I Want Coffee, Not Coffee

Or: How I learned to appreciate cream and sugar again

By Nicholas Cho

Recently, I had the privilege of producing a “person on the street” video segment that was shown during the 2011 SCAA Symposium. Titled simply, “SCAA Symposium Street Interviews,” the video showed me asking nine random people outside of the Ferry Building in San Francisco a few questions about their coffee drinking. Namely: “How do you get your coffee? What does ‘specialty coffee’ mean? What is a great cup of coffee to you? What makes for a bad coffee experience? What makes for a great coffee experience?”

Normally, while interacting with the consuming public (that is, the ultimate “end user” of the coffee chain), we coffee retailers and baristas are accustomed to seeing our customers reacting to the products, services and messages that we offer them. Even professionals who are less involved with the point-of-sale are still familiar with various categories of coffee consumer, as well as the multitude of ways coffee is available.

SCAA Symposium Street Interviews by Nick Cho

What seems to be unique about this video is that it has us hearing from consumers outside of any particular coffee experience. They aren’t specifically our customers; they’re just random people answering some questions. To my surprise, the majority of reactions to the video were along the lines of, “Wow, what a reality check!” The views expressed in the video were clearly not ones a lot of coffee people were familiar with. But then again, I (along with the majority of the coffee industry) tend to hang out with a certain type of coffee person (namely: each other) or those rare customers who care about coffee as much as we do.

Which brings me to James Hoffmann’s presentation at the Symposium. Immediately before the “Street Interviews” video was shown, Hoffmann, 2007 World Barista Champion and co-owner of Square Mile Coffee Roasters, took the stage and delivered a commentary on retailing specialty coffee. James shared two main points, both of which also pertained to how we communicate with our customers.

His first point came with a large, bold graphic on the display screens that read, “EDUCATING THE CONSUMER.” Taking a moment to glance at those words, James said, “Every time I see or hear these words, I die a little bit inside.” He continued, “The problem is not that they’re not educated… they’re simply not interested!” His point was that expecting customers to stop and engage us on our terms because we want to teach them about coffee is beyond unrealistic. It clearly crosses the line into arrogance, if not ignorance.

His other main point began with an anecdote regarding restaurants. When we walk into an expensive restaurant, there are a set of assumptions that accompany the white tablecloths and well-spoken waitstaff; assumptions about what we can and cannot or should not ask for (i.e., ketchup for our potatoes). If you contrast that with the ubiquitous triumvirate of a counter-top cash register, espresso machine and coffee cups being served, you realize how foolish it is to assume customers who walk in to most high-end coffee shops will not want things like unlimited supplies of table sugar, or 24-ounce flavored lattes with extra whipped cream.

“We don’t want them to put sugar in their coffee, but then we offer it to them for free, and in unlimited quantities,” Hoffmann said. “How is this their fault?”

Anyone paying close attention to our industry has seen a clear and widening disconnect between two distinct camps within the coffee world. You might call it “Third Wave vs. Second Wave,” purists vs. non-purists, or coffee geeks vs. coffee lovers. The point is, this polarity is such a recurring theme in so much of the media coverage, internet traffic, and industry conversations about coffee these days. How do we as an industry reconcile this culture clash?

I believe it’s ultimately a language problem—and thus a language solution. Why? Because there are actually two distinct practical definitions of “coffee.”

coffee | kôfe; käfe | noun
1. The extraction of roasted and ground coffee beans into hot water to become a delicious beverage.
2. The resulting combination of flavors of roasted and ground coffee beans, dairy products, sweeteners, flavorings, and/or other ingredients to become a delicious beverage.

Every time a potential customer appears disgusted when told that the farmers’ market pour-over coffee station offers no cream or sugar, a barista is annoyed that they have to make and serve a couple dozen 20-ounce mochalattes coffees for every one straight double-shot of espresso coffee, or a morning TV news team guffaws at the idea of a ten-dollar cup of coffee, the problem is that the two practical definitions of coffee are being confused. They’re really two separate and distinct things.

By way of example: I love coffee ice cream. It’s definitely in my top three favorite ice cream flavors. I’ve had supermarket-brand coffee ice cream, and I’ve also had local “artisan” coffee ice creams made with all-natural ingredients and made from coffee roasted by award-winning specialty roasters. But who would, when asking “Would you like some coffee?” possibly confuse it with coffee ice cream? That would be a stretch!

Yet there seems to be a similar confusion all the time when it comes to coffee the beverage.

As another example, compare a rare Kobe ribeye steak to a welldone hamburger. No reasonable steak aficionado would scoff at the prospect of lettuce and tomato on a burger, and no burger joint would possibly consider offering no condiments of any kind, despite the fact that both are ultimately “cooked beef.” Neither offends, is confused with, or encroaches on the other. Why not? Because both in language and in our culture, we understand that each has its own definition and term.

We, however, are stuck with just one: “coffee.”

Now consider a siphon-brewed cup from a special geisha varietal micro-lot from the Boquete region of Panama consumed without any additives (read: black) with a cup of a three-region blend roasted full-city-plus with some half-and-half and three teaspoons of sugar. Consider the flavors, the mouthfeel, the level of sweetness, the aftertaste, and the aroma. Then ask yourself: is it reasonable to compare the two?

Perhaps the most controversial topic in our industry is also rarely openly discussed: light roast vs. dark roast. If you listen to people on either side talk about it, you’d believe they were discussing religion or politics. However, what seems to be overlooked in the discussion is that darker-roasted coffees are generally coming from a paradigm of milk-and-sugar as the default, with black coffee being the anomaly. The lighter-roasted faction is coming from the contrasting perspective. I’m more of a purist/light-roast guy myself, but if I’m being fair and open-minded, a well-roasted dark roast with cream and sugar is a more enjoyable beverage to me than even the highest-quality lightroast coffee with cream and sugar. They’re not really interchangeable.

But they are interchangeable, aren’t they? When taking a step back to look at the “coffee experience” that is such an important part of our cultures, the differences mostly fade away. Morning coffee, after-dinner coffee, coffee at the office, coffee with a friend; how we engage coffee is not all that different. But as professionals, confusing the two definitions of coffee creates all too many problems when communicating with each other, and especially with our consumer base.

Clearly, this is a tricky problem with no easy solution. When explaining our particular style of coffee, I’ve started to describe it as coffee “designed” to be consumed without milk or sugar. It doesn’t solve the problem, but it does seem to alleviate much of the tension by making it a relativistic, preference issue, instead of declaring our coffee as being “too good” for additives, arguing that it “doesn’t need” milk or sugar. On my side of the coffee bar, I want to be focused on service, not on the (sometimes barely!) veiled disapproval of someone’s coffee habits.

Neither the coffee purists nor the populists would or should want to see the other side disappear. With the plight of the coffee farmers on all of our minds, diversity in the ways people consume and enjoy coffee is good for everyone. However, what isn’t good for everyone is the polarization, sometimes dissension, that has become all too common as our industry grows and develops. If we’re to reach our customers effectively, we need to figure out how to communicate coffee factually, accurately, and in ways that clarifies the truth, rather than promoting more confusion.

In answering my open-ended questions, the people in the Street Interviews video had absolutely no trouble articulating their opinions. They were confident of their answers, and they clearly know what they want and don’t want concerning coffee. A big part of my mission as a barista and coffee professional is to serve folks like that and cultivate their interest in quality coffee by building on their habits and traditions, rather than tearing them down and recreating them in my chosen image. To bring them into the fold without first forcing them out, we’ve got to get our stories straight–and it all starts with that single, but oh-so-complex, word: coffee.

Nicholas Cho is the brewing, barista training, and retailing specialist for Wrecking Ball Coffee. Nick founded murky coffee in 2002, which developed to be Washington DC’s premier coffeebar. Over the past few years, Nicholas served as a director on the Barista Guild of America’s Executive Council, on the SCAA’s Board of Directors, and on the World Barista Championship Board of Directors. He was also the 2006 South East Regional Barista Champion.