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jimseven"jimseven" - 5 new articles

  1. Quality and customers (a dialogue)
  2. What message do I want to send?
  3. What is the purpose of what we do?
  4. 10 years of writing this blog
  5. Miscellanea for September
  6. More Recent Articles
  7. Search jimseven
  8. Prior Mailing Archive

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  ↩︎
    

What is the purpose of what we do?

It’s hard to work in coffee for any period of time, without starting to wonder about purpose, about the “why” of what we do. Most of the time the first thought is a painful truth, because the answer is money. You own, or run a business, or work within one primarily as a way to generate income. That doesn’t really explain away the decision to spend your time working specifically within the industry of coffee.

It wasn’t long from starting a business to hitting the existential crisis or trying to understand what the point of it all is, beyond just making money. (I thought I had written a little about this before, but I couldn’t find the post.)

One of the most attractive things about the world of coffee is its size. It is an almost overwhelmingly large and complex industry. It also feels like an industry with purpose, and as such it is a pretty compelling place to work. However, I sometimes think that when it comes to purpose, one area that I believe many of us fall down in is understanding how we fit in to such a large system.

For the last few years I’ve been a loud supporter and proponent of the SCAA’s Symposium, held a couple of days before their main event each year. While I’ve enjoyed, and been grateful for, the opportunity to be on stage there – I get a lot out of participating as an audience member. When you combine stimulating or inspiring talks with a room full of people, who are passionate and active in the industry, then I think you have a great environment for gaining understanding and an overview of the wider industry. You can see opportunities for effective collaboration, for innovation, for exploration. You get a better idea of both where you want to go, as an individual or a business, and how that could be possible. This is invaluable.

I’ve repeatedly described running a business as being quite a lonely, isolating experience. (Even if you have business partners there is still a feeling of isolation). I’ve yet to meet anyone who really disagrees with this. Events like Symposium (or NBC, or even Barista Camp) feel like something of an antidote for that.

This is why I’m very pleased a new Symposium event is coming to Europe in 2015, called Re:co. It will be held in Gothenburg on the 15th and 16th of June, at Eriksbergshallen.

I was offered the opportunity to get more involved in the event, and I’m already enjoying working with WCE in its production, and SCAA and SCAE in its support. I’ll be working with the team on everything from content – covering both the speakers and the selection of topics – to the other aspects of the symposium such as a thoughtful coffee service, that we hope will make the event both inspiring, educational and memorable. (The SCAA have set the bar pretty high over the last few years with their Symposium, but I’m also a little competitive).

The landscape of great coffee in Europe has changed rapidly in the last few years – some cities have seen explosive growth of quality focused coffee businesses, and almost every country in Europe has a flourishing, passionate and connected local coffee community. Even the most traditional of coffee cultures are starting to see changes.

I hope this is an event people will get behind. I think they’re very good things for our industry. If you’re curious then I’d recommend subscribing to the mailing list so you can be the first to see who is speaking and to grab those early bird tickets. 1

One of the things I’m already most looking forward to about Re:co is the opportunity to talk more, about the issues I’m most focused on, with people of like minds. That, and some of the talks we have lined up…

  1. I respect those of you who follow me on social media, who have no interest in this stuff whatsoever, so I won’t be posting on my accounts  ↩︎
    


10 years of writing this blog

Ten years ago today I posted my first post on here. The idea was pretty simple – I wanted to learn more (learning can be hard if you feel isolated) and sharing is beneficial if you want to learn faster. I think that what was true then is true today.

Milestones, arbitrary as they may be, always tend to be times of introspection and (while nothing is more boring than a blogger writing about a blog post about their own blog) it has been interesting to spend a moment considering the role of my writing on here in my career in coffee.

I remember registering the blog, inspired by the blogs of Thomas Gauperaa (gone now), Chris Tacy and Tonx (also gone now). In the next few years it seemed like coffee blogging became somewhat fashionable – at one point I had maybe 300 blogs in the “coffee” folder of my RSS client. Then, slowly, they all began to disappear or become dormant. That isn’t to say that new, interesting blogs haven’t started more recently – more that there was a massive swell that has since receded.

There are somewhere around 400,000-450,000 words published on here, spread across about 870 blog posts. I did think about turning the best bits of it into a little book but I’d imagine the demand for something like that would be so small that the resulting price would put off the few interested. I’m quite pleased that the timing of my book has meant that I do get to publish something I’m proud of on my ten year anniversary. (I’m also delighted, and relieved, by people’s positive reaction to the book. Thank you!)

I think it is worth restating how valuable writing here has been to me. It has done so much for me, both personally and professionally, that I’ll continue to recommend people do it – no matter how much further out of fashion it falls.

Writing here has always been a great way to clarify my thoughts, to force me to think coherently enough on

    

Miscellanea for September

I thought I’d post a quick round up of various things that are going on at the moment:

The Atlas

First of all – it looks like copies of the World Atlas of Coffee are starting to arrive with resellers. There’s no embargo on the book so, even though the release date is the 6th October, you can grab them now. Amazon will ship so books are delivered on release day.

There’ll be copies for sale in the Square Mile Webshop if you want to buy a signed copy direct from me (which would be lovely – but local is good too!). At the latest, signed copies will be available from the 10th October, dependent on the stock arriving and my travel schedule.

It’s not too late if you want to be a stockist. Just fill in your details here, and the local publisher and distributor will get in touch with you (anywhere in the world).

I’m Hiring

I need some help with the various projects I have ongoing, mostly the Coffee Jobs Board. Therefore I’m looking for a part time EA/PA, ideally based in London. You can see the ad (and perhaps apply!) here. It feels a little weird to be hiring for this role, but having some support would be extremely helpful. I hope that I can offer more than money for someone interested in this industry, or in business.

Upcoming Events

I go to Moscow tomorrow, for a Black Eagle event there with DoubleB. After that it’s Seoul to take part in the WBC All Stars event – looking forward to hanging out with Matt, Alejandro and Nick! I’m curious to see how the coffee culture there has changed in the last two years. (I will try not to flood my instagram and twitter with my incredulous postings!)

Straight after Korea is Barista Camp. I’m delighted the camp has sold out, and I think it is going to be both educational and huge amounts of fun. I’m looking forward to meeting baristas from all over Europe, and there should be plenty of time to chat about all things coffee. It’s been a while since I travelled and got to meet lots of new coffee people – if you’re going to be at one of these events then do please say hello.

It’ll be weird to be travelling the day the book comes out – but that’s another post for next month…

    


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