A New Craft Era: Parallels, Perils, and Possibilities

By Christopher Schooley, Coffee Roaster, Coffee Shrub

I currently live in the middle of America in a fairly small college town, however, I used to live in another town in the middle of America, albeit a much larger one. In that larger town there was a rich history of service and independent businesses that made and sold the fruits of individual and often traditional crafts. If you needed old world pickles; not a problem, there were neighborhoods where you could go to a number of different shops all with their own take.

Even if you needed something as mundane as a hot dog, you could visit a factory right in the center of town with over 100 years of experience making them. This atmosphere bred new craftspeople that would reap the benefits of a marketplace full of consumers who were already quite accustomed to going out of their way for one particular item, and were eager to try the best of whatever the town had to offer.

While this type of craft marketplace existed in many of America’s larger cities for some time, it seems as if in the last decade there was a particular boom. This boom has spread beyond the larger cities and has worked its way into communities where national brand recognition still has plenty of sway, but the independent craft centered businesses are finding curious, receptive, and passionate consumers. The convenience of one stop shopping as well as price sensitivity and looking for the best deal are still the greater norms, but conscientious consumers who are looking for something authentic and want to know not just where what they are putting into their bodies came from, but how whatever it is came to be in the first place are growing in number.

I could get into the layers of health concerns as well as other ethical considerations that are informing these choices, but I’d like to focus on the interest in processes as I believe that the curiosity about the why and how of things is something that is innate in just about everyone. We are at an interesting crossroads, where there is generally a greater removal or disconnect from the manufacture of goods than at any other time in American history, while at the same time we are fully embedded in the Information Age. Perhaps we aren’t as directly exposed to the production side of many things, but we can look up how it’s done on the internet and learn a good deal about decades to centuries of the production of certain goods.

Learning about how it’s done makes us naturally curious to try to do it ourselves. Something that has always stuck with me, and a large reason why I think that I’m as attracted to factory work as an adult, is growing up watching Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers and seeing short films on how a crayon is made, or a trumpet, or peanut butter. But there is something there as well, this idea that all this stuff happens in a factory somewhere and that there are specific tools and machines needed to do it. But what if I want to do it in my garage, or in that little retail space in Old Town? This is the question that drives the craft movement; how can I do it?

The two most notable products that come to mind when I think about both home enthusiasts as well as independent business in small and large towns across America are coffee and beer. Without looking at hard numbers, I feel it’s safe to say that these two craft products are generally the first to be introduced into a community. They are rooted in quality ingredients and craftsmanship which means that they are rather firmly tied to agricultural, processing, and production using unique tools and devices. They are also both rather everyday-type goods. Approachable and affordable even for some of the highest quality examples of each.

The small college town that I live in with a population of around 144,000 people (it’s not tiny, but you can get across it in ten minutes easy) has over eight craft breweries, with a few more opening in the next year. Though it would seem as though the saturation would make it difficult to get your share of the action as a small brewery, the fact is that the bar for quality is much higher. People are very familiar with what makes a quality beer, as well as the flavors and characteristics associated with a poorly made beer with inferior ingredients or craftsmanship. The craft brew industry is such a huge part of this community that there are articles in the paper nearly every day, locally brewed beers on tap at national chain restaurants, and even in my wife’s classroom the students working on a community design project almost all included breweries in their little towns.

Being a college town, there is no shortage of coffee shops either, and a good deal of roasters. There are around seven coffee roasters in town, all ranging in size with some being strictly wholesalers while others are retail roasters, and some are working out of much smaller spaces and selling their beans at the Farmer’s Market or even door to door. And although there are a comparable number of roasters to breweries, if you were to ask someone on the street what a craft beer is and what a specialty coffee is, there would only be one of those questions that would get a clear and immediate answer.

This lack of understanding about what specialty coffee is isn’t about the roasters not pushing quality or craft; it has a great deal to do with venue and presentation. People have a pretty set idea about what a café is or should be. Add to that the dynamic of counter service with a line in front of you and behind you, and there’s little chance that anyone is going to take too much time to stop and think about anything beyond ordering something that they’re familiar with without asking too much about the details of how it came to be. Very little of the experience is even about tasting and thinking about what you’ve ordered. That’s not to say that there’s not enjoyment, but there’s been little engagement with the ideas of craft and ingredients in this setting.

When you walk into the tap or tasting room at a brewery, you are not just directly exposed to many of the elements of the craft of brewing, but you are also generally very much engaged in tasting and learning about styles, ingredients, and the characteristics of a great beer. Yes, you are generally going to a brewery in a much different frame of mind than when you’re going to a café, but that’s the point. When you go into a bar and order a beer, it’s a fairly similar experience to ordering a drink at a cafe, but because there is an experience available which can inform your later choices in another setting, you are more likely to make a more informed choice in that setting.

I’m not saying that every specialty coffee retail space needs to be an educational experience, but the opportunity for that educational experience needs to happen somewhere and needs to be fun and non-threatening. I’ve heard a number of people whose opinions I respect a great deal talk about how “educating the consumer” has become something negative. The word educate has become associated with snobbery as well as the practice of overwhelming the consumer with information and choices. As the husband of a passionate educator and someone who has dedicated a good deal of their own energy to teaching and professional development, I shudder at the thought of educating being thought of in a negative light. Education isn’t the problem! It’s the educators themselves and the environment in which they are trying to educate that make education a negative.

So the call goes out. How can we develop new spaces where we can make learning about coffee quality fun? I believe that these spaces can be in existing cafés, but that there needs to be some clarity about what the space is for and differentiation from any existing retail situation in the space. What kinds of spaces lend themselves to learning, and how can we deliver some of this information in both direct and indirect ways?

I honestly think that there is some middle ground in all this as well. Something as simple as table service can add a completely new dynamic. When someone sits at a table and opens a menu, they are automatically engaged in learning about what’s being offered in order to make an informed decision, and there’s not someone right behind them in a big rush either. Creating situations where people are more open to being given information is a must. Another thing that we must do in order to foster a positive learning environment is to actually listen to our customers in the first place; generating ways in which they can give feedback about what they like and what they don’t is something that specialty coffee has done an exceptionally poor job of.

Finally, one of the most compelling ways in which we can foster a positive learning environment is to put tastings together where people can be successful. If we give someone a cup of coffee, or even put a cupping in front of them and then talk about the nine or so fruits that YOU taste in the cup, there’s a really good chance that they’ll walk away without tasting these things and feel like they failed and that it’s probably not worth it to try it again. If we put coffees in front of people where there is a noticeable, tastable difference, and they taste what is different, we can then talk about why it’s different. They did it right, they tasted that it was different and then you got the chance to expose them to some of the impacts on coffee quality and what shows up in the cup.

We are in an age where many people are embracing craft goods, and are willing to spend for an authentic experience, and want to be rewarded for that by finding something that they can truly and wholeheartedly enjoy. They are out there looking for us, curious and with open minds. It is on us to create new experiences and opportunities to help them discover everything that makes us so passionate about our craft.

Christopher Schooley is a coffee roaster who works for Sweet Maria’s and Coffee Shrub and is the Immediate Past Chair of the Roasters Guild Executive Council. Schooley believes that the surest path towards a deeper understanding of one’s craft is through the sharing of knowledge and open conversation, as well as challenging yourself to work outside of your immediate experience.