(aka What Can We Learn From Winemakers and Hair Dressers) – a Manifesto
On any coffee forum or newsgroup or in any gathering of coffee enthusiasts, talk will inevitably turn to the poor quality of coffee served in coffee bars across America. At the same time, whenever professional baristi get together, the topic of conversation eventually becomes the lack of appreciation for quality espresso-making amongst American consumers.
Obviously – there is a disconnect here. Obviously – the enthusiastic coffee aficionados amongst us are failing to find the great espresso, and the great baristi are failing to attract the discriminating consumers.
How do we fix this? How do we enable customers to identify where espresso is likely to be good – how do they differentiate those good locations from the truly great options? And how do we enable the good coffee shops – and the great baristi – to identify themselves to the customers and to differentiate themselves from the masses?
To me – if coffee in the US is going to ever become what all the serious baristi wish – a gourmet and stylized drink served by and to people who appreciate the art behind and in it – the above questions need to be resolved.
On a certain level, the Barista Guild can be seen as a first step towards a solution. If a coffee shop or espresso bar displays Barista Guild membership for its employees, a customer will know that the employees (or owner) cares enough to bother to sign up for (and pay for) membership. But this is obviously both a partial solution, and one which offers no strict guarantees. One might hope that this would allow customers to identify locations where their odds of getting an acceptable drink are higher – and would allow interested establishments and/or individuals to advertise their level of commitment… but there would be no real guarantee of results.
Some people have said that some sort of certification process involving the BGA is the answer.To me – this poses three serious problems. First of all, the consumers will have to be educated about that certification process. This is a non-trivial problem. Educating customers is, already, a serious and complicated problem for high-end coffee businesses. Countering the misinformation spread by some vendors and by many consumers and reversing decades of myths and miseducation is difficult, at best. Adding another type of education to the already huge list seems foolish and unlikely to be successful. Secondly, many coffee bars in the US are small, undercapitalized and often in remote locations. It would be unreasonable to expect that those businesses would be able to (or interested in) shipping employees off to other areas for certification. Leaving those establishments behind undercuts the entire purposes of this venture. Third, and most significant, is the question of how the certification process would be established, judged, what qualifications would be evaluated, who would evaluate… the usual political and process issues. In this case, these would be compounded by the very nature of making espresso – the subjective reality of espresso (in terms of not only taste, but style).
Given these problems, it seems to me that we might want to step back and look at the problem from a different angle.
Recently, many people have taken to comparing coffee (as a product) to wine. In many ways, this is a useful and informative comparison. With espresso, however, the reality is rather different than the theory. One can easily compare a great roaster to a great vintner and a great coffee estate to a great vineyard. With wine, however, the sommelier merely maintains the wine in storage and then describes and serves it. A bad sommelier with decent equipment might make a bad suggestion – but cannot really damage the product. In espresso – the end product is the result of a complex relationship – a collaborative effort – between the grower, the bean, the roaster and the barista. The end product is only as good as the weakest link in that chain.
Given this – it would be better to imagine espresso as a hybrid between wine (the coffee bean product itself) and hair cutting and styling (a skilled service focused on preparation of a product).
So… how does a consumer identify a good wine? And how do they differentiate that good wine from a great wine? And how does a consumer identify a good hairdresser – and again differentiate them from a great one? And can we learn from this?
Well… marketing plays a large roll. As does editorial coverage and reviews. But when it comes right down to it – people expect there to be a direct relationship between cost and quality. The vast majority of American consumers expect a $50 bottle of wine to taste much better than a $25 bottle of wine – and expect a $15 haircut to be vastly inferior to a $65 haircut.
So – the question is… would this work for espresso? Could they be educated to expect that a $2 espresso would be inferior to a $3 one? And would they be willing to pay for the quality?
If so – perhaps it’s time for espresso bars to move to a hairdresser model – where “seats” are rented out to baristi and prices are set by those baristi for their own services. In this model, the pricing would be regulated by the consumers in a sense – in that an inferior barista would not get business if they over-valued their services and would not make money and, in the end, would lose their spot at the bar. And great baristi would be rewarded by making more money due to a loyal following.
I don’t know. But I have a sense that the current model is broken – and my gut tells me that this idea is either a good solution – or a first step towards that solution.