Welcome to your Virtual Community

By Peter Giuliano

In 1993, computer scientists at Cambridge University in England decided to attach the feed from a video camera to the brand-new invention called the internet, and in the process created the first webcam. This webcam was trained on a coffee pot in a break room, so the scientists could see how much coffee was in the pot and, thus, could avoid pointless trips to the coffee room. Of course, that information didn‘t just stay within the university, because anyone who was connected to the internet could see how much coffee there was in the pot at that very moment.

Everyone was amazed at this, and the Trojan Room Coffee Pot Cam became one of the first internet phenomena. Although the feed was retired in 2001, it’s became an important part of internet history.

Thinking about it in those terms, coffee was at the center of the very birth of internet community. That makes sense, of course, because coffee has always been about community. From the Ethiopian coffee ritual—which focuses on family and village interaction—to the coffeehouses of Arabia and Europe, coffee has always inspired a sense of cohesion among people. When the global “virtual” community emerged, coffee was right there waiting.

You can always recognize a community, because when one develops, it creates its own culture. One of the hallmarks of culture is the way that an idea spreads in it. Ideas have been spreading throughout the virtual coffee community since its inception—starting with the Trojan Room Coffee Pot, of course, but continuing to this very day. The idea of attaching a PID controller to an espresso machine emerged from  alt.coffee, an early internet coffee community, an innovation which is now commonplace on high-performance espresso machines.

The time I first recognized the power of the virtual community was in 2004, when barista Kyle Larsen hinted on a post that Chris Davidson and Jacob Ellul-Blake were fooling around with some sort of portafilter modification. Before long, the internet community had discovered the bottomless portafilter, and within hours baristas all over the country (including me) were taking hacksaws to portafilters, to see the magic of the naked coffee extraction. Removing the bottom from the portafilter allowed for diagnosis of tamping and distribution technique, making it a good training tool. But also, the naked extractions just looked cool. By the next day, people were posting pictures of their goopy naked extractions, and we had a new term: “espresso porn.” Within weeks, websites had been dedicated to the phenomenon, people were setting up businesses to modify portafilters, and shops were committing themselves to the style.

Nowadays, though the enthusiasm has faded somewhat, the bottomless portafilter seems as if it has always been around. It’s a fixture of the coffee equipment landscape, and all because of a virtual community.

It’s funny to call it a virtual community, really. This community—though experienced through the medium of the internet—is very real. I had a barista today tell me that she couldn’t imagine the isolation she would feel if she didn’t have the worldwide community of coffee people to interact with.

That’s the way I feel myself, sometimes. Today, I use the virtual community to explore new ideas, cement relationships, brainstorm, and connect with new people.  I can explore a farming idea with a coffee producer, or gut-check a technical question with an expert with immediacy and personal interaction.  I feel constantly connected with my extended hive-mind of coffee people everywhere, which is  a powerful and heady feeling.  Now, if I could just get them to turn that webcam on again, so I could see how much coffee is in that pot in Cambridge….

Peter Giuliano is director of coffee and co-owner of Counter Culture Coffee, a specialty coffee roasting company based in Durham, NC. He has worked with fine coffees since 1988. He is the president of the Specialty Coffee Association of America.