By Wendy Rasmussen, Teacher at GGUSD / Coffee Industry Veteran
As a coffee professional, I have attended almost every single SCAA conference in roles of varying size and importance: attendee, volunteer, staff member. Since the conception of the SCAA Symposium, I have occupied a seat on the sidelines. In every one of these events I have walked away more proud and admiring of this industry and the people within it. But, I have also become quite aware that I am an “old dog.” It is embarrassing the number of times I have bit back emotional responses akin to “back in my day,” or “you young people don’t understand…” So, as this year’s Symposium opened warmly with Peter Giuliano’s welcome and news of scholarships and fallen comrades, I settled into my sideline view and prepared for some weak but heartfelt wagging of the tail and an occasional low growl. Hmmmm…a comparison of coffee to wine: how fresh, (remembrances of appellation conversations with Hawaii in the early 1990s) and how relevant (memory of backlash of wine comparison in the early 2000s). But, the delivery was compelling and the arguments valid and I have some serious fondness for the speaker.
Just as I was settling down to enjoy a mental chew toy and perhaps find a warm spot for a nap later on, Tracy Ging appeared on stage. As is the case with friendly old dogs, we like to show appreciation for new people, so the ears perk up a little. As Tracy’s talk went on, she shared a fascinating pyramid construction of attributes that young pup consumers look for in a coffee experience and I found myself on high alert. Uh-Oh. Was she really going to say what I think she was going to say? I tensed up a little. Yup, she said it: “The bean is not as important as the build.”
This was a statement that left Ms. Ging vulnerable, and as such one of the most honest talks I have seen in coffee. On stage in front of dozens of rabid old coffee dogs, letting us know that it’s a different place out there in the world. Dr. Brene Brown, researcher in social work and human connectivity, would describe this as a moment of “daring greatly.”
As I listened to the research done by S & D Coffee, and the data compiled by Ms. Ging and her group, it resonated with my sideline experiences. I live with a young millennial coffee drinker; I know that she wants clean, consistent, and friendly as the bare minimum in her café. I wonder aloud, often, at how she finds the cash to supply her almost daily fix of something I (in my old dog way) can barely call coffee. One of her favorite things is to tell the person behind the counter, with whom she talks on a first-name basis, make me something new. This new thing is always sweet, often filled with dairy, and–on the best days for her–has a personalized little note on the side.
I think about this and then think back to my days as a young coffee drinker. Yuban was a treat in my blue-collar house and we considered ourselves “good coffee” drinkers. My coffee education resembled a New Yorker cartoon where I ascended the mountaintop looking to have a conversation with a guru. I was lucky. I met several. I spent years sitting at the feet of great coffee tasters, writers, and thinkers and soaked up their ideas of coffee quality. Their thoughts informed my own because that was how you did things. I also wrote papers on a typewriter, and did my research on microfiche.
Why is it that I can find it so easy to switch to a word processing program? In fact, I am even now learning to talk into my smart phone to text message. I am ecstatic to use the Internet to find out things. But, I find myself baring my teeth and raising my hackles at the suggestion that I shouldn’t now find myself at the top of the mountain dispensing coffee wisdom.
Thank you, Tracy Ging, for the epiphany. It was a fresh scent on the wind to see the coffee journey of new drinkers from this perspective. Yes, they still want to climb the mountain, but they have different tools and a different mindset where they expect their coffee vendors to be guides and not gurus.