Can you let go?

September 11th, 2012

I never really liked the term “Third Wave”, and I don’t really think I’m alone in that. I never liked it because it never really fit into how I see coffee, or my individual experience coming up in the industry. I get why people like it, why it is useful, but this isn’t really my point.

In some ways “Third Wave” seemed like a pinnacle – to me it is about traceability (so making something increasingly traceable didn’t make it 4th wave), it is about the inherent qualities of a lot of coffee, it is about roasting and brewing coffee in a way that makes these qualities available to the consumer. The net result would be something worth more.

I’m not sure that is a stated goal though – it was a description of a change in our culture, rather than an explicit manifesto of “how things should be”. As many of us have come around to focusing on the provenance of our coffee, and the quality of the cup it brews, we really ought to have some goals. Goals are good. They give you purpose. If you pick good ones it allows you to refine and improve what you do because you have something measurable against which you can chart successes and failures.

I think many of us want to make coffee more valuable. How can we measure this? Is it the average spend on a cup? Is it the average price per pound of retail coffee? Is it the percentage of our customers who own grinders? Is it the number of people who ask for a coffee based on its flavour, or by the name of the farm that grew it rather than the country where it was grown?

We’ve chosen to try to communicate the value of coffee through describing its taste. This is something that, as an industry, we do in a surprisingly homogenous way. We’re all pretty unified in how we describe coffee – be it in person, on a bag, on a menu or on a website. There is some comfort in this – if everyone is doing it, then it must be right… This leaves me with two questions:

Is it working?

I can’t answer this, because it really applies to how you measure your own goals. Maybe it really is working. Maybe you have more and more customers who see coffee as a valuable thing, and their number is growing at a healthy rate. Maybe your average spend tracks completely with the complexity and linguistic gymnastics of your label. (I sort of hope it does.) This leads me to my second question:

If it isn’t working, can you let it go?

This is a tough question. The way we talk about coffee feels so right to us. Maybe we just need a few more years, maybe we’re on the cusp of change, maybe….

This isn’t a big talking, throw down type of question. This is one I ask myself a lot. I don’t often like my own answer. To abandon what we do now seems so terrifying. Maybe it is working for other people really well. Maybe everyone else has customers that are buying coffee because it has a ripe apple acidity. Maybe I have customers who are buying a coffee because of how we described the acidity.

Is that why I would pick a coffee? If I imagine myself walking into a nice coffee shop, and having a look at the menu – what is driving my decision. I won’t pick one mill in Kenya over another because one coffee has a raspberry note while the other has a rosehip one. Why would I pick one coffee over another? Importantly: does the answer to that question require me to have spent years working in coffee.

This post isn’t about my answer to my own question. (Perhaps another time.) It isn’t about suggesting alternative ways to try to communicate the coffees we’re selling. It is more about the vague sense of unease that we’ve blinkered ourselves, presumed that this is really the only way to talk about coffee. Do we even have a measurable goal so that we can tell this approach is, or will be, successful?

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