Hipsters, coffee and authenticity

I don’t really like the word hipster, nor do I condone its usage (despite occasional indulgence), but I did spend some time recently trying to work out what it meant and what we mean when we use it.

It isn’t really a cultural label the way “goth” or “mod” were and are. I think the word has ended up being many things to many people, but I think when you use it there is, at its root, one key idea: you are saying “I don’t believe you.”

It is the label given to those who posture, whose cultural, sartorial or intellectual pretence is painful to see. This is why no one self identifies this way – we are believe we’re telling the truth, or at least getting away with looking like we do.

Hipster gets thrown at coffee a great deal too. Half the time to describe the people behind the counter, half the time to describe those patiently queuing to buy it. The aloof barista, with a carefully cultivated sense of ennui and the vaguely disguised disgust at the coarseness and ignorance of customers, is perhaps the arch trope of coffee today.

When we see such theatricality, perhaps we assume that every aspect is a performance. Caring about coffee, being interested in it and deeply involved in it, all of this must be part of the act. How can we, as a customer, tell which part is genuine and which some sort of pretence.

I read a piece on coffee consumption that brought me back to this Frank Bruni piece from a few years ago in the New York Times. This particular sentence was highlighted (emphasis mine):

“In these food-mad times, have the economically privileged among us gone too far in turning simple acts of nourishment into complicated rituals of self-congratulation?

Have we offered up coffee as a way to define who we are as customers? Is this something modern or is this simply the next step after coffee’s position as the epitome of the Fair Trade movement, the next step in the evolution of our relationship with a product thats complexity is slowly starting to seep into the public sphere.

While I don’t really see coffee in London, or the UK, being regularly used by consumer’s to really define themselves (outside of those for whom coffee is a passion) – I do see a great deal of inauthenticity within the industry.

Part of this, I think, is a byproduct of the homogeneity that can develop in a market or a result of tapping into the hive mind of the coffee industry online. London is home to what others have described as the “chain with no name”, independent cafes that look and feel very similar to each, offer very similar products at similar prices, with similar service experiences, but have no shared ownership. In a situation like this, it seems pretty obvious to anyone that each of these business is unlikely to be the honest expression of an individual, and can end up looking like bandwagon-jumping or an attempt to profiteer from a trend someone doesn’t truly understand. I understand that conformity offers safety, and I see that the industry doesn’t often encourage the kind of risk taking we want to see. This part, however, may in part be because we’ve struggled to work out how the risk/reward model could really offer something compelling.

Authenticity comes from honesty, from transparency. Cafes are great canvases, for the expression of ideas about service, about taste, about design, about community, and about coffee itself. All too rarely are they any, let alone all, of these things. When they are clearly the result of someone’s considered, and personal, vision I think they’re compelling, and I believe consumers can tell and respond strongly to it. My limited experience within my own market supports this.

The cafes around London, past and present, that I have formed the strongest bonds with all have a genuine identity, from their owners and founders, that I find strongly appealing. I deeply hope to see more of this in the future, because I believe it will make talking to people about why coffee is worth their attention, their money and their time so much easier.