It should be no surprise to anyone who follows this blog – or any of my interactions online or off now that I think about it – that I’m a fan of coffee. But lots of people like coffee and don’t obsess over it like I do, so maybe I’m a bit obsessed with coffee. Again, not really a surprise I’m sure. But why? That’s a question that comes up quite frequently these days so I thought I’d write a little bit about it and maybe answer some of the questions and maybe help sort through some of my own feelings about it as well.
Coffee is interesting because it’s ubiquitous, yet still shrouded in mystery. It’s something everyone knows about, and at the same time most people know nothing about. I know that because for most of my life I was one of those people. Hell I’m still one of those people. But I know a little bit more than I did and that is exciting, and when I get excited about something I have a bad habit of talking about it constantly to everyone in earshot. I say it’s a bad habit because most often that constant yammering is met with replies like “OMG Sean are you still talking about [blogs/art/toys/records/minimalism/etc]?!” however when I started talking about coffee I started getting replies like “Oh awesome! I love coffee! Tell me more!!” so then I had to go find more to talk about.
The way I see it is most people who enjoy “a thing” are happy and excited about finding ways to enjoy “a thing” more. There’s always those few curmudgeons out there who think they know everything there is to know about “a thing” and are insulted by the thought they might learn something, though I don’t really care about those people nor do I surround myself with them. I know that personally I like learning how to enjoy “a thing” I already enjoy more, and I like learning things, and I like finding out how I can do things differently to enjoy “a thing” more. In this case “a thing” is coffee, and turns out a bunch of people feel the same way I do.
I’m not in the coffee industry and to be honest I don’t really care about marketing for any particular coffee company, thought I’m delighted to sing the praises of the ones I enjoy when I find them. So when Stephen Morrissey approached me in late 2010 about the idea of helping put together a group that would be focused on getting info to people so they could enjoy coffee more – outside of the constrains of any single brand marketing, I thought it sounded awesome. A few months later we launched Coffee Common.
One thing that struck me recently is the similarity between what we do at Safecast and at Coffee Common. Both are about, at their core, impacting change in an industry by educating the people. With Safecast, we want to force transparency and responsibility in industry (Nuclear at the moment) by giving people the data and power to monitor their own environments. When the industry is no longer the gatekeeper of the data they suddenly have to be accountable to people. With Coffee Common, we want to force transparency and responsibility in the coffee industry by letting people taste how delicious coffee can be, how they can enjoy it more, what sustainable and responsible business looks like, and what steps need to be taken for that experience to be as awesome as it can be. The more people know about this, the more questions they will ask, the more coffee shops will have to find answers to those questions, and the more roasters will have to consider those questions. In both cases the change comes from empowering people. I like that a lot.
So with Coffee Common we’ve done a few things over the last year, some online, some off, the most recent was an event earlier this year in NYC. It solidified, for me at least, a lot of what we as Coffee Common and what I as a coffee enthusiast should be doing. I’ve talked a lot about that event already, but I think what’s most telling is how other folks talked about it. Here’s a few that jumped out for me:
- SMDLR – Coffee Common
- Serious Eats: Why You Should Taste Your Coffee With and Without Milk and Sugar
- Gservo: Thoughts on Coffee Common’s NYC event
- Gservo: Coffee Common, The Espresso Class
- Shotzombies: What Was Coffee Common
- DCILY: Reflecting on Coffee Common NYC
If you have some time later, all of those are worth reading through. Some were written by attendees, some by participants, so it’s a great spread of observation. Here’s a quick shot of people in NYC at the event, and if you look closely you’ll see the line around the block of people waiting outside in the snow, to pay $5 to walk through the door. Yes, that really happened.
For me, the event we did in NYC last month made a few things really clear. There are more than a few people interested in learning new things about coffee. Those people don’t need or want to be treated like they can’t learn new things. Those people want to taste things they’ve never tasted before. Those people want “wow!” not simply “mmmm.” Those people want to know how to have more exciting coffee, more often.
I think as an industry, the coffee world is scared of challenging people. “Comfortable” and “approachable” are descriptive words I hear a lot in coffee, descriptive words that are wholly unappealing to me. This is not unique to coffee. Most industry is that way. Find something that works and then do it over and over and over and over again. That’s a profitable plan, it’s just not very interesting. And it doesn’t inspire progress. But I’ve never been a comfortable middle ground person anyway, and find the fringe and cutting edges much more attractive.
I’m not suggesting Coffee Common will be the catalyst for that change, but I am suggesting a change is coming and that people are ready for it. And knowing that a change is happening is exciting. And being a part of that, even as a spectator, is exciting. So that’s why coffee. Right now, it’s really exciting and I feel like this is just the very beginning.