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jimseven"jimseven" - 5 new articles

  1. A look at last year’s prediction
  2. Workflows and Software
  3. 2014 in review – number edition
  4. Quality and customers (a dialogue)
  5. What message do I want to send?
  6. Search jimseven
  7. Prior Mailing Archive

A look at last year’s prediction

I used to do annual predictions, and then I stopped but apparently I couldn’t quite give up the habit as last year I made some predictions about the C-market, and the coffee market in general in 2014.

So let’s have a look and see where I was right and (as usual) wrong:

We’re going to see less coffee from Central American producers ongoing.

This is, so far, looking to be fairly accurate. Crop years get confusing (we’re going to be receiving the 2014 crops of Centrals this year…). Data comes from the ICO: 1

Central Production Data

We saw a further decline (13.4% decrease, down nearly a quarter on two years before) in Central American coffee primarily due to rust. There has been some recovery – but this year’s crop figure will give better insight into whether we lost some producers along with the drop in yields.

Hopefully the demand from speciality will drive the prices for high quality coffees up, ideally to the point where growing good coffee is sensible and sustainable.

Hard to speak across an industry. This was certainly true for the prices paid at work.

We’re going to see more coffee from Colombia. It seems like the rust resistant varieties are starting to kick in, and Colombia’s production is up.

This has been borne out – both Colombia’s production and its exports are up. More data from the ICO:

Screen Shot 2015-01-15 at 12.33.38

You can see from the previous table that Colombia’s production has been back above 12 million bags for the last couple of years, after the drop caused by rust. Notable is the amount of coffee exported which was jumped quite dramatically, despite a 2% increase in production there was an 18% increase in exports.

Brazil’s production is going to be sufficiently large that it will continue to squash the commodity price.

This where it all falls down. Brazil’s crop wasn’t as expected, the drought making news around the world. Looking at the traditional cycle of crops this should have been a big crop year, a record crop year in fact. It wasn’t:

Screen Shot 2015-01-15 at 14.50.11

You can see from the chart that this was a year that bucked the on/off cycle trend. As a result the market was a lot more volatile in the last twelve months and prices went back up. Predicting weather is something I am not good at, nor are humans in general beyond a relatively short timeframe. Whether we want to bring climate change into this as a potential factor may be worth considering, as this was the driest period on record since they started recording 84 years ago.

I haven’t seen much in the way of predictions for next year’s crop yet, and I have no idea how much other countries are looking to produce. It does seem that the expected consumption for 2013 pretty much matches production, and with an annual growth rate of 2% it also seems likely we’ll have a year in 2014 in which more coffee was consumed than produced.

I also made a few other predictions:

Supermarket/grocery store coffee is going to remain pretty cheap. I would expect it to increase with inflation/cost of living but to look increasingly cheap compared to speciality.

Not successful here either, or maybe a little bit so. Smuckers, a large US company, put up their prices(9%) and saw a large decrease in sales. Kraft also put up their prices (10%), and the market saw a shift to cheaper coffee. Which means cheaper coffee was at least sufficiently plentiful.

I don’t know of an index that compares typical specialty prices to commoditised coffee prices at retail (we’d have to define speciality first I suppose) but I don’t think any serious speciality company decreased their prices this year (evidence to the contrary welcome!)

Wholesalers of lower quality coffee will once again be able to leverage free-on-loan equipment more aggressively, as it will be easier to hide the margin necessary in the price of the coffee.

I did see a little more of this in London. I continue to see free equipment as a way to bribe a business into overpaying for low quality coffee. I don’t think it is smart long term business.

Roasters, and coffee shops, will have some decisions to make. With the gap between speciality and commodity likely to widen then the choices may be to go premium, to go mass market or to try and bridge both.

In truth this is probably a low priority decision to make for many cafes. A more important decision is probably whether things like multi-roaster purchasing/guest espresso are as profitable and worthwhile as they’d like them to be. I’m hoping to manage a coherent and ideally neutral post on the subject at some point soon.

I don’t think we’ll see the wider industry embrace certifications again.

Maybe I am just not talking to the same people but I feel that 2014 was a year wherein no-one really talked about certifications. Consumers, cafes, roasters, importers – I just didn’t really hear anyone say anything about them. I should probably track down some sales data on this…

So – a mixed bag of predictions and speculation. Make of it what you will. For the sake of being complete here’s a quick chart showing the C-market prices in 2014:

Screen Shot 2015-01-15 at 15.11.56

I don’t really feel in a predicting mood for 2015, but that may change later in the month – who knows!

  1. This data comes from the September newsletter here: pdf. For their free newsletter keep an eye on this page.  ↩︎
    


Workflows and Software

This post has nothing to do with coffee. It is all about software, and how I work. If this is not of interest then stop reading now. You’ve been warned!

I like technology, I like software. Often, when chatting with various people in the coffee industry the subject has ended up on software, tools and productivity. I usually rant for a bit, and afterwards several people have told me that I ought to write a blog post on this stuff. I have avoided doing it for years, but I figured I will do it now. So, here is a blog post about software I like and how I use it day to day.

I should make clear from the start that for the last seven or eight years I’ve been using hardware from Apple. I’m aware of the downsides of their walled garden approach, I’m annoyed also that their software quality has undeniably been declining over the last couple of years especially. Nonetheless I’m happy enough with the software people are writing to stay for now. As such links will be to iOS and OSX software.

The outboard brain

I’m a big believer in the outboard brain – a place to store all the things you need to do, to remember, to research etc. I find getting as much of it out, onto paper or into software, to reduce my stress levels and ultimately make me happier.

For this I use OmniFocus. OmniFocus is expensive, painfully so – though I see it as less expensive than most of the mistakes I’m likely to make (and what price is happiness).

It kills me that the iPhone app is separate to the iPad app, which is separate to the OSX app. However, they all sync together well.

At first glance it is a glorified to-do list, but it goes a bit further. You can add key bits of metadata to each task – Project (what this task is working towards or part of) and Context (where you will be to perform this task). That way I can look at my to-do list different ways very easily, for example I have a context of “amazon” for everything I must remember to buy the next time I’m shopping on there. Or I have different contexts for colleagues, so I remember what I need to talk to them about when I next meet with them.

Increasingly I try to block out certain amounts of my working day to focus on specific projects, so looking at a specific to-do list for things like Coffee Jobs Board or this blog is great.

The app has a section called the “Inbox” where you can dump in ideas before you add the relevant data to it. This is great for moments of inspiration, things to research, recommendations (restaurants, bars, books, films, music) etc etc… You can add images to tasks too, which I use quite a lot when I see inspiring pieces of design.

I’m really only scratching the surface here – there’s a lot more you can do if you’re willing to invest some time into this stuff. As I said – £63 ($96) for all three apps is a lot of money in the software world (these days anyway) but I love it to death. (I will spare you the rant about how I’m anti free software, and believe strongly in paying for things.)

Omnifocus 2 iPhone – £13.99
Omnifocus 2 iPad – £20.99
Omnifocus 2 OSX – £27.99


 

Email

I hate email, I really do. I’ve been campaigning for years to convince people it should cost money to send emails (we’d all send and receive a lot less, and yet we’d communicate everything necessary and ultimately be more productive…)

Anyway – they’re not going away so I look for as much help as possible managing them.

On the phone:

For quite a while I was using an app called Dispatch that I think is great. There’s lots of genuinely useful functionality (I like all things like Text Expander though I never did quite get my head around their iPhone app). Recently my main email address has switched to using Google Apps which means I’ve been trying out a few new apps. Mailbox is easily the best (though only works if you have a Gmail backed account)

On the iPad:

Before using Mailbox for the iPad I was actually just using the default Apple Mail client. Software development rates and releases for the iPad are pretty depressing in a number of fields.

On the Mac:

I’m using Mailbox on there too for now but only to play around with (as it is still in Beta). I’m mostly using a rather lovely client called MailMate that is super geeky and wonderful. It is expensive, it isn’t pretty, it is incredibly powerful (especially the search – should you, like me have ludicrous numbers of emails) and it lets me write emails in Markdown (which is hopefully the nerdiest thing I will write in this post).

Services

I’m a big fan of Pinboard, when it comes to boookmarking. I love TextExpander for helping me with all sorts of things – I use stock email replies a lot less, but it has a million other uses. I’m painfully reliant on Alfred for doing or finding anything on my mac.

Prey Project was also recommended to me a few years ago, and there is an iOS app now too. I’d recommend people install this as its a useful piece of antitheft software. It’s clever, unobtrusive, free and I hope never to have to use it.


 

Other apps I think are good

iOS:

Tweetbot 3 – Best iPhone and desktop app for me. I like the iPad one too, but it hasn’t been updated for ages and looks pretty dated. Tweetbot 3 is intuitive, pretty, I don’t see sponsored tweets, mute is a great function etc etc.

Reeder 2 – I’d used this app for ages, then I went through a phase of post-GReader experimentation and ended up using back here using this as the front end of a Feedly account. I keep an eye on a lot of RSS feeds, which probably makes me a bit old school, but this is a great way of managing and consuming them.

Byword – I use this for writing blog posts and drafts of talks. It syncs across iOS and mac devices through iCloud so something I start writing on the bus gets finished on my laptop at the dining room table. Simple, wonderful.

VSCOCam – easily my favourite photo editor, though I prefer the functionality of Manual for actually taking photos.

Day One – I find writing a journal very rewarding, and it’s something I wish I did better. I love that this syncs between all devices and the desktop so I can write things in the back of taxis, on planes or sat in bed.

1Password – I don’t know most of my passwords, and that’s how it should be. Not enough people take password security seriously enough, and I certainly didn’t used to. Now all my passwords are all held in this app, synced everywhere and secure. 1 Most people’s password security is pretty terrible (great article on passwords here) so I try to do a little better.


I’ve held off writing this thing because I’ve always thought it wasn’t interesting to most people reading here. However, after enough requests I have given in. I will probably come back and update this from time to time.

  1. Or as secure as one might hope these days.  ↩︎
    

2014 in review – number edition

I thought it might be fun to look back at this year via a few numbers that make up different parts of my life.

Words published in the atlas: 74,803

I’d love to do copies sold, but I have no idea and don’t find out until March.1 I’m still a little bit amazed that I actually wrote the thing, and I have a new found love of hashtags as people’s use of them on services like Instagram has allowed me to see the book pop up all over the place. It really does make me happy to see so many photos of it.

When I was travelling this year lots of people were asking about this, so I’m hoping to announce a number of translations and release dates in the next few months, which I’m very excited about.

Words written on the blog: 18,240

I’m sometimes surprised that I write as much as I do on here. If I hadn’t looked at the stats I would have guessed at barely half of this. I feel like I did nothing but talk about new projects on here, which isn’t really the point of this site – so less of that next year.  2

I’ve been rightly taken to task about my petulant failure with the learning project. I misjudged its failure, and as such would like to bring it back this year.

I’m also working up a few videos, seeing as the old videocasts have been lost forever. Some will readdress some old topics, some will be new things.

Flights taken: 44 / Distance flown: 69,788 miles

I fly a lot, and I have pretty mixed feelings about this. In the past I’ve done carbon footprint calculations to offset this, but even that felt pretty trivial. Doing what I do requires a lot of travel, but I can’t help but wonder at which point it will feel unsustainable to travel as much. Parts of it are enormously fun, and other parts require me reminding myself that I am at work and not necessarily supposed to be enjoying myself. Balance is important though – and working a little harder on improving that balance is important for me this year.

Countries visited: 16

I got to spend more time in Asia in 2014, and I finally got to visit China for the first time. It was fascinating, especially as you can’t help but feel that the wider coffee industry seems to believe that China is the land of opportunity. I’m waiting for coffee’s version of the California Gold Rush, though I think many people will find it to be a market entirely different from their expectations.

Applications processed via Coffee Jobs Board: 14,905

This is my favourite metric to look at when I login in to the back end of the website. I’m very proud of what this site has achieved so far. It isn’t bad for a new website, a little more than 6 months old. However, it is still well below its potential in terms of connecting people with employers and opportunities outside of the UK. I’d like to see the site flourish in 2015, so will be devoting a little more of my time and resources to it. My goal is for that number to be 50,000 by 31st of December.

Things that can’t be measured

I’m not sure at what point in my life I started planning an entire year ahead, but looking ahead I realise I’m going to be very busy. This is also the year where I intend to take a humane number of days holiday – I cannot stress how much of a mistake I consider my failure to take time off properly to be. With things like the Victoria Arduino Gravimetric launch, Re:co and more already lined up I know I’m going to be busy. Then there are a couple more little projects I’m hoping to get going this year too…

Image credit: e y e / see
  1. It’s second run in the UK has sold out though, which is good!  ↩︎
  2. About a year ago, I wrote in a blog post: “In 2014 I want to follow through on things, achieve things and feel productive.” – sometimes it is nice to look back and feel like you did what you said you would  ↩︎
    


Quality and customers (a dialogue)

So – after my previous blog post, Tim Williams wrote a response here, which I said I would reply to.

I must begin with an admission of failure – I didn’t really do a good enough job communicating what I wanted to with it, which resulted in it being interpreted in a different way from that intended.

That said – there is something to Tim’s post, it does point out a flaw in my idea and approach:

So it worries me when James puts forward a sentiment that could so easily be interpreted as, “I’m OK, You’re OK: If you’re down with past crop naturals… It’s all good!”.

Because let’s be clear – within the industry I don’t really believe there should be any tolerance for those masquerading (intentionally or not) as high quality when it is all smoke and mirrors. It’s disappointing to see “seasonal” espresso blends full of flat, dead, El Salvadoran coffees in February.

I don’t deny that my original post could be a confusing message, but what I’m trying to hone in on is the initial contact with a consumer, who currently drinks low quality coffee, that we would like to “upgrade” to something much better. Great coffee is still a relatively small phenomenon, and every day, around the world,  we’re still giving people their first moment of exposure to it.

My concern is that when our tone implies we have something better, because we think what they are drinking is terrible, then we’re likely to have them become closed rather than open to trying something new and better. I’m not sure there is a way for us to communicate what we see (with their low quality coffees) as a fault in their current preferences, without being totally offensive to them – and I see this borne out in the real world whenever we try.

My point was that someone’s revealed preference should be accepted as a place to start, as a valid beginning to a hugely enjoyable journey – and not a point of judgement. I’m not saying that we tolerate, embrace or encourage low quality coffees – I’m saying that when we meet people that like them we should not try to make them feel bad about it, or come across in a way that makes them think that we see ourselves as their betters, because our preference is somehow morally better.

You could argue that this approach is duplicitous. I don’t think it is. I think taking a little time to understand why people like what they like – and being friendly and welcoming so that they actually tell us – reveals a goldmine of knowledge about that person and a wealth of opportunities to present something vibrant, enjoyable and approachable to them.

I’m not saying that the industry should stop working to improve quality, throughout the whole chain. What goes on, up until the point of consumer purchase, should be pushed to be improved by all of us working in coffee. I just want to make sure there is an ever growing audience of people for the spectacular, delightful coffees we know are possible and could be possible in the future.

    

What message do I want to send?

Over the last couple of years I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with the ways that we have typically sold and tried to differentiate speciality coffee. My thoughts on this have certainly been clarified by the book, and by talking to people about it. I wanted to write up how I feel now, as part of this blog’s purpose is to document the way I think about things, though I expect this to continue to change and evolve over time.

The main problem is talking about what we do being “better”. It is defined as “better” because those who work in coffee, and taste a lot of it, generally agree that it is. (I’m sure we can argue that sentence for a long time, but that pretty much sums it up for me.) The problem with selling what we have as “better” is that it requires the consumer accepting that what they are currently buying, drinking and enjoying is an inferior product. People don’t really like this idea: On just about every coffee article with comments you see the pushback, people defensive about what they drink, how they brew it, bristling with self-righteousness, feeling that their preferences have been insulted by the article or whoever is quoted therein.

“I like my pre-ground Italian coffee, brewed in an unwashed moka pot, just fine thank you very much!”

I did a short radio interview on BBC London the other day  1 and towards the end of the interview I somehow managed to express how I feel about promoting what we have in a way I’m quite happy with.

The real joy of speciality coffee is its diversity, this is what makes it the antithesis of commoditized coffee. Whatever you drink right now, with a little bit of effort (and perhaps guided exploration) you’re likely to find something that you will enjoy even more than what you do now.

What you think is better might be totally different to what I think is better. I’m not right, and neither are you – because there is no right. There is no moral high ground of flavour. You don’t have to love crisp, super bright and juicy coffees from Kiambu, or explosively floral coffees from Yirgacheffe. Nor do you have to love the earthy, heavy, tobacco filled darker roasts of coffees from Indonesia. However, if you do like one of those things chances are there is a something out there that you’ll love even more.

A person’s preference is a place to start. To be acknowledged, accepted and considered. Even if their preference is the last thing on earth you’d want to drink yourself.

I’m aware this goes against some people’s ideals of speciality. There are definitions of speciality that cover green coffee, and there are people who believe that their definition of quality is the only true one. In some ways I don’t mind this. I also believe that no business can cover the entire spectrum, so we should focus on the bits that we’re particularly passionate about. What those of us in speciality coffee offer isn’t necessarily unilaterally better coffee, but amongst our offerings are lots of coffee someone will probably enjoy more than what they’re drinking now.

UPDATE:

A great response from Tim Williams over here at his tumblr. I shall write up a response to this very soon.

  1. My part starts around 1hr 33m into it – just after the Otis track  ↩︎
    



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