nonzero the hero

A while back, Mark Dundon, known for his championing quality coffee and behind cafe powerhouses like Seven Seeds in Melbourne, posted a thing on Linkedin, declaring that Speciality Coffee is dead. He puts the finger on some things that has been bothering me for years in the industry; the word Speciality Coffee is not as frequently used in our parts of the world, but rather linked to the scale between 0-100 on the coffee scale. In Sweden, to duck the fact you are roasting non-speciality, you may call your roast a “microroast” or “handroasted”. It says more about the way whatever coffee was roasted, than about the actual coffee itself. Which at a first glance seems fairer. But our market is small, and it has only added to the confusion to the end consumer, especially for us still championing Speciality as a notable quality factor and selling point.

I am currently reading Robert Wrights highly interesting book “Nonzero”, a book about evolution and human cooperation. When people say we should learn from history, they often make the mistake of looking at recent history. How could there be brutal civil wars on the Balkan only 50 years after World War II? Have they learnt nothing?

Wright describes the development of human evolution as a brain with cells. The jump on the ladder happens as populations grow and intensifies the need for development. When it comes to coffee, we mistakingly look from the inside of the industry for evolution. What is described as first, second and third wave is not a descriptor of an evolution in coffee, but an evolution within a small group within coffee, that for some time had an effect on how some people looked at coffee when opening a cafe or coffeeshop.

The culture fostered within the speciality coffee community shifted very quickly from being about the coffee, to the tools of the trade. Wright states that what most researchers don’t realize is that mankind didn’t start domesticating animals and crops in order to survive, but in order to stand out in a crowd, giving leverage for status. What if you want to marry, and your neighbour is a hunter/gatherer. Well, I can provide the brides family with my own stock of yams too.

Evolution happened fast within the coffee industry. Baristas got used very quickly to work with top beans, thus anyone wanting to hire staff needed to have the right machines, the right milk, the right pitchers and soon the right aprons, tampers etc. Baristas don’t go to Origin and hang out with farmers. Roasters do. That’s their status being vamped up, posing as vagabonds of the developing world, scouting for the equally coffee centric farmers out there, maybe without them even knowing they are pictured this way. For lets be honest here. Who is using who? A farmer that better his crops, wants to get a higher price and in the end a better living. A barista typically “wants to learn more about coffee”. Probably still in his or her 20’s, living at home or shared accomodation, riding a fixie and spend most of the money on stuff that will create status on Instagram.

Cafe owners are constantly looking at ways to save money. Once the cafe owner realizes that the actual end consumer prefers something “bold and roasty” to cut through milk in the cup, measures will be taken into account. Remember that Speciality Coffee on the high end is an aquired taste, not a staple. We tend to forget that, since everyone focuses on what is happening at competitions, outrageous coffees at outrageous prices, to break the monotony for the judges. Your coffee needs to stand out, since it is no longer a competition about skill, but about doing a very delicate coffee justice. Such bullshit! And the trickle down effect is causing problems in the real world through social media.

Mankind is cruel, and we have cruel intentions. A zero sum game is one where there is a winner and a loser. A non zero game, thus, is a win win situation. In his book, Wright mentions the kind of idea that for modern man is hard to grasp: we live not in a world where peace is the norm, we live in a world of humans where war is the norm, and we wage peace in order to reach some sort of non zero game. An equilibrium that is the least bad for most people. Somehow, the relativism of modernity has gotten the idea that we are our minds, not our biology, but in truth we are still at war constantly, wanting to consume our enemies and wear their skin as our dress like those stone age tribes did. We just do it in a way that appear peaceful, maybe even moral.

Take the cafe owner, constantly at war with his clients, his staff and his producers. If the customer needs a different coffee, he will have to ask his barista to use an inferior product or extract the coffee in a way the postmodern barista-gone-scientist finds frustrating, and get his roaster to come up with a different coffee. We are not even talking about money yet. Then comes the war to find good enough staff at cheaper rate, and good enough coffee to make a profit. The harsh realities of capitalism comes, and the ideology of Speciality Coffee is secondary to survival. We know this from world history. All Empires built on extreme ideologies fail and dies. And lets face it: Speciality Coffee is quite extreme in the context of capitalism.

What other field do you know, where a specialist is required to extract a product with the latest gadgets and tools, and has to do so while also being focused on making sandwiches and be nice to customers, in interactions that is only lasting for about 90 seconds? That equation gets even harder when you not only need to interact nicely with someone purchasing your goods, you need also to explain why your goods is better, even though a vast majority of buyers actually might consider your product “inferior” to what they are used to.

So how come Speciality Coffee has been so largely successful in some areas of the world? There is one key factor for evolution that Wright speaks of, that I’ve already mentioned: population density. If Speciality Coffee is a 2% market, you must realize that there is a vast difference in evolution if you’re in a market where the customer base is 2% of 1 million people (Stockholm for instance) or 2% of say 25 million (Jakarta for instance). At a visit to a cupping organized by the Indonesian Embassy in Stockholm recently, I was blown away by the tales of the booming barista culture in Indonesia. Ironically, they are using local beans, with closeness to their coffee producer, which would be impressive to the social media barista, if only it wasn’t fucking Indonesian coffee…

Just like any evolution, your benefits is given you by chance. Among the Westerners, you are lucky to grow coffee in Panama, Kenya and Ethiopia for instance. You are not so lucky if you happen to grow coffee in Indonesia, Brasil, India or Uganda, cause your taste profile isn’t Instagram worthy. Only if you do something extraordinary that goes against what most of your neighbours are doing. This is the great paradox: we are considering ourselves liberators of the Third World, with relations of equality, treating our peers at Origin as equals. But only the chosen few, that meets our demands, which is nothing but pure post colonialism. Typical zero sum game between continents, described as non zero sum between individuals.

What mr Dundon is pointing out, is in reality that not everyone subscribes to the original idea of what “speciality” is. I remember clearly when reading job ads in The Western Australian 8 years ago, thinking “if that’s what it means to be a barista, clearly I am not one of those”, being probably on par with the people who shifted from being bartenders to mixologists. I’ve addressed this curse of the barista trade before, where it used to be a platform for creative people slinging coffee in the mornings, to support their musician jobs at night, or whatever, now being replaced by people who see themselves as scientists in service of mankind bringing the world the perfect cup. This to me, in itself, was the death of speciality. I think, frankly, speciality was more or less rarely alive on farm level or producer end, when it comes to how we saw it ourselves. It was a smorgasboard for our benefit, where we picked and chose whatever tickled our fancy at that point in our development, and exactly like those conglomerate behemoths we loath, we as an industry never intended relationships that actually demanded from us to take on full responsibility to create full equality. We were at war too, you know, busy to make our product packaging stand out against our competitors, have more advanced equipment than our neighbor and waste a shitload on milk to make pretty flat whites for our customers instagram value, that benefits us in the end.

Primitive societies, so called Big Man societies, has the one figure to look up to. Once their power fades, their society might fade with them. We have our Big Men on social media (I don’t have to mention their names), so called influencers or leaders that people follow at their least whimsical move. You see them at the parties around the world, white middle class hipsters who are never in conversation with those uninvited producers from India, but with their own peers. Speciality Coffee is very primitive in its structure. The idea of non zero sum in our context comes basically, without intending to do so, from a kind of socialism. And there are very few examples of successful socialism. One big Swedish roaster, now bought up by a huge conglomerate, market themselves as “coffee revolutionaries”. Their revolution seem to be selling lower grade coffee, at lower price to reach more customers. Maybe in the age of post modern relativism, that is actually revolution in Speciality Coffee.

NP: Tragedy The Power Fades


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