On False Equivalencies (or How Hipsters Are Ruining Coffee)

I tend to think a lot about some of the challenges facing craft or artisan coffee. Over time, these challenges have changed. Whereas once upon a time simple relevancy was a huge challenge, the last three years have seen a widespread market adoption of the high end of coffee in the US.

Much of this adoption has been driven by more effective marketing by the coffee businesses themselves, but the increasing demand for "authenticity" amongst the growing hipster market (and their serious use of social media to promote their brand decisions) has also been a driving force. Hipsters are the early-adopters of this world and are creating a huge market as the followers stream in after them.

Unfortunately, the hipster market is a challenging one.
In a number of ways.

For coffee companies, one of the big challenges is, in fact, in the intersection of marketing / branding and "authenticity."

Because hipsters are so vulnerable to being marketed to with either authenticity based messaging (or cynical "faux-thenticity"messaging in many cases), we are seeing decision-making around coffee based not upon coffee, but upon marketing - while being presented as being about coffee.

While I'm a huge fan of Tonx - this statement is deeply troubling to me -- and sadly ALL too common right now.

The implies a false equivalency - that Blue Bottle and Stumptown are (or were) comparable. And, in fact, they are comparable in a number of ways. But the implication is that their coffee is equivalent. I am confident that no-one at Blue Bottle or Stumptown would agree on this point. But the hipsters would argue to the death that they are.

And for the hipsters -- this is true. Both Blue Bottle and Stumptown (prior to the investments placed in each) represented the sort of faux-thenticity beloved by hipsters (and used to communicate their hipster cred).

The trouble is that hipsters talk about these brands not based upon their messaging, branding or market position - but rather about their coffee.

And this confuses everyone in the market - due to hipsters' aggressive use of social media among other things.

I mean... there is even a Flickr Hive Mind for "The World's Newest Photos of Blue Bottle and Stumptown" for god's sake!!! And blog posts. Foodies wonder. Even mainstream media has gotten in on the act.

There were a few years (before hipsters discovered speciality coffee) where it seemed like coffee was about to become about the coffee (rather than the brand and the marketing).

What we are seeing is the coffee version of gentrification. And I'm sure it makes the owners of companies like Stumptown and Blue Bottle very happy - as it is resulting in massive business opportunity.

But it's making it harder and harder to actually get good coffee - and harder and harder for coffee businesses that are interested first and foremost in coffee and customer experience to succeed.

In addition, because hipsters are (inherently) opposed to anything that attracts non-hipsters, they tend to reject the things they love once uncool people adopt them. This trend creating / destroying behavior is deeply frustrating as it's not based on anything the coffee companies do (coffee quality, customer experience, etc) but is instead effectively a form of punishing success.

This, in the end, is my hope. Sooner or later, the hipsters will move on and the businesses left behind will need to compete based upon things other than faux-thenticity. And some of them (sadly too few) will probably (I hope) choose to compete based on coffee.

In the meantime, beware the false equivalency.


A little help here?

I have a plea for the dozen or so people who still read this blog.

I need to source a new (replacement) brew switch for my vintage La Marzocco GS.
Sadly, the little plastic retaining tab snapped off (as they are likely to do).
And, of course, this part is no longer in-production.

It is the red "on" (or brew in fact) switch as illustrated below.

If anyone happens to have a line on such a switch, can you please let me know?

I've talked to the usual suspects, and no-one seems to have one.

Thanks in advance!


espresso and trends

Over the last few years I believe we have seen a sustained and dramatic increase in quality of brewed coffee from the top (artisan speciality) coffee businesses. There are numerous potential causes, and it would be very interesting to debate what combination of forces has created this change - but that is not the topic of this piece (it would be more suitable for a lively conversation over beers).

In my opinion, the improvement in brewed coffee (while starting to slow down in pace) is still continuing and we are likely to see truly unparalleled coffees over the coming year.

Unfortunately, during this same time period I would argue that we have seen an equally dramatic decline in the quality of espresso coming from the high end of the coffee market. There are, of course, exceptions to this. In the last year or so I've had fantastic espresso from Tim Wendelboe, from Square Mile, from 49th Parallel and from Stumptown. But these are anomalies. The espressos from most if not all of the other leading companies have, to my taste and in my opinion, declined over this time. And many of the newly emerged coffee companies (despite often having fabulous brewed coffee) have produced sub-par espresso from the get-go. Again, the conversation of Why this is happening is something that is not well suited to a blog - and would be far better suited to a bar. So I will move on to my point.

As with brewed coffee, I don't see any signs at present that the trend is reversing. As a friend said when I ran this by him, "don't worry - it will come back into fashion." The trouble is that I love espresso - and I'm not very patient.

So... the point.

If you are in the coffee business and are producing espresso - make it taste good. Seriously. You'd be shocked by how many espressos out there fail this simple test.
If you are in the coffee business and are producing espresso - give a fuck. If you don't care about espresso - don't do it. Just stick with brewed coffees.

Those of us who do love espresso - we want something that tastes good. We want you to give a fuck. Please give us what we want. I'm begging.


random retrospective

2011 in coffee... where do i start?

it was an "interesting" year to say the least.

so let's go through the various highlights, lowlights and "odd" lights from the year.

Trends of the Year

1. Light Roasts. Driven by a range of trends (young coffee professionals differentiating themselves from their mentors, re-adoption of brewed coffee among professionals, scandinavian roasters, ExtractMojo, etc.) 2011 was the year of the light roast. The good results are that fewer and fewer coffees taste like ash-trays and that roasters have less ability to hide inferior and defective beans. The bad results are that many roasters don't have the skills required to light roast coffees well and most of all that we are returning to the age when our messaging to consumers is all about roast degree (rather than flavour etc).

2. Business Investments and Scaling. Stumptown takes a huge chunk of cash from a PE firm in order to scale the business. Much back-biting and smack-talking follows. Then it becomes clear that a bunch of the shit-talking competitors have done the same. It is highly likely that 2012 will continue this trend and introduce a round of consolidation as well, where these capitalized larger artisan coffee businesses proceed to acquire smaller competitors to grow inorganically.

Innovations of the Year

1. VST baskets. These baskets introduced basket design as a serious component of espresso to the coffee world. The research done by the VST crew inspires dozens of others to start looking at the differences between baskets and effects on extraction. In 2012 we should see some additional work done that answers some of the now glaring and obvious questions that have been raised as a result. It is highly likely that we will see a far better understanding of espresso come out of this process - and a number of new baskets that give baristas a far better "quiver" to work with (as opposed to the obviously flawed "one size fits all" model we have at present).

2. EP Sproline groupscreen and screw. While everyone in coffee was talking about the VST baskets and (in some cases) were radically overstating the results of them -- no-one was talking about another new product that was equally innovative and effective. These precision parts also improved extraction and dramatically decreased cleaning and contamination challenges.

Lessons of the Year

1. Espresso and brewed coffee are different. We've gone through a series of massive shifts in the way we think of espresso. From a specific flavour profile beverage to just another method of preparing coffee. At this point it seems like the pendulum has swung too far and espressos are starting to taste simply like a heavily concentrated and reduced cupped coffee. As a result, the primary goal of a "good tasting" beverage seems to have been abandoned by the wayside. The two beverages are different, but should both taste good. They do not, however, need to taste "the same" (especially if "the same" in either case means "bad").

2. Working with growers yields great results. The quality of green coffee from top producers continues to improve - but more importantly, more and more producers are taking the leap to "top producer" status (by quality). In a very large percentage of cases, this leap has been fueled by a collaborative relationship between a roaster and a grower. This direct and collaborative relationship is the emerging model for creation of truly world-class coffees. I'm really happy that more and more roasters are investing in these relationships.

3. Online conversations about coffee are frustrating and largely counterproductive. I've walked away from all coffee websites at this point. Being involved in the discussions on these sites has made me incredibly jaded and cynical about all people involved in all parts of the coffee experience. I chose to disengage because I want to continue to love coffee. I would suggest others consider this if they find themselves starting to hate people who are passionate about coffee.

Hopes for Next Year

1. Fewer sour coffees. In 2011 I had three coffees that were entirely green in the center of the bean (literally unroasted). Two of these coffees came from "highly regarded" roasters. The majority of coffees I evaluated from US roasters in 2011 had between noticeable and severe sourness. When cupping with "taste" professionals (sommeliers etc) who are not coffee pros, the biggest complaint in 2011 was sourness in the cup.

2. More honesty in coffee. People in the coffee world need to stop saying that they like competitors' coffees when they actually dislike them. People in the coffee world need to stop keeping their mouths shut about Sumatran coffee and Monsooned coffees etc etc. Consumers take our dishonesty and our silence as truth and when less reputable coffee companies market negatives as positives, the consumers don't know better. Time to call bullshit on the... well.. bullshit.

3. Better customer service. For the fourth year in a row I hope that this year is the year that going to a good coffee bar in the US is a consistently good experience rather than simply a way for hipsters to judge you as lame and undeserving of their artistic and under-appreciated genius (and luxurious facial hair).

Espressos of the Year

1. Tim Wendelboe Honduras Cielito Lindo Espresso. Showing that a very light roast coffee can still be wonderfully balanced, complete, sweet, fully developed and not sour at all. A revelation.

2. Stumptown Guatemala Finca El Injerto Bourbon Espresso. Perfectly nuanced, balanced, flexible and layered. The first single origin espresso in my memory that I would consider replacing a blend with for "each and every day for the rest of my life" purposes.

Fails of the Year

1. Numerous undrinkable shots of espresso from well-regarded coffee bars. I threw out more shots of espresso from top coffee bars in 2011 than any year before. Quality of espresso served in the top coffee bars in the US seemed in my experience to decline from 2010 to 2011.

2. Numerous severely under-developed coffees. In part, the above "bad espresso" fail was due to the severely under-developed coffees that many baristas were having to work with. As the US coffee world adopted lighter roast coffees, many failed to understand that roasting lighter requires a different approach and profile for roasting. A huge percentage of coffees evaluated in 2011 were under-developed in the roast. Where this become seriously problematic was in espressos - where many coffees were actually impossible to prepare well as a result. I'm hoping that I don't taste a single espresso in 2012 that tastes like piping hot cranberry concentrate with a dash of lab grade citric acid as a topper.

3. Restaurant coffee. Another year where restaurant coffee sucked. Another year where I stupidly tried... again and again. Local favorites, Michelin starred places... all the coffee sucked.