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jimseven"jimseven" - 5 new articles

  1. What message do I want to send?
  2. What is the purpose of what we do?
  3. 10 years of writing this blog
  4. Miscellanea for September
  5. A few things I learned writing the atlas
  6. More Recent Articles
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  8. Prior Mailing Archive

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.

  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…

    

A few things I learned writing the atlas

The experience of writing the book was an interesting one, and not always pleasant. The process involved finding as much information as I could, trying to pare it down to what I considered important and then doing my best to fact-check what I found.

There were moments when there would be little epiphanies, though these weren’t always good feeling ones. I came into coffee at a time when speciality was on the rise. I came to know coffee through stories of direct trade, relationships with producers, trying to pay premiums and to push quality forward.

What didn’t make sense to me were certifications like Fair Trade. I was dismissive of them because I couldn’t see how they fit into my world of speciality. They didn’t focus on quality at all! How ridiculous! What was worse, so many of my favourite coffees came from single estates – and when I learned that a single estate couldn’t ever be Fair Trade certified it seemed even more laughable to me. (Ah, the arrogance of youth…)

Writing the history of each coffee producing country brought my foolishness and shortsightedness into sharp focus. What I wanted to do was look at the history of each country to understand how it had ended up with the level of traceability it had: why was coffee in Central America so much more traceable than coffee in Papua New Guinea or Ethiopia?

The Europeans

Each and every chapter could likely have contained a sub heading of “That time the Europeans were complete b*stards” because, invariably in every country there was such a time. The English, the Spanish, the Portuguese and the Belgians (especially the Belgians – who were often utterly evil and no one seems to take them to task about this any more) did atrocious, unspeakable things – from a place of greed, ignorance and a callous belief in their superiority. It got to the point during the research that I was just waiting, as I worked chronologically through the local coffee production timeline, for the bad things to happen – I was never disappointed…

The locals

That doesn’t mean that all the terrible things were done by colonists. The painful past and guilt of land ownership, of theft and displacement, of abuse and slavery, belongs to a great many people in each and every country. This doesn’t mean everyone who owns a coffee farm is a terrible person, or that every person who owns a coffee farm has some historical skeleton in the closet – it just means it’s all complicated. Certainly more complicated than I can deal with in this post, or within the book.

Fair Trade

When you look at the past the actions of those who set up schemes like Fair Trade make more sense – and the idea that it was designed to support cooperatives, rather than those whose families had acquired land at some stage, makes a great deal of sense. This side of coffee’s history is rarely on display, and while the price crashes of the past are well known I don’t think many people in my coffee generation are particularly aware of this stuff.

I’m sure it isn’t just me

Like I said – the history of coffee and land ownership raise incredibly big, difficult issues, and I didn’t really look to tackle them in the book. I hope people who read through the chapters are inspired to read a little more on the subject. For a quick overview, and a starting place on the subject, have a look at the Wikipedia article on land reform by country.

Why I won’t buy anything from Chiquita Banana

Writing about Guatemala was one of the most depressing chapters for me. You can read plenty about it online, but the summary would be that 10 years of progressive land reform between 1944 and 1954 didn’t sit well with US owned United Fruit Company. Their big, very profitable business, owned 42 percent of arable land in Guatemala (how they got it is another story) and it was threatened by this reform. In short, they convinced the USA government to have the CIA stage a coup d’etat, which spiralled into a civil war – the longest and bloodiest in Central American history. 100,000 Guatemalans would be “disappeared” during this war. United Fruit Company is now known as Chiquita Banana. This is the same company that had apparently urged the Colombian military to fire on its striking banana workers in 1928 – estimates of the casualties at the time range from 47 up to 2,000. (In case you were wondering where the term “Banana Republic” came from…)

Bananas or coffee?

On one level this has nothing to do with coffee. However, in so many ways it has everything to do with coffee – with our relationship with those who produce the crops we import, with the attitude we’ve inherited towards trade with developing countries, and how our history has shaped our present. As a species we like to demonstrate a complete failure to learn the lessons of our history. I confess that I had been in coffee a surprisingly long time before I really dug into its history. It was revelatory, saddening and also inspiring. I’d like to do better, for us all to do better – and I am more driven to that end than I have ever been.

 

World Atlas of Coffee 1 - Amazon UKAmazon USA

  1. I hope to have a website up showing all resellers as soon as possible, if you’d like to shop with independents  ↩︎
    


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