Prospecting in Specialty Coffee

Last weekend Andrew and I traveled to Seattle to attend the annual convention for the Specialty Coffee Association. It’s always an interesting experience. There are people from all over the world and every segment of the industry. We attended lectures about coffee botany, chemistry, processing, and costs of farming. We visited with some of our brokers and equipment suppliers. Bumped into a couple of farm owners whose coffee we’ve roasted. And looked for new, interesting products to test out for our cafe and retail store. At these conferences, you have to wade through a lot of shit to find something worth the trip. But it’s interesting to see how the industry changes and progresses year after year. 

I was reminded of another trip I took to the SCAA convention a few years ago when it was held in Long Beach. It was during the early days of the DoubleShot and I was still living in primitive conditions, eating ramen noodles every day, and trying to stay afloat while adhering to my principles. A friend put me on a flight with his frequent flyer miles, and I racked my brain trying to figure out where I would sleep for 3 nights. When I arrived in Long Beach, I walked along the shoreline until I found a secluded spot on the ground beneath an evergreen where I thought I could safely spend the night. I got swept up in the international flavors of the opening ceremony then quietly disappeared into the night. But when I got to my sleeping tree, someone was already snoozing amid the pine-needle laden roots. I tried to sleep on a concrete park bench but the ocean breeze chilled me. So I wandered around. And I found myself standing on the sidewalk next to a man who lived there, on the street, and he told me he grew up in Tulsa, on Harvard Avenue near Southern Hills Country Club. He was divorced and unemployable. His children disowned him, and he clearly wanted to be my friend. We were, after all, from the same town and both (at least at the time) Homeless in Long Beach. (Which could’ve been the prequel to Sleepless in Seattle)

I declined my new friend’s offer to have a beer (mostly because he suggested we walk by the bar across the street and just grab a beer off one of the tables and drink it). And I declined his offer to spend the night in his friend’s back yard (partly because he told me his friend could get us any kind of drugs we wanted). A pretty girl walked by. I looked at her, then at him. And I told him I was going with the girl.

I didn’t, of course. 

Instead I wandered some more, looking for a nook or cranny where I might hide from the cold and the company of the night. I found a plastic chair under a stairwell that was comfortable enough to sleep sitting up, with my backpack safely between my feet. Hidden from view, the stairs trapped the heat emanating from my breath. I got a little sleep. And this became my Long Beach night home. (But not without incident.)

I spent the afternoons and evenings sitting on park benches, cloaked in a DoubleShot hoodie, reading William Vollmann’s “Poor People,” and noticing that the non-homeless (the homed?) would not make eye contact with me or acknowledge my existence. I sank into that book and became a character on the coast a few miles south of Vollmann’s favorite heroine and hooker hangout, San Francisco. 

Whether we get better or just different may be a matter of opinion. My life today is easier than it used to be, and I’m a little fatter, a little healthier, a tad less fit. Most of the people who live and work in the coffee industry did not get there the way I did. But we’re all there, all in the same place. I look around and see the pervasive attitude that we are only successful if our business grows and we open more locations and grow our wholesale. We all strive to be Starbucks. Not the mom-and-pop, the local roaster. 

Starbucks has infiltrated the Specialty Coffee Association. Maybe they control it now. Maybe they own it. The CEO and some other Starbucks executive clown appeared on the overhead screen and (at least in my mind) made a mockery out of the whole show. Their green-aproned servers appeared at this year’s opening ceremonies like robots set into motion by the evil empire, handing out uninteresting iced coffee and gas station-quality lemon bars. No one seemed to notice.

I see the industry wanting to be them. I see their emulation of each other and indifferentiation via coherence with the standards. The most rigidly rule-following, robot-like coffee person wins the consistency competition and their blandness is inoffensive enough to impress even the most mealy-mouthed Folgers coffee blender. But me, I want to make great coffee first. First and foremost. Yeah, I want to get rich. I don’t like being poor. It’s not fun. It’s stressful. But the reason I started this, and the reason I continue today, is to make great coffee. 

Here and there and everywhere are brilliant botanists and erudite chemists and creative coffee growers. Upright and talented brokers and importers. Amazing graphic artists and product designers. Electrical and mechanical engineers wrenching together devices so complicated I can’t comprehend. People who know something about coffee and tell the truth. Quietly, usually. Amongst those shouting inane, profane, and more importantly, uninteresting alternative truths.

The changes in the Specialty Coffee industry and the changes in my circumstances that allow me to sleep in a hotel bed are important factors in our ability to harvest what’s important in life and in coffee. I walked into the Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room, newly built to try and compete with people like me. It’s interesting, isn’t it? That so many of my peers want to be like Starbucks and it appears Starbucks wants to be like us. Somehow they feel threatened at the way we make coffee. 

Instead of continuing down the road of duplication and mass production, customizing your frappuccino so you can be just like everyone else, they have decided to pretend, in this “Reserve Roastery,” that they source small lots and craft roast (via their corporate computer controlled, robotic roastmaster) in a 120-kilo “small-batch roaster.” They appear to have bought all the nicest equipment and implemented practices currently only found at small shops like mine. But great coffee is not dependent on large sums of money or automation or pretty labels. You can’t feign authenticity. Or coffee quality. It all washes out in the cup.

I wandered around this Willy Wonka coffee factory and saw some details I liked. I saw an efficiency and design that puts all of us to shame. A bit too shiny, for sure. All I’m saying is, even in the middle of a corporate store that epitomizes everything I don’t like about the coffee industry, I found some nuggets. I found nuggets in my experiences on the street in Long Beach. And I found a lot of nuggets at the Specialty Coffee convention in 2017.

I plan to steal it all back to my lair in Tulsa, putting it into the beaker of ideas on my desk and converting it into DoubleShot gold.