My name is James Hoffmann. I write about coffee, and about the coffee business. Most of my time is spent focusing on Square Mile Coffee Roasters in London.

I also travel and talk a lot on many of the subjects I write about here. For more information or to get in touch click here.

Response: Are we all just 1%-ers too?

December 13th, 2012

This is a response to Nick Cho’s post which can be found here.  I’m going to quote the entire post, and respond to different questions and sections within it.

Of the many things about coffee that Trish has opened my eyes to, the most valuable is embracing the full spectrum of coffee quality as the true human condition of the coffee world. During my college years, I spent a year abroad in Dhaka, Bangladesh, teaching music at a Christian missionary school. Despite the life-changing lessons I learned back then about what the world is really like, I was lulled into a very sheltered perspective on specialty coffee. Great coffee = good. Poor-quality coffee = bad.

The problem is that when you delve deeper, past the over-simplified memes, you’re forced to make a choice: Do you care more about coffee quality, or about people? Let’s set aside the barista/retail/consumer end of the chain for a moment, and focus on the producer-side. We claim to be supporting coffee producers, but it appears that what we really mean is that we support producers of the coffees that we really like the taste of. We go to events in the US to meet coffee producers and feel good about the experience, but what really happened is that we just met some of the most rich and prosperous coffee producers in the world.

The most celebrated coffee “farmers” and farms in specialty coffee are also among the most successful, with many if not most of those people being the sons (and in a very few cases daughters) of prosperous families. Upward-mobility is but a flying unicorn in these countries. A wonderful idea, but not reality.

I don’t mean to disparage or insult any of those successful coffee producers. Their coffees are indeed worthy of acclaim, and the heredity of those people shouldn’t take away from that. But if our affinity for those producers and those coffees defines our scope to only the tip-top best-of-the-best of what coffee has to offer, we are building a temple for worshipping the rich in a self-perpetuating cycle of aggrandizement and affluence.

What’s more deserving of celebration: Producers of 88-point coffees improving to 92’s, or those with 81’s improving to 85 scores? In real-world terms, that’s like comparing those making $500,000 per year bumping up to $750,000, versus someone making $20,000 now getting $30,000. Improvements are improvements, but in the US, the $500-750K bump helps 0.5% of the population, whereas the latter group represents about 20-40% of the population (depending on the data source and the way you look at it). There are no good figures in the case of coffee quality as a percentage of total production, but suffice it to say, it’s a much more severe disparity.

And what of the below-80 scoring coffees, those deemed below-specialty grade? As we glorify the top-tier quality producers and commemorate them by putting their photos on our company websites and Instagram feeds, do we believe that those who produce lesser coffees are somehow lesser human beings? When we cup these coffees and laugh and mockingly push them away and shut them out of our minds because to us, they’re not worth even thinking about, can we really claim to be working to help coffee producers?

The specialty coffee industry has, at least within our boutique segment, done a shitty job of actually helping coffee producers. If we used specialty-coffee logic to help women in Nepal better their lives, many of us would choose to gather together the most beautiful of them and hold a bikini contest for cash prizes. Then we’d walk away, patting each other on the back, feeling warm and fuzzy inside for “helping” those poor, impoverished people. Harsh? Maybe, but you get the point.

I think we definitely have a problem, and I think it would be worth splitting out what we’re actually trying to do as a specialty industry.  Firstly many of us are trying to run successful business that compete on the quality of the product they produce.  You might argue that the quality of coffee is rarely the actual reason for a (wholesale or retail) customer’s decision, and I may well agree with you.  Nonetheless – when making decisions many companies are basing that decision against its impact on the cup.

An interest in origin and traceability is not just about social responsibility, nor is the speciality coffee industry’s investment and focus there.  It is about supply chain management.  I know that sounds like an awful term; cold, corporate and dispassionate.  The difference between speciality and a multinational is that the interest in quality inevitably ties into interest in sustainability, and in relationships.  Quality takes time, and a relationship gives the investor a better chance of a return further down the line.

This is not charitable work, and that’s ok.  Charities do charitable work, and they do it better (I hope!) than coffee companies.

The challenge of a slow return is what encourages coffee buying that Nick describes as a bikini contest.  If you’ve got the cash, then you can have something better right now.  It is appealing, and I don’t think they’ve done more harm than good.  Competitions like Cup of Excellence have acted like a dating service, doing introductions and hopefully from there relationships can blossom.

But it’s too easy to criticize. What of solutions? What should we be doing then? I don’t have all of the answers, but here’s what I have to offer right now:

As with most things like this, it starts with awareness. Consider the majority of coffee farmers and their families that we dismiss as below our standards, and remember that they are real people deserving of our consideration… perhaps even more deserving than their more well-to-do countrymen. This would hopefully inform the way we talk about our industry and our coffees, and maybe we’ll be a little less dismissive when describing how we differentiate ourselves out there.

I think we should certainly avoid promoting ourselves by pushing others’ faces down into the mud.  While comparison is an excellent way to display quality, and explain value, it wouldn’t hurt to follow “Wil Wheaton’s Law”.

“Awareness” also includes the current and future efforts of those within our industry family who are working with a focus on the poor farmers, like Fair Trade USA. Throwing Fair Trade under the bus as “not doing enough” ignores the great work that the program does accomplish, albeit more often with coffees that you might not choose to serve at your shop or sell from your roastery. They are doing great, great work. Just because their work isn’t perfect enough for you doesn’t mean dissing them makes you look cool.

The Coffee Quality Institute, in the midst of some significant changes due to new leadership, has always been focused on improving coffee quality and the people who produce it. The recent development of CQI’s R-Grader program has had a lot of coffee people scratching their heads, unsure of how robusta coffees fit in to our understanding of what’s good in and about coffee. But why must all of our industry’s efforts be about making great coffee even better? What about expanding markets and exploring desirable coffees from lower altitudes and geographies that simply can’t produce high-quality arabicas? Supporting CQI’s work is not only helping those who we don’t directly affect through our own purchasing and work, it’s working to develop a sustainable specialty coffee industry by helping to improve the quality of below-specialty grade coffees up to a level that we’d actually be proud to roast, brew, and serve.

Lower quality coffee has to go somewhere.  Unfortunately it can’t go into businesses that require high quality as this is the central idea to that company.  So what can a specialty coffee company do about the lives of producers of lower quality coffee who would most benefit from earning more per pound?

This is an incredibly difficult question.  Specialty coffee – the real stuff, not the stuff pretending – is a very small part of world production.  However, I believe we can have a small positive impact.  Coffee is too cheap.  You’re probably sick and tired of reading this and hearing this.  Doesn’t mean it isn’t true.  As long as it is commoditised, and traded the way it is under the impact of the stock markets, then we’re going to have problems.  Price paid won’t reflect the cost of production and people’s livelihoods will be, to some extent, beyond their control.

So we have two challenges:  make coffee more valuable, and get people to think of it less as being a commodity and more as being the crop from a place.  This is something that I believe specialty can have a positive impact on.

We can also invest in programs like World Coffee Research, in the hopes of a better understanding of quality and the open sourcing of that knowledge to those who produce coffee to help increase its value.

We talk a lot about the unfortunate fact that baristas are generally the lowest paid people in the consuming-world side of the coffee chain. This is true, and something that the entire industry should work to change. But how is it that the lowest-paid individuals on this side of that chain are spending so much time celebrating only the highest-paid folks on the other end? Is that irony, or tragedy?

Something about this ending didn’t sit right with me.  My response can probably be considered a little fallacious too.

To answer the question:  Honestly, neither – though it depends how you want to see it.  Would you rather that baristas don’t try to communicate coffees to their customers, in the hope of improving their coffee experience?  Or would you rather that they don’t talk up the coffees that are more likely to produce the “ah-ha!” moments for people which, like or not, often come from the more successful producers?


Writing responses

December 12th, 2012

From time to time I’ve suggested to people that instead of commenting, that they instead start a blog and post a proper response that is entirely their own.  The hypocrisy of this is the staggering lack of responses to other people’s posts that I have written on here.

This is something I’d like to change.  I value long form discussion, and I think it is beneficial.  I want to make a few things clear before I start posting these responses.

Firstly – discussing something doesn’t require that I will simply take a polar opposite stance on the subject.  This would be ridiculous.  This is discussion, not base argument.

Secondly – discussing and responding to a post is not a personal attack on the author, and should not be taken this way.  I just want to talk about what you’re talking about.  If I disagree then this is no bad thing.  Homogeny is killing our industry, be it of experience or thought.

There are blog posts being published that I think are worthy of discussion, and I think it is a shame that we often skip past them because we value quick, shallow discussion over something a little more in depth.

Arabica and Climate Change

November 8th, 2012

At this point if you work in coffee and don’t believe in the seriousness of climate change, then I don’t think we can be friends.  Yesterday an interesting paper was published that was picked up by the mainstream media.  The paper itself can be read in its entirety here, and it predicts that arabica will be extinct by 2080.  Which would be a bad thing.  Read it, make up your own mind about how you feel about this stuff.  Pick holes in it and publish your thoughts online.  If I had a chance I’d publish something a bit more indepth on it, but that isn’t an option for me right now sadly.  I hope this gets picked up and discussed by others in the industry.

The three year hump

November 5th, 2012

Statistics vary, year by year and around the world, when it comes to the failure rate of new businesses. Typical statistics for London give you a 1 in 3 chance of failing in your first three years.

Despite why you may have gone into business, what it was that drove you to create something and pour yourself into making it thrive, the feeling of “needing to survive” inevitably creeps into your day to day thinking. It can become pretty consuming, and is also your daily yardstick for success.

However, around three years in there is a realisation: you’ve survived!

This is not to say that you’ve created something flawless and perfect, something that could be held up as a pinnacle of business achievement. Instead you’ve maybe made a thing that is profitable, and is ultimately an established thing.

This realisation is often extremely problematic. It may be accompanied by a feeling of depression and a feeling of confusion. This may sound counterintuitive, but it is easy to underestimate how big the need to survive has become. In conquering that you find out how big a hole you leave behind in the motivation for doing what you do.

No one really talks about this publicly, though privately I’ve had the same conversation with many different people. This isn’t a universal phenomenon but it is extremely common.

Finding something to replace this need to survive can take you down a dark, introspective and philosophical hole. What is the point, the purpose of this business? Is it driving towards a fixed goal, or is it trying to find a way to maintain what it does without staling and losing direction? Is this business just a giant machine that you input effort and ingredient into and it produces profit in return? What is this business trying to achieve?

The answer to this is often a reversion to the goal of “growth”. Our culture is one where forward movement in business is almost exclusively defined as an increase in size of the business. It might be a growth of revenue, or of profit, or of reach. The feeling that you must “get bigger” is equally omnipresent to the point that it doesn’t really feel like a choice.

Working out in a gym frequented exclusively by body builders would lead to a kind of loss of perspective about one’s physique and sometimes I don’t think we really consider the businesses we choose to surround ourselves with and benchmark ourselves against when it comes to how they might impact on our perceptions of our own goals.

I’ve said before that being in business is a pretty lonely experience. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have people within a business to talk to, or to share ideas with. It means that when you look for some external validation of your fears or your struggles, it can be very hard to find. There isn’t much in the way of benchmarking available to provide you with an independent definite of success. How much profit is normal? How fast should be growing year on year? What should my staff costs be? What is a normal turnover rate for staff?

Sometimes it is healthy to share the things that scare you, if only so those of us in the same boat can feel a little less alone.

As long as you’re sure

October 31st, 2012

So, you work in the coffee industry?  Think about when you went out for coffee the other day.  You were watching the barista, and his technique was a little sloppy.  He wasn’t really paying attention to his dosing and you noticed his shots were a little inconsistent.  Then you noticed he was pulling them just a little short too.  So you decided to get a drip brew of some sort.

You looked at the coffee they had, and the bag looked like it had been open for a couple of days.  The coffee itself was nearly a year off the tree, so you were a little hesitant, and even more so when the barista didn’t know the variety and process right off the top of their head.  Regardless, you ordered a brew and watched as they dispensed the brew water into their kettle, and then clearly let it cool down a degree or two too far.

Then you realised that you only noticed this stuff because you work in coffee, and you know about it all. It means that it is really hard not to nitpick what the baristas are doing. You set yourself up for disappointment before you had tasted the coffee…

We need to educate our customers…

We talk about “educated” consumers as if they’re the solution to all our problems.  You definitely want your customers to think about coffee the way you do when you go out for coffee?

As long as you’re sure…

Trying to communicate a little better

October 22nd, 2012

I don’t communicate well enough. This isn’t self deprecation or fishing for compliments, it is just something I’ve become increasingly aware of. I work hard to shape what I want to say when I’m writing or talking, and I always aim, to some extent, to entertain.

When I start out a talk, for example, it is usually with an idea that gets refined through the process of laying it out in written form (laborious as it is, all my talks start out with a long, typed out essay which goes through a painfully inefficient process before ending up as a presentation.)

In trying to get better at what I do, I often ask people for recommendations for reading material on speaking and presenting.  One of them had a very simple piece of advice: Instead of asking people what they thought of the talk, because etiquette forces them into a politely positive response regardless, one might benefit from asking what the one main idea they took from it was.

My experiences has been that often that one thing is not the idea you most wished to communicate, instead it is an ancillary idea that was used to bolster the main point. This happens all the time with blog posts.  One of the very few aspects of comments was that I could quickly see whether people had understood the most important point of the post.  If you ever speak to a mainstream journalist you’ll know a similar frustration when they get a little offhand comment between their teeth and tear off in a random and undesired direction.

We try and communicate a lot about coffee when we sell it. What one idea do we most want to communicate to our customers, and if we asked them to tell us the one thing they know to be important about the coffee they just bought – would we like the answer we’d receive? What if we asked why the coffee you serve was supposed to be good?  Would they talk about Fair Trade, when your coffee is Direct Trade?  Would they talk about its bold, rich strength when you’re serving some on the lighter side of roasting?

There’s only one way for this not to be another rhetorical question on a blog (because the Internet is hardly starving for those…). Please try this. Please ask your customers this kind of question, phrase it any way you like that gets you to an answer and see if this fits into what you’re trying to achieve. 1  Of course, the more open you phrase the question, the less you may like the answer but the more useful it will ultimately be.

  1. Though please only ask customers who would be receptive to the question and try not to bother nice people who just wish to pay you for nice cups of coffee.  ↩︎

An Aesthetic

October 20th, 2012

We often talk about coffee roasting as being a combination of art and science.  This phrase annoys me immensely, as it feels like we’re using the term “art” as our excuse for not really having a very good understanding of what is happening.  I feel we’re explaining away our lack of precision but I want to talk about coffee in the context of art.

I’ve always struggled with definitions of art – almost as much as I have struggled with blog posts that use dictionary/encyclopaedic definitions – so I won’t leave one here.  Instead I’ll think about a company having a defined aesthetic, a guiding principle in matters of artistic beauty and taste, within coffee which it seeks to execute upon.  I think very few businesses, roasting companies for example, achieve this.  An acid test:  Consider a roast from another company that you didn’t enjoy.  Was it bad because it failed in execution because of poor technique, or were they simply seeking to create something that falls outside of your definition of beauty?  If this company has a strong aesthetic then this question is much easier to answer.  You could argue that Starbucks has a stronger idea of how it wants to express coffee than many independent, quality focused businesses.

With roasting I’m often frustrated to receive samples, solicited or not, where I’m left confused as to why these have been sent.  I am sure many other companies have an experience where the coffees may be so far away from what a roastery is aiming for, or looking to present, as to be potentially offensive.  At an extreme I could imagine Tim Wendelboe being somewhat confused, though likely amused, if someone were to offer him an Old Brown Java sample…

This may be a function of laziness on the part of the person presenting the sample, but it also speaks to the likely lack of clarity of a roasting company’s aesthetic.  This is surely something that could be focused on and talked about when presenting coffees for retail or wholesale.  I don’t yet have a solution for this, but it is definitely something that is the subject of more of my time and attention in the coming weeks.

I think the same absence/opportunity applies to coffee bars too.  I’m surprised that with the rise of multi-roaster cafes in the last few years, that we haven’t seen these cafes using their purchasing as a way to express a coherent idea about coffee.  Maybe this is happening but I haven’t seen a lot of business going through a strict selection process when shopping for coffees, using a clearly defined set of benchmarks.

I would accept the criticism I sometimes receive that I post things like this without offering any sort of concrete explanation of how or a solution to the question I am asking.  I think it is easier to write about how one would define and execute upon an aesthetic in a coffee bar, rather than in a roastery.  If I were trying to do something like this then the process would be something along the lines of:

Decide how long I want each coffee to run for.  Based on this talk to potential suppliers to get samples for cupping.  I would hope to have sufficient coffee knowledge that I can select suitable samples, coupled with input from the roaster.  Price would not yet enter into things.

Samples would be cupped blind.  Before the reveal (this is important) the coffees would be discussed, and this would be a good opportunity to make sure all staff are clear on the style of coffee which we wish to present.  We would select a number of coffees for the menu that all fall within the boundaries of excellence but provide a diverse tasting experience.

Once selected then we would look at the price.  The price of the coffee would dictate the cup’s appropriate retail price, and the whole bean price would have to be pretty crazy for it to be a problem – especially when you look at the costings for a cup of coffee.  (This is perhaps a separate blog post).  This would mean that prices change often – and I don’t think anything is wrong with this as long as you’ve been clear from the start that this is how things will work.

I think it would be easy to build trust with customers if you can communicate what it is you love about coffee and are trying to share with them.  Once they understand that they probably like everything you like then I think they’d be willing to explore a menu with a feeling of trust and safety.  I accept that some people will understand more clearly that they simply don’t want what one is selling, but that is no bad thing.

One notable aspect of this kind of process is that it requires the aesthetic come from a person or very small group of people.  I don’t think genuine excellence is possible without it coming from personality, especially in something as broad as coffee, and I think this requires their engagement/involvement – at least at the beginning, until the aesthetic can be accurately and repeatedly communicated.

How people wish to factor in the value of other people’s brands – be it leveraging on someone else’s brand for sales or not – is a somewhat separate topic again.  Ultimately I believe that a business should own its own quality and that it should be building relationships with its customers that are independent of its suppliers.

I get frustrated when I see a lot of internal criticism of our industry (on twitter and the like).  We be can critical of each other, but it would be helpful to first understand from each other what we are trying to achieve else our criticisms may be wasted, or misdirected.  Criticising someone for having a different aesthetic is somewhat pointless, criticising them for their failure to deliver on what they claim is fair.

I will accept that this post is perhaps too short, and not sufficient detailed on a subject like this.  However, I’d rather publish it as is, than not at all.

MANE Coffee Conference

October 17th, 2012

This last weekend I had the pleasure of heading over to Rhode Island to be a part of the Mid-Atlantic North East Coffee Conference.  Gwilym had spoken there last year, and he was so enthusiastic about it that I was pretty excited to be a part of it.  I’m extremely glad he encouraged me to go!

The event is one that people get a little possessive about – in a good way.  This isn’t just the people who attend, but also evident in the companies who sponsor which is pretty interesting.  The feel of the event is friendly, positive and open.  Gerra, who organises it, understands that many baristas wanting to attend may not get a lot of support so tickets are priced accordingly.  A ticket to the event is $100!  This is, without doubt, the best value for money of any coffee event I’ve ever seen.  This ticket gets you a mixture of practical classes and workshops, talks, tastings and panels.  The event has capacity for 150 and you can see why it sells out so quickly.

I was there mostly to give a keynote on the first night, but it was fun to be part of panel discussions that went on too.  The internet makes it challenging to give talks because they’re often available online afterwards which means you have to start fresh each time.  I was pretty happy with how this one turned out, and I hope to get to refine this one and present it again because I had some great feedback.  I know a couple of people recorded it, and if you read this I’d be delighted if you didn’t post it!  (It isn’t laziness – I just want to be able to do it again and better, something I rarely get the chance to do with my talks). You can check Sprudge for more information on the event.  I’ve been travelling a lot lately, but I definitely could have hung around for longer on this one.  Perhaps I might just have to go as a sponsor next year…

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