Relationship vs Community in Coffee

In Speciality Coffee, we talk a lot about the relationships and communities affiliated doing business within our industry. At Da Matteo we’ve tried for a long time to find some kind of certification that tells a story what kind of work we do to improve the relationship with our coffee farmers, and their lives at Origin. That is one kind of relationship within Speciality Coffee. Another relationship to have is one between roaster and coffee shop.

Before I go on, there is a major difference between those two relationships. One is that the one selling coffee to a café is chasing the customer in order to buy. The one selling coffee to a roaster doesn’t necessarily have the means to chase the customer, but has to be found by the buyer (naturally, someone starting a café will look for the best coffee on the market, but there will be no shortage of competitors trying to get you to change your mind. We’ll get back to that).

A community is something else. It’s something built up around a mutual interest. It could be about making awareness about better coffee, or become better baristi with the help of your peers. For instance, you could call the SCA a larger community, pushing for better coffee in the world, the Roasters Guild and Barista Guild two other communities that don’t necessarily are separated from the SCA’s goal, but are targeting their own peer group (roaster and barista).

The communities themselves normally have a relationship to various partners: it could be a mother organization (like SCA) or sponsors (like a machine partner), but customers of various roasters and workers at competitor cafes can all thrive in the community, under the flag of “education” or “awareness building” etc (pretty much like board members of an organization, just much more losely based).

Organizations can suffer from difficulties such as corruption or bias, but members will quickly strike out against such behaviour when made known, and thus it is a somewhat safe form to build an organization, because it will have goals, and have the means to canonize knowledge worth keeping, and stay neutral or negative to pseudo science or science not yet proven. Communities however, are made up by individuals each with their own agenda or context of which they swear by. In coffee, the more cutting edge ideas, technology and scientific claims wihout proper research are held as the latest must-haves, or even made up to be the pinnacle of the industry. It can be branch leaders whose adapted ideas form a meme that then gets wide spread through the imagined community thriving on social media.

Here is where we are now. There’s a hegemony of ideas and images, claiming to be the final solution, held by industry inofficial leaders. They are made up by clusters of roasters, bloggers, designers and the like, whose ideas have not been canonized by an official organization, but by the grass root people, the imagined community, online and in real life when getting together in smaller gatherings of like minded people. Now, there are a lot of similarities between what we call an imagined community, and tribalism.

A tribe, compared to a community, is more far more tight knitted, held together not only by a common idea, but also as a means of survival. There is often a hierarchy, and the inner circle will only grow as the tribe grows. Not rarely, in the social glue that is the inner circle, there exists an official or an unspoken inoffical ethical stand between the parts, however those outside the circle are not applicable to those standards (they might adapt similar strategies lower in the chain, but the top is not loyal to the bottom even though the vice versa is common, out of “respect”).

In a community, there is always the sense of “the more, the merrier”, due to the wish to gather round a common goal, such as the spreading of Speciality Coffee for instance. An analogue I draw is one of several underground movements I’ve been part of; the tape trading back in the 80/90’s. Death Metal was something new and fresh, it was about the music and it was a true excitement being close to a movement. The broader it became, however, the more tribal it got. When Entombed got a record deal, they were almost considered sell outs. More people found our culture, and the more we started to feel there were too many “posers” around. In Norway, they went so far they basically wanted to put peoples loyalty to the extreme to the test, and so people started to burn churches and murder people in order to prove their salts worth. We who were nihilistic rebellious youth with a strong identity with the music, started feeling things were going to far, and so death metal stagnated in its culture, and the music itself started to sound very conform. Later, black metal met the same fate.

In the tribal world of Speciality Coffee, people seem to refrain from murder, but the structure is the same. Many people are trying hard to be invited into the warmth of the top dogs, some succeed. Some don’t. Others are just happy to be supporting the top in their great work. A community around the tribe, so to speak. In 1% terminology you could address them as “hangarounds”, and the ones trying to make the inner circle would be considered “prospects”.

Now, I find this idea of “relationship” and “community” problematic. We throw these words around withouth really honoring their meaning, when we are in fact more proned to tribalism. In a community you don’t have to agree on everything. Let’s say for instance you have a latte art throwdown, and a guy that works in a bar serving Italian style coffee beats everyones ass, he has earned everyones respect, but we might disagree with his stance that Italian coffee is the tastiest. He is still part of a community that over a beer can share stories of being a barista in a café.

The tribalists however, are much harder to deal with. They will frown upon anything that isn’t agreed upon with his purist masters. I don’t weigh my shots, I therefor present faulty shots. I use a blend, where their dogma requires a single origin. Funny enough, it’s always the hangarounds and prospects that polices everything, in order to prove themselves purist at heart to the priesthood.

Brands works on all three levels though, introducing yet another expression that we should use more in our industry: loyalty. Pictured above is three brands I’ve worked with from the start since I got to Sweden (RB before that). I tried other tampers in Australia, but didn’t like their grip. The wood grip suited me fine, and I’ve used the same tamper ever since. I also met the family behind the tamper, and I remain loyal to the brand because of my relation to them, proven that they are awesome people. Same with the espresso machine. The LM family is a close-to-the-grassroot community building gang, honoring those using their machines. DM was my own pick of employer, recognizing the style of coffee that was my preference, the way coffee tasted back in Australia. I’ve been loyal to DM not only because of the tastiness, but also because of the company culture that is highly inviting and open minded. We aim to build community and relationships, not tribes.

I think understanding the difference is crucial: a tribe demands loyalty, a community and a brand earn theirs. A relationship on the other hand, just like a marriage, demands loyalty but has to be earned mutualy. Transparency then is key.

There are some new kids in town, doing coffee events and building their own coffee festival. We did the same 8 years ago, and the reason it didn’t work then was probably because we were too affiliated with just one brand. Certain companies in Stockholm demand tribes, and don’t want to let their staff be seen with competitors. And we were also mostly a group of friends looking for a good time. Later our relationships turned to family, kids and professionality. It will be very interesting to see what path this group will take.

NP: Melissa Auf Der Maur Followed The Waves


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