The Good, the Bad... the Ugly (Pt 1)

It's taken my leaving coffee - and being away for quite some time - to give me the perspective and the objectivity to look back and see the industry for what it is.

There are a lot of things (pros and cons) that we all understand and that, in many cases, are simply obvious. But there are also a whole lot of positive and negative attributes that one either doesn't notice or hides from while head down behind the bar.

I think it's about time to detail some of these. I think that people can (or perhaps should) learn from this. In some cases - this may well be obvious. But it's good to get stuff out in the open.

The People

Everyone knows that the reason that many of us stay in the industry is because of the coffee. The good folks in this business are truly passionate about coffee. Up until a couple of years ago, this may have been less clear to many - but over the last few years it has become the drumbeat pushing us forward. "It's all about the coffee." That passion is what allowed for the sacrifices and what enables people to keep fighting and stay focused.

But few talk about the other great reason for putting up with all the compromises of a job in coffee. The people.

The specialty coffee industry attracts some of the most amazing, wonderful, engaging, smart, passionate, interesting and just plain cool people. Being around this people is, truly, addictive.

Now that I'm out of the industry I find that I miss a number of things. Some I expected (pulling shots behind the bar, cupping coffees all the time). But others came as a shock. How much I miss the people... well, this is the painful thing. I have so many friends in the coffee world and I knew that would be an issue. But it's not just the friends that I'm missing. I'm missing the community... I'm missing the people who were not even my friends but rather just cool people.

The good people in this industry are amazing - and too few of them get the notice and respect that the deserve. Folks like Jay Caragay, Ellie, Klaus, Tonx, Billy, Gabe, Vince, Brent Fortune, Barry, Peter, Troels, Phuong, George, James, Marcus... the list could go on for ever and ever. These are the people who live and die with coffee. They bleed coffee, they breathe coffee. Without them there simply would be no specialty coffee industry.

I left out the Stumptown folks from this list because they are, to me, a special case. On a daily basis I feel like I've lost a limb when I think about Stumptown. The physical pain that I feel when I think about not being a part of the Stumptown family anymore cannot be described. Joel, Lizz, Jim, Kyle, Stephen, Jana, Tim, Kate, Dave, Andrew, Todd, Blake, Autumn, Sarah, Wendy, Hutch, Dana, Steve, Liam, April, Ellen, Alex, Corey, Daniel, Nicholas, Sierra, Matt... I'm sure I'm forgetting folks and that is unforgivable but seriously... you all are why I stayed in coffee and you are why I'm no longer in coffee. You're an impossible act to follow.

Finally, there are the real heros of the coffee world. These folks are the people who in my opinion simply cannot get enough recognition.

Duane Sorenson. You taught me more that I can describe. I owe you more than you know.
David Schomer. Without you this never would have happened for me.
Doug Zell. Each and every day you demonstrate that you can run a coffee company as a business while also maintaining vision and standards.
Terry. I see the sacrifices you have made and continue to make even if others do not.
Kent. Each and every one of us owe almost everything to your committment and persistence.
Tim Wendelboe. You're the model. You've shown us where we need to go.
Bronwen. You're my hero. You live life the way it should be done. You are a barista.
Andrew Barnett. You are the cult figure for everyone - even if you don't know it. Your palate and your passion is what we strive for.
Sarah Allen. The courage it took you to step out and follow your dream astonishes me. We all owe you drinks on the house forever.

Now... before you think this is some sort of love-fest alone, the truth is that the speciality coffee industry is very immature. One of the ways in which this manifests itself is in the people it attracts. The insular and community focused nature of this industry combines with the immaturity to create a situation where the fools, the pretenders, the crooks and the monsters are hidden from view and/or ignored. And this industry has attracted more than its fair share of the above.

As many know, I have the opinion that the SCAA is the primary magnet for these bad people. Because of the structure and role of the SCAA, it seems to present a powerful pull for people who are in coffee for the "wrong" reasons. These people covet the perceived power and the sense of insider status. They see the opportunity for personal enrichment in the SCAA and see that their lack of ethics or values will allow them to exploit the trust relationships and escape any notice or censure do to the "ostrich" mentality of the industry. They thrive on the conflicts of interest inherent in the situation. And these people are the dominant players in the "old guard" within the SCAA.

They exist as consultants - exploiting their connections and committee relationships to double and even triple bill clients for services of limited to no value.
They exist as paid experts - representing institutions and industries whose very values and missions are antithetical to quality coffee while passing themselves off as friends of ours.
They exist as pundits - pursuing ego gratification through the exageration of abilities and a sort of "networked bullying" and a bully pulpit.
They exist in the media - running magazines dedicated to ad space above quality, ethics or values.
They exist as business owners - lining their own pockets at the expense of their employees; claiming specialty coffee status is owed to them through simple dues paying.
Most of all... they exist within the SCAA. Parasites spending the hard-earned profits of their constituents without providing value to anyone but themselves.

Sadly, these people are not merely limited to the "old guard." The new generation is starting to spawn their fair share of these individuals... these frauds and fakers and fast talking intimidators. They're moving from the Internet to the back room and soon to the board room. This is our chance to stop it... and it's going fast.

Personally, I think nothing could be better for the speciality coffee industry that a "zero tolerance" attitude. I hoped that the financial crimes at the SCAA would serve as a catalyst for this - and was deeply, deeply frustrated to see that, instead, the usual "close the doors and hide the dirty laundry" mentality simply became stronger as a result. I cannot see what anyone gains from this. It's time to call folks on their shit - and let everyone know. Each time you turn your back as another overpriced, underqualified consultant takes some poor coffee entrepreneur for their precious startup cash and then walks away to let them fail... we all are damaged.

The next time you go to an espresso lab and hear someone spreading the same old tired lies and misconception to the gullible - call them on it.

The next time you taste a coffee that is misroasted; the next time you see defect being passed off as character; the next time someone tries to bully and intimidate their way to personal gain; the next time a barista is underpaid... call people on their shit.

Zero Tolerance.

(More to follow)

No comments: