By Jesse Bladyka, Roasters Guild Member and SCAA Credentialed Instructor, Symposium 2013 Attendee
In April, I had the opportunity to attend the fifth SCAA Symposium in Boston. I am employed as a coffee roaster by a company with fewer than 30 employees. Having watched Symposium through the lens of social media since its inception, I was curious to see how the experience of attending it would be different. Was I going to be totally out of place because of the small size of the business where I work? Would I be the lone roaster in a room full of business and green coffee moguls? Most importantly, I asked myself; will I bring home something useful to my everyday working life?
In the following perspective, I will attempt to outline just how attending Symposium changed the way that I approach my career in coffee.
Let’s start at the beginning. Before the first speaker took the stage to introduce Symposium, I was treated to a lovely cup of coffee, served up by tireless volunteers from the Barista Guild of America. After I received my coffee, I turned and introduced myself to the first person I saw. His name is Chris. As Chris and I were walking into the beautiful main hall to take our seats, I learned that he is an executive at one of the ten largest coffeehouse chains in the United States.
We talked a bit about how our roles in specialty coffee differ, but also discovered a surprising depth of similarity amongst our passions and goals. As we bantered about favorite coffees and what time we’d spent where, we touched on some interesting thoughts about how to control quality between locations, how to roast the same coffee on different roasters, and how to balance our desire for quality at any cost with the price sensitivity of any coffee shop regular.
Each of us struggle with these issues regularly, although on different scales and in different contexts, and I was struck by how easy it was to find our common experience and offer each other a fresh view on recurring issues in our daily work. I think that this experience accurately reflects the most valuable piece of Symposium, which is the one that cannot be recorded or transcribed, or put into a curriculum. It is the conversation and connection between coffee professionals from diverse backgrounds with diverse experiences, exploring how we can learn from each other and make our own approach to coffee a little bit better.
It is easy to say that we attend industry events to engage with the community, and it is true that human interaction can be the most powerful motivation to do good work. As my conversation with Chris illustrates, this social energy was pervasive at Symposium. However, there was another, equally pervasive energy that I have not encountered at such a high level anywhere else in my time as a coffee professional: Knowledge. The quality of presenters at this Symposium was extraordinary, and the content that they conveyed was rich and compelling. There was a common theme in the program which allowed each presenter to weave the work that they were most passionate and knowledgeable about into the context of a well curated session, giving the attendees a variety of perspectives and approaches to a common theme. I’ll focus on two of the sessions that I enjoyed most, and the knowledge that I brought home from them.
The first session I’ll address was entitled “Coffea Genetics: Unlocking the Possibilities” and consisted of six speakers and two panel discussions. Genetics is a topic that I have not considered closely since high school Biology, which was admittedly not my strongest subject. Regardless, this session gave me an interest and an introduction to the importance of genetic diversity to the future of high quality C. arabica and it forced me to look at how the coffee that I roast has been directly impacted by restricted genetic resources over time.
The recurring theme of this session was that C. arabica as we know it is at a great genetic disadvantage. However, through research into other Coffea species, genetic conservation and preservation, and breeding efforts, we have a wealth of resources to cope with this disadvantage. This session ended with a plan of action outlined by Dr. Timothy Schilling, Executive Director of World Coffee Research (WCR), in which he detailed an experiment that is already underway to provide some information on the ways in which genetics react to specific growing circumstances and to correlate this to cup quality.
This was an eye opening view of the cutting edge research that is being undertaken by WCR. Perhaps the most amazing thing about this research is that it will be made available to the public as it is being conducted. I look forward to following these genetic discoveries as they come to light and applying the information that I learned during this session to my ongoing education about how and where coffee is grown and the mechanisms behind cup quality
This brings me to the second session of note, which was entitled “Collaboration and Potential” and revolved around the notion of “precompetitive collaboration”, which essentially means collaboration between corporations within an industry to address a critical issue or a set of issues in which they all hold stake. An example of this would be the formation of World Coffee Research, or the more recently formed Coffeelands Food Security Coalition (CFSC).
One of the speakers was Shauna Alexander Mohr, Coordinator for CFSC. She spoke about “los meses flacos” or “the thin months” and how many small coffee producers in Mesoamerica struggle to feed their families for three to six months each year because of the cash crop nature of coffee. This is an issue that I feel is still largely unknown to many of us. I was embarrassed and shocked at how little I knew about such a systemic and heartbreaking problem affecting so many members of our coffee community. As I listened to these speakers talk about the supply chain and the real issues facing producers, I was already drawing plans to explore collaborations with other roasters, with other craft industries, and within the value chain that I participate in on a daily basis
Thinking back on my first Symposium experience, I am still digesting a lot of the raw information. There were so many facts and stories, initiatives and discussions, that I will be drawing new perspectives from them all for quite some time. Let me return to answer the questions I had prior to attending. Was I out of place as an employee of a small business? As a representative of a small company, I was not at all out of place at Symposium. I met people from the largest companies, true, but I also met young professionals just starting their own businesses, and individual farmers who worked their land with their families. Was I out of place as a roaster? While at Symposium, I was introduced to some of the most interesting roasters I have ever met, and while there were plenty of attendees representing every other role within the industry, I was pleased to find that most of the content was directly or indirectly applicable to my career as a roaster. Finally, I asked myself: Will I bring home something useful to my everyday working life? The answer here is a clear and resounding yes. I have brought home new knowledge, skills, and abilities to apply to my work as a coffee roaster and quality assurance professional. I have also brought home a new level of understanding regarding critical issues facing coffee both scientifically and socio-economically. Overall, I believe that Symposium has prepared and inspired me to be a better citizen of the specialty coffee community, and of the world.
Jesse Bladyka is a Roasters Guild Member and SCAA Credentialed Instructor. He is currently employed as a coffee roaster in Sonoma County, California. He believes that we can make the world a better place by carefully and responsibly crafting usable and consumable goods within our communities.