Resist Dogmatic Coffee

Coffee Almanac

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My journey through the coffee industry started behind a super-automatic espresso machine in Disney’s California Adventure in 2001. Because I was working for Disney, I assumed that it was the best espresso machine available, and that the coffee we were making was the highest quality. I was proud of every drink I handed out.

As the manager of a Starbucks in northern California a few years later, I felt the same way. We were Starbucks. We essentially reintroduced America to specialty coffee, and almost single-handedly popularized Italian-style espresso beverages. Most people learned about lattes from visiting our stores. Every drink that passed through my hands was a great one, and I did my job with pride. So deep did my loyalty run that I offered my weekly free pound of coffee to a friend, as long as he promised to never again drink Peet’s Coffee.

A few years later, as a barista at Peet’s Coffee, around the corner from the Starbucks I had managed, I found the true meaning of quality coffee. Super-automatic espresso machines were for amateurs, I thought. Now that I was working on a traditional manual espresso machine, the drinks I was producing were excellent. I could take real pride in the work I was doing, because now I was doing it. I wasn’t just pushing buttons. I was really doing it. And dark roasted coffee? Now I was working for the company that invented it.

When our opinions cause us to look down on or speak ill of other people with different opinions, a malignancy can occur that hurts our relationship with the industry we love so much and the people that make up that industry.

A few years later, as a brand representative at Java City, in Sacramento, I learned that there were other ways to roast coffee that also tasted good. Finally! I was at the company that truly produced the best coffee in America. I learned that latte art existed, and that there was an organization called the Specialty Coffee Association of America that held competitions for baristas. I learned about an entire world of coffee that I never knew existed, and I was at the apex of it all, working for the company that was objectively producing the highest-quality coffee available. Cupping became a daily part of my life. I had arrived.

Then I visited Ritual Coffee in San Francisco, and my mind was blown. How did they coax these flavors out of espresso? How did they produce cappuccinos that looked that good? The whole design of their café was so different from anything I had experienced, and it was amazing. It rattled me, both because it was such a change in what I thought coffee could be, and because it caused me to question the things I believed to be objectively true.

What if I wasn’t working for the best coffee company in the country? What if there was no best coffee company in the country? What if there was no best way to roast coffee? What if everyone was doing their own thing, and meeting the needs of their own customers, and all of that was OK?

Controversial stuff, for someone so steeped in blind loyalty to whomever they worked for.

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Everyone in the coffee industry has opinions. We all make choices, every day, to do things in the way we think is best, or the way we like them done. We have preferences about roasts, temperatures, volumes, flavors, bags, cups, practices, and myriad other things. Our opinions shape the companies we work for (or own), the people we work with, and our own views of what other people are doing. Those opinions, in and of themselves, are probably benign. When those opinions cause us to look down on or speak ill of other people with different opinions, a malignancy can occur that hurts our relationship with the industry we love so much and the people that make up that industry.

Take roasting, for example. Many industry professionals prefer to drink a coffee that has been roasted more lightly. Roast much darker than medium, and we become less interested. That’s great! Until that preference becomes the only acceptable way to roast coffee. We rarely hear it worded that bluntly, but the message is clearly there in the way we talk. It’s common to hear lines like, “We roast lighter, to preserve the intrinsic characteristics of the coffee.” Lines like, “When roasting, we try to step out of the way and let the coffee speak for itself.”

Unspoken in sentences like these is an insinuation that coffee roasted darker is of lower quality, or that choosing to roast dark is a lesser choice. Darker roasted coffee must not be as good as lighter roasted coffee, or else we’d be choosing to roast that way, right?
What about people’s tastes? Are people who prefer the flavors of a darker coffee not as evolved in their preferences as people who prefer a lighter coffee? Are we really saying that?

“Not only are your tastes simpler than mine, they’re wrong.”
Setting aside the complete absurdity of that statement, it ignores our own individual experiences in coffee. Very few of us sprang from the head of Peter Giuliano as fully formed coffee professionals with mature palates and cravings for un-sullied black coffee. We started in much different places.

what business would I have had, once I “arrived” at that ivory tower of taste, to demand that all of my customers get to that place instantly? Why wouldn’t I encourage them to take their time and enjoy the journey? Don’t skip the Frappuccino step. It’s an awesome step.

When I began my career at Starbucks, one of the most intoxicating perks of working there was the unlimited free Frappuccinos while I was on shift. Are you kidding me? That’s incredible. In the first few months I was there I drank more Venti Strawberry Crème Frappuccinos than I can count. Who wouldn’t? Eventually my tastes “matured” and I moved on to mochas and vanilla lattes. I was a coffee professional, obviously, and so I drank professional-grade beverages. Like twenty-ounce white mochas.

It wasn’t until I was working in coffee for a couple years that my go-to drink was either straight espresso or brewed coffee, hold the milk, please. And what business would I have had, once I “arrived” at that ivory tower of taste, to demand that all of my customers get to that place instantly? Why wouldn’t I encourage them to take their time and enjoy the journey? Don’t skip the Frappuccino step. It’s an awesome step.

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It’s also a necessary step for our individual businesses to grow. If our goal is to have private clubs dedicated to people who think and taste the same as us, that’s easy to achieve. If we want to share the things we’ve learned and the ways we’ve grown within the wider community around us, though, we have to be willing to meet people where they’re at without judging them. That’s harder. That requires patience, and a willingness to nurture in someone else a passion for the sensory journey we’re excited to be on—a journey that might start as a huge blended drink with only an intimation of coffee in it.

None of this means that we all have to agree all the time, throw standards out the window, or let go of our beliefs about what is best.

None of this means that we all have to agree all the time, throw standards out the window, or let go of our beliefs about what is best. In our café, for instance, we’ve opted not to offer any drinks larger than twelve ounces, and espressos are strongly encouraged to be “for here” only. What you won’t hear in our café, however, are put-downs of places that have chosen a different path. Words like “Charbucks” are strictly forbidden. Why? Because they’re disrespectful, and we don’t want to be disrespectful people. If you like giant sweet drinks, good for you! If you like dark-roasted coffee, drink it! I might not prefer those things anymore, but I did at one time, and that was a great time. How we communicate our preferences and standards is so important. It’s the difference between enticing someone to wonder why you do what you do and ensuring that they’ll never want to do what you do.

You don’t have to like Starbucks. You don’t have to like the way they roast coffee. You don’t have to like the way they do business. You don’t even have to like the people who work there. Can you dislike them and still acknowledge the huge role they’ve played in where you’re at now, though? They’ve paved the way for so many coffee professionals to be in the positions they’re in and have the businesses they have. I owe a huge portion of my coffee career to Starbucks, and thousands of other people do as well. That’s why I bristle a bit when some colleagues are so quick to put them down. There are tremendously talented coffee people working for lots of very large coffee companies. Are they less talented or lesser professionals because they’re working for companies that roast coffee dark or serve a segment of the population that isn’t willing to spend a lot of money on their coffee? I don’t think so.

In 2014, Amanda Juris won the United States Cup Taster’s Championship in Seattle. She correctly identified the odd cups in eight different sets more quickly and accurately than anyone else in the country. The fact that she worked for Starbucks was a point of interest for many people, because, you know . . . Starbucks. It shouldn’t have surprised any of us. Starbucks employs some of the finest coffee tasters in the world. They might take the coffee they taste and roast it darker than you prefer, but that’s how they like it.

Their opinion of how coffee should be roasted is different than mine, and that’s OK. We’re both excellent at doing things the way we like them done. I respect that. So should you.

—Nathanael May is director of coffee for Portland Roasting and a regular Fresh Cup contributor.