ethiopian farm he’d never been to. I waited for all the naysayers to send me apologies, but none ever came. (In retrospect, there were so many other things in that podcast episode people should’ve been mad at me for. So inappropriate.)
It was perfect timing, seeing Jay get out of a car and walk down the sidewalk toward the convention center entry. He was holding a camera on a selfie stick, interviewing a Mexican woman who I obviously should know. I posted up, arms crossed, directly in his path. And as soon as he spotted me, he turned the camera around to show this “old school” roaster, Brian Franklin from DoubleShot. We reconnected for a few moments as we strode into the conference hall, and I told him about the Ken Davids lecture. He laughed, as Jay always does, and told me he was enjoying the solitude of having no cafes and being able to roast in his underwear if he wants. And he said he’s trying to be a “YouTuber.” So I guess I’m on YouTube. We parted ways at the bottom of the escalator and Mark and I proceeded onto the trade show floor.
One of the strangest things about being at the annual expo for the Specialty Coffee Association (of America AND Europe) is the fact that it’s really hard to find a good cup of coffee. There were lots of tropical smoothies and a booth giving away bananas for some reason. We stopped by the Hario booth and saw the new colors of scales and a guy made us a pourover that tasted under-developed on a teal-colored one. I saw baristas behind an espresso machine and looked at their sign to find they were serving caramel pecan lattes or some such thing. We tasted oat milk eggnog (oatnog) and some guy made us try chai tea on nitro. Matcha and whipped cream and “milkadamia.” At meetings with importers, they would ask us, almost dismissively, if we wanted coffee. Longtime friends and brokers confessed to loving coffee with maple syrup, an Australian chai made with honey, coffees flavored with fruits and aged in wine barrels, anything but the taste of actual coffee. Thank god for the staid, sportcoat-clad traditionalists at the La Minita booth. A group that you might call “old school,” that you might’ve deemed sell-outs for being acquired by a Japanese tea company, and that you probably could ridicule for the percentage of coffee they trade in the commercial market. But they seem to be holding the line (and even pushing the envelope, though ever-so-slightly) when it comes to specialty coffee. So at their booth I had a tiny, tiny cup of coffee. Black.
I sauntered over to the coffee stand of one of my brokers, waiting to talk to him, knowing he probably wasn’t looking forward to our conversation. Coffee is hard. And good coffee is dependent on so many things going right. It requires a lot of people caring and doing an excellent job at every level. I’d previously questioned this broker about a coffee he sold me which turned out to have been poorly harvested from a farm not properly managed and then inappropriately milled. And when he finally acknowledged me, he looked as though I’d kicked his dog. “Worst coffee you’ve ever roasted?” Yeah, it’s not good. Whether or not he knows I’m right is still in question, but I’ve been doing this a long time and I know coffee. I probably wouldn’t know if your caramel pecan latte tasted like it should. And I might not know which chai is best. But I know coffee. And I know when people aren’t being honest about things in the coffee industry. Mark stood off to one side, observing the awkward, depressed conversation, and then I felt someone standing next to me. Too close, really. The broker shook this interposer’s hand and then turned back to me and said, “You know Andy, right?”
Yeah, I know Andy. And now Mark does too.