How Symposium Fosters Leadership

By Peter Giuliano, Director of Symposium, Specialty Coffee Association of America

When the occasion warranted, the ancient Greeks—the ones who invented science, philosophy, and the arts—used to get together for a symposium. The word literally meant “drinking together”, and it was a time for people to gather for discussion, music, or debate. The important thing was the “together” part. Even then, people understood that interaction was powerful. In his writings, Plato himself would describe symposia, and the debates within them, as a way of exploring an idea. From these interactions came many of the foundations of philosophy, which persist today.

Sometimes we fantasize that innovation is an individual act—that a lone inventor working in a solitary laboratory will, all by himself, create a new invention; or that a great piece of art emerges from a uniquely individual blaze of genius; or that insight comes from individual study and drive. This couldn’t be further from the truth. We are a collective species, and our insights are always driven and supported by a network of other individuals.

What does this have to do with coffee?

Well, coffee itself is a collaborative act, and it has been from the very beginning. In Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee, the coffee ceremony was about gathering together, and exchanging news and ideas. This tradition has never left coffee. It traveled to the coffeehouses of the Arabian souk—where coffee drinking spurred so many seditious ideas that, in 1511, coffee was banned in Mecca. Coffee’s role as a connector continued through the coffeehouses of Europe, where people gathered and laid the groundwork for the intellectual rebirth called the Enlightenment.

In the 1750s, in a coffeehouse called the Green Dragon on Union Street in Boston—only a mile away from where SCAA will hold its Event this year—a small group of men began to meet to exchange ideas. These ideas—ideas about liberty, ideas about independence, ideas about unification—emerged and became the foundation for our country. The idea for the Boston Tea Party—the definitive act of independence that birthed our nation (and perhaps the one that made us a coffee-drinking country)—was conceived through discussion in a coffeehouse.

Intellectual discourse over coffee has always led to ideas, and ideas had in the company of others often leads to collaboration. And collaboration- that unified commitment to shared work- is the most powerful tool we have. So, coffee leads to collaboration, but what about collaboration within the coffee industry itself? How can we nurture collaboration, even while we are engaged in the business of coffee work?

In 1981, audio engineers Dave Smith and Chet Wood proposed an idea to the blossoming electronic music industry: how about an interface which would allow electronic musical instruments to “talk” to each other, eliminating barriers between electronic musical instruments. The idea was relatively unprecedented. The “normal” way business was done in music at that time was for manufacturers to make instruments compatible only with other instruments of their own making, trying to dominate the market by creating enforced brand loyalty. However, at an Audio Engineering Society show, these engineers proposed a universal interface, without barriers. A collaboration emerged between a number of competing electronic instrument manufacturers, and this collaboration grew to include engineers from all the major electronic instrument makers. By 1983, they introduced the Multi Instrument Digital Interface specification—now known as MIDI—to the music industry.  MIDI revolutionized the music world, and made it possible for musicians to easily link all kinds of musical devices. This led to the flourishing of electronic music as an art form, and MIDI remains the central standard in musical interaction today, allowing music to interact with film, computers, and essentially any electronic device. This year—thirty years later- the leaders of this collaboration will win a Grammy for their vision and innovation.

The MIDI story is a great example of how an industry—faced with a challenge— can set aside short-term competitive instincts in the pursuit of a greater good, which benefits everyone. The Specialty Coffee Association of America itself is one example of this kind of collaboration; the geographically scattered and disparate founders of our association had an idea for an industry based on coffee quality, and their vision led to the very community we work within today.

The Specialty Coffee Symposium was founded to forward this same vision: to foster collaboration and cooperation between coffee visionaries, scientists, policy leaders, and entrepreneurs. And, perhaps because coffee itself is especially conducive to sparking collaboration, exciting projects began emerging in the very first year.

A cooperative scientific research project between three roasters and an agricultural development project—reported on at our first Symposium—led to interest from other roasters. Rather than simply conducting another small research project, a few enlightened minds had an idea: why not build a collaboration that could touch the entire coffee world?  This effort—led by such visionaries as Patrick Criteser, Tim Schilling, and Ric Rhinehart—has evolved into World Coffee Research (WCR), a deeply, fundamentally collaborative program dedicated to performing critical scientific and agricultural research which could improve, preserve, and even transform the coffee industry.

For two years running at Symposium, Rick Peyser of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters presented compelling and detailed research that told a shocking story: many coffee producers, even when paid high prices for their product, were having to reduce the amount of food for their families during the “lean months”, those long months when there is no coffee to sell at the marketplace. This effect—known as seasonal food insecurity or, more plainly, hunger—is a little known but widespread problem in coffee. Rick’s leadership, and the connections and collaboration made possible by coffee drinking, the SCAA, and the Symposium, led to the development of a new collaboration called the Coffeelands Food Security Coalition—which is already undertaking a project in Latin America to understand and address the problem.

What other collaborations are possible in coffee? What happens when visionaries come together, face a common problem, and search for a common answer? What other collaborations are out there, gaining energy from their participants, moving towards a stronger, better future for coffee? This is a central preoccupation of our Symposium, and it always has been. This year we’ll be taking a deeper look at this very concept, the collaborations that are out there, and the ones that might be in the future. I look forward to seeing how it all turns out.

Peter Giuliano has been working in the trade of Specialty Coffee for 25 years, beginning as a barista and working as a trainer, retailer, cupper, roaster, coffee buyer and business owner.  The SCAA has been a constant inspiration for him during this time, and he now serves as director of Symposium for SCAA, committed to helping cultivate and develop new ideas and leadership in coffee.