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The C-members pose behind SCAA's Mike Ferguson
at the SCAA conference in Boston this year.
Cafénatics on the Loose

By FORTUNE ELKINS
Hello coffee industry, that rumbling sound you hear in the distance is the massed voices of your ultimate customer, the consumer.
And it’s coming your way at a clip.

While the coffee sector has blossomed in the last few years, it has not yet managed to complete the circle. That is, it has yet to fully connect with the consumer, the people who buy the upscale, semi-commercial and commercial espresso machines for their homes, who stop at their local roaster/retailer for fresh, handmade coffee, or even with the older teens who populate the comfy chairs at chain coffeehouses.

At first it may not be obvious why the status quo in the coffee industry won’t do any longer. After all it took canny consumers a few years to understand what they needed from professionals in the coffee industry, and it may take coffee professionals another year to fully understand what a new kind of consumer can offer them.

But a year’s too long in the current fast-moving market. Coffee pros, hear the whistle blow.

The New Consumer
No one doubts that there is a global food revolution underway in many countries. Just 15 years ago, no one would have believed in the concept of the “celebrity chef” or his devoted fan, “the foodie.” Culinary appreciation and sophistication is obviously spreading throughout all levels of society.

And thanks to the efforts of those in the specialty coffee industry, as well as popular authors like Ken Davids and Mark Pendergast, we now see a new appreciation for premium coffees. Ken Davids has long urged that coffee be appreciated like fine wine, and this is in fact beginning to happen.

The coffee lover is giving way to a new coffee connoisseur. This group isn’t the morning hordes who stop by the chain coffeehouse for their coffee drinks, though heaven knows many of the new connoisseurs began with a vanilla latte in a Starbucks, Peets, or Tullys.

These are true coffee amateurs, who study origins and districts, who roast their own coffee at home, who carefully measure the temperature of their home coffee machines with electronic precision for perfect extraction, who read Illy’s “Espresso Coffee: The Chemistry of Quality,” who learn to pour latte art, and who avidly discuss their favorite baristas and their skills.

Once consumers like this were introduced to better coffee, they wanted to replicate that experience. Unfortunately, in many communities, this is still difficult to do. Fresh specialty coffee, properly roasted, correctly brewed, and served with care, is still too rare in Europe, North America, and Australasia. Thus, consumers at this level have turned to the home, to making their coffee themselves.

Since this trend has coincided with the rise of the Internet, they have found their way there as well, forming virtual towns of coffee aficionados who share their coffee knowledge. No matter what or where the forum may be, they have one goal: to constantly increase the quality of the coffee experience. Mike Ferguson of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) has memorably dubbed them “cafénatics.”

Alt.coffee
Perhaps the first place the new connoisseurs congregated is a portion of the Internet known as Usenet, most easily available nowadays through google.com. This is a global discussion group comprising men and women from the United States, Canada, the U.K., the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Mexico, and Germany, to name the countries most represented.

They range in age from their early 20s to retirement; they span the gamut from students, to lawyers, clergy, engineers, teachers, and housewives.

From the late 1990s on, some coffee professionals found their way to this group and have actively aided these connoisseurs in the development of their coffee knowledge. These include luminaries like Don Schoenholt of Gillies Coffee, Brooklyn, New York, as well as an international cast of noteworthy professionals: Barry Jarrett of Riley’s Coffee and Fudge, in Illinois; William Siemers of Orleans Coffee Company, New Orleans, Louisiana; Doug Zell of Intelligentsia Coffee in Chicago; Rene van Sint Annaland, of Just Espresso, in New Zealand; Alan Frew, of Coffee Connoisseurs, in Australia, Ivo van der Putten, of Ongebrand, the Netherlands; Terry Montague, of Down East Roasters, in Notre Dame, NB, Canada; Steve Schulman, of Dallis Coffee and Kudo Beans, New York; Bernie Digman, of Milagro Espresso, Las Cruces, New Mexico; Terry Ziniewicz, of Espresso Parts Northwest, Olympia, Washington; Dr. Joseph John, of Josuma Coffee, Palo Alto, California; Jim Piccinich, of 1st Line Equipment in New Jersey, and former machine technician Al Critzer, who received training from Illy USA, but now is a salesman with Taylor in Florida.

The group has also benefited from the perspective of coffee farmers like Cea and Bob Smith and John Langenstein, all of Kona. For the first time consumers, pro coffee machine technicians, pro coffee machine salespeople, greenies, producers, and roaster/retailers were really meeting to discuss coffee without a counter between them.

Adding the farmers into the mix allowed consumers to realize that coffee doesn’t just come in a one-way valve bag. And with the help of people like Danny O’Keefe of the Songbird Foundation, “alties,” as the posters call themselves, were able to gain exposure to agricultural, market, technical roasting, blending, and ethical issues.

A few alties have used their love of coffee, combined with advice from their pro friends, to cross the ultimate border into opening coffee shops and espresso carts of their own.

But the flow of information hasn’t just been one way: for example, one well-known altie, Andy Schechter of Rochester, New York, inspired by a Seattle coffeehouse owner’s passion for precision espresso machine temperature control, tackled the problem and solved it elegantly.

With so much exchange of coffee information, and so much feedback from coffee professionals, the regulars of alt.coffee soon saw that they needed to have a dialogue with the industry at large if they were to achieve their goals of improved quality and a better coffee experience across the board.

After studying coffee for several years, the alties were ready to raise the bar on its appreciation, to take it to the level normally accorded fine wine. Now they had to contact the industry and ask for more coffee worthy of coffeaphiles. But how to do this?

Naturally, the members of alt.coffee soon gravitated to the SCAA. At first, it was merely an interest in attending the annual convention’s exhibit floor to see the latest in coffee equipment. But again, the connoisseurs quickly realized that their perspective would be valuable to the industry.

This realization by the alties matched a similar understanding in the SCAA itself that more consumer involvement was needed. The idea of creating a consumer membership category in the SCAA had been discussed in a desultory manner, and a consumer marketing committee had been in place for some time.

However, a prominent consumer coffee personality, Mark Prince, of Vancouver, Canada, a web developer perhaps best known for his personal coffee websites coffeekid.com and coffeegeek.com, made contact with Intelligentsia’s Doug Zell, an SCAA board member. Zell was one of the first professionals visionary enough to see the potential in alties - he invited them to an event to help refine his now-cult espresso blend, Black Cat.

They became friends, Zell mentioned alt.coffee to SCAA marketing director Mike Ferguson, and once Ferguson himself visited alt.coffee he immediately understood that this was the time to initiate a real relationship. What was Ferguson’s impression when he first came to alt.coffee?

“For those of us in the specialty coffee industry, [alties were] almost mythical creatures, true connoisseurs whose relationship with coffee is not necessarily bound to the economic practicalities of running a business,” according to a 2002 article on coffeegeek.com.

Charter Members
In the summer of 2002, Mike Ferguson posted to alt.coffee offering a charter membership to the new SCAA consumer category for those writing him letters of at least 100 words describing what they wanted from the coffee industry and what their vision of a consumer membership would be.

He received about 56 responses. Ferguson immediately took these essays to SCAA chief Ted Lingle, who was impressed with the passion and coffee knowledge these replies revealed. And so was the rest of the SCAA board. As one board member says, “It was clear that these people we had never heard of before had something powerful to offer the association.”

And these 56 responders became the charter members, the core of the new SCAA consumer category, or “C-members.” This was an astonishing move on the part of the SCAA, for apparently no other American trade group has opened itself to the consumer category in this way. What made it more astonishing was the fledgling program was still almost entirely conceptual.

The SCAA took the bold step of inventing a program and inviting test consumers in to help them create it as equals. This made it far different than a run-of-the-mill marketing effort such as might be undertaken by a large multinational seeking only advertising or sales benefits. The SCAA understood that these educated connoisseurs had to be true partners in the coffee trade if coffee quality and appreciation was to advance on a broad scale.

The charter members made their first official appearance at this year’s SCAA convention in Boston. At a special reception many people who had long known each other on alt.coffee met each other and the SCAA in person for the first time. Immediately the depth of passion and commitment to coffee became apparent to all.

Also at the convention, several charter members formed a “reverse panel,” where coffee professionals could ask these crucial leading-edge consumers questions on the coffee industry.

There the panel was frank: members forthrightly told professionals that the quality of coffee and its service was frequently low. They stressed their desire for more training for baristas, better labeling of origins, roasting “born-on” dates for whole beans sold over the counter and more traditional Italian-style drinks correctly made.

Also they spoke firmly in favor of a renewed devotion to freshness and quality throughout the industry, and more support for ethical and social causes, such as the charity Coffee Kids. Finally, they asked for more help from professionals to continue to advance their coffee knowledge in terms of home roasting and cupping.

Above all they emphasized their passion for coffee, their desire to work with and learn from the professionals, and their total commitment to the world’s most intellectual and social brew.

SCAA professional members responded with enthusiasm, although a few perhaps were taken aback by consumers who could easily quote Illy on defects. And perhaps another few squirmed in their seats as panel members made it clear that they noticed dirty espresso machines, improperly stored beans, and slipshod drink-making at coffeehouses.

The reverse panel clearly made the point that the days in which the industry culled beans, tossed them with some fire, and passed them on to a public that might know no more than a few origin names and how to use a cafetiere were forever over. They presented themselves as the vanguard of the new coffee drinker.

The C-members have an advanced level of coffee knowledge and seek more. Further, they are intent on evangelizing coffee, while keeping it a fun lifestyle. As C-member Ron Kyle says, “We are not just consumers, we are a group of people who are coffee literate, and have a passion for creating and consuming great coffee.”

Events and Happenings
Since the SCAA Boston convention in April, charter members have been busy spreading the word. C-members have organized events: multi-day affairs that deeply engage with roasting, hands-on barista training on commercial machines, and introductions to cupping.

One such event occurred in New York City in last June; another in Los Angeles in July. And these events have impact; for example, the New York City event made the front page of the New York Times on July 7, 2003, the first time in many years, if ever, long-time coffee professionals could remember seeing coffee so headlined in the nation’s most important paper.

These weren’t little tours or light-weight talks; in Los Angeles C-member attendees listened attentively and knowledgeably to an in-depth technical discussion of how water quality affected coffee-making and what water formulas made the best espresso. Don’t be surprised if a customer soon walks into your coffee shop and politely asks if your water meets recommended standards for best coffee taste.

More events around the country are in the planning stages, so that C-members can continue to interact in person with coffee professionals and share accurate, up-to-date industry knowledge and attract new coffee lovers to the group.

What C-members Offer the Industry
If coffee currently suffers from a demand problem, C-members offer the way forward to a solution. As membership spreads - it should grow to a few thousand within only a couple of years - consumer sophistication will lead to a revived coffee and café culture.

As this model succeeds in the United States and Canada, it can then be expanded to Europe, and then to Asia as part of the adoption of caffé society there. One world under quality coffee’s passionate sway.

Those who remember how the California wine industry devoted itself years ago to quality and the development of a consumer base can immediately see the parallels this example holds for coffee.

Zell says, “These consumers can only improve coffee as a whole. Now many are focused on espresso; but they can broaden out and explore the origins. They can help expand quality and the understanding of what specialty coffee is. We’ll see the kind of quality improvements we are working toward in the industry when customers ask for it.”

Lingle sees it this way: “What specialty coffee needs is ‘critical and demanding’ consumers. The role of the C-member component of SCAA is to be the ‘well-qualified and unfiltered voice’ of these consumers.”

“The C-members bring a level of coffee enthusiasm that is contagious to the specialty coffee scene,” says Schoenholt. “Their encouragement is driving the specialty community to new levels of dedication.”

The SCAA also envisions that coffee businesses can purchase C-memberships in blocs to give as incentives or gifts to their customers and clients. As Mark Prince notes, “The benefit of C-members for the SCAA first and foremost is brand recognition for specialty coffee. On top of that, they bring the SCAA mission of quality to consumers directly instead of relying on professional industry members to be the intermediary.”

What C-members Want From the Industry
C-members are not a monolithic bloc. But in general, they do share some basic concerns. The way forward as they see it is to demand quality from the coffee industry and reward those “stars” who deliver it, just as the new food culture has rewarded the skilled and innovative American chef.

One proponent of this vigorous view is Jim Schulman, a C-member and sociologist who resides in Chicago. He attended Zell’s ground-breaking Black Cat “espresso-in” event. “What is lacking in the North American coffee world is the hardnosed, elitist, ‘who’s the best’ reviews made by the thoroughly arrogant and nasty critics one gets in every other culinary activity. Now there’s a job for C-members!”

Not all C-members share this somewhat polemical perspective, although all would hope to see standards climb in the coffee industry at all levels: producers, importers, roaster/retailers, and coffeehouse counter staff. C-members see themselves as full partners sharing a common interest with coffee professionals, united in the goal of moving the industry forward as the new century progresses. And in this generous and friendly spirit, C-members approach the industry, eager to offer aid and insights.

While quality is undoubtedly the main concern of C-members, as a diverse group some members are also interested in other coffee goals, such as:

  • Improving the quality of espresso and coffee specifically as served in restaurants and cafes;
  • Persuading all roasters to offer fresh coffee properly stored and packaged with actual “born-on” roast dates, not vague expiration dates months in advance;
  • Urging the coffee industry to label coffee like vintage wine, with full estate, grading, preparation, harvest, varietal, and roast level information, along with special brewing tips and temperatures for blends;
  • Seeing that the jobs of barista and roaster become viable career paths as a method to attract and retain those skilled in the art of coffee cuisine;
  • Having a respected forum for communicating with equipment makers on improving and expanding the coffee equipment available to consumers;
  • Creating an avenue for improving their own barista and coffee-making skills, including technical roasting and machine information;
  • Devising a method for being certified to serve as judges for regional, national, and world barista competitions; Having a greater variety of high-quality green coffee for home roasting more widely available;
  • Gaining proficiency in tasting, cupping, and the sensory evaluation of coffees;
  • Collecting stylish or vintage coffeemakers, brewers, grinders, cups and devices;
  • Contributing to a solution for the so-called coffee crisis, understanding that this threatens smaller producers who are the custodians of some very special premium coffees;
  • Educating themselves on the question of sustainability and the environment;
  • Supporting coffee-related philanthropies;
  • Learning more about the coffee trade and its history in general;
  • Enjoying the pleasure of interacting with knowledgeable and friendly coffee professionals.
When you hear that roaring sound at your door, know the C-member train has arrived for you. They urge you, the coffee professional, to get on board with them and intensify your passion for what is surely one of the world’s great beverages.

Tea & Coffee - October/November, 2003
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