In Search of Meaning | Part 2

By Paul Katzeff, Thanksgiving Coffee, Founding Member of SCAA

In Search of Meaning was written in 1983 when SCAA was just a couple of months old. It appeared in the first issue of “In Good Taste.” That publication was SCAA’s first organized communication to its twenty-five charter members. Donald Schoenholt is responsible for the name of the publication. I was the editor of that first edition. In Search of Meaning was the editorial for that issue.

When I wrote In Search Of Meaning thirty years ago, I had been roasting coffee since 1969, and by 1983 I had about 25 “employees”. I believed coffee was the leading indicator of what kind of craftsmanship was to come in the American world of food and beverage. The Hippie Culture of the 60’ and 70’s was maturing, and we coffee craftsmen and women (and there were perilous few women) were riding that wave almost effortlessly.

I could see from my perch at the head of the line that most coffee company employees were doing some pretty boring work, work that was repetitious and pedantic. I looked at the production line in my plant and felt I had created what appeared to me to be a comfortable ‘sweat shop’. How long could I expect the average employee to stay with my company?


In my 1983 world, meaningful work for me meant that I had to make my company meaningful to my employees. I had come to the view that a coffee business needed to be an active part of the community it was living in. It had to be engaged in the community as a contributor; a sponsor of good works, an advocate, and also, project excellence through its coffee. This, I believed, would make all work in the company meaningful, not just to the owners, but also to all who came to work there. They would be proud to work for the company because it was held in high regard in their community for both its coffee and its’ social values. By reflection, I felt their friends and neighbors would also hold them in high regard because they worked at such a company. Excellence depended on that.

My intention behind writing the piece was to direct the beginning of our industry into a focus on community so as an industry we would become as meaningful to our nation as the coffee houses in Europe were in the 17th and 18th centuries, when Democracy and Revolution stirred the air of change.

History will show that the repressive militarism in Central America during the Reagan years impacted the specialty coffee industry in a profound and lasting way. At that time, our industry was a refuge for disenfranchised young people who wanted out of the “rat race” of their careers. We were, by and large, much more progressive. We joined a coffee industry, but we were anti-establishment. We experienced our president and CIA in collaboration with the military dictatorships of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, systematically killing the very mountain people that were growing our coffee. In 1985, this stark reality had to be confronted, and it was. The place was the Claremont Hotel in Oakland in 1985 at our first SCAA Conference. The “bloody” confrontation is well documented, and it ushered in the beginnings of the social consciousness of SCAA.

A decade later the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center advanced the issue of the negative impact on migratory songbirds when coffee farmers cut their shade canopy to grow coffee in the sun. In 1996, the first Sustainable Coffee Conference was held at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in Washington D.C., and the environmental movement in coffee was born. Habitat preservation was its core principal, and coffee emerged as a way to defend the rainforest from logging and the loss of biodiversity.  Economic justice in the form of fair trade soon followed, and the definition of sustainability in coffee seemed to be resolved as social, environmental, and economic justice for all in the coffee supply chain.

What has changed most during this thirty-year period is the climate. Climate change has forced us all to think about our supply side brothers and sisters, and the mountain communities they live in, differently. It has put a clear focus on the sustainability strategies that we consider today, as opposed to how we compartmentalized our strategies were in the past, a water system here, a health center there. In the past, they had problems and we were making amends for past abuses, now we need to help them because their problems have become our problems.

It is important to recognize however, that we have put in thirty years of preparation and learning for this, our biggest challenge. Helping coffee farmers mitigate the effects of climate change on their coffee farms is our twenty first century SCAA mission. We need to become the tree planting industry of the twenty first century.

Over the past decade we‘ve seen the rise of the coffee nerd and its business equivalents; the single pour café, latte art, and milk cartons filling up back alley dumpsters. Taste is foremost, and style is uppermost. Who can complain about such finesse? Certainly the supply side cupping lab movement had a major impact on the ability to isolate quality, but should the focus on micro lot quality the labs have enabled be allowed to define our industry? Are we capable of a more noble identity?

The need for meaningful community involvement, which I wrote about thirty years ago, is not the “meaningful work” that has defined my work in coffee since 1985. I thank Ronald Reagan for the issues that changed my life and made it more meaningful then it ever could have been when coffee was mostly about price and flavor. Sales and marketing experiences are much richer now that we have become the caring part of the coffee trade. Sales conversations, with their rich and interesting stories, often first person, enable friendships to be born out of what in the past would have been just another sales call. Specialty coffee has gone mainstream, and has personified the anti- establishment business model, opting for love and empowerment over oppression and fear. When you allow coffee to do its magic, love is in every cup.

I concluded my 1983 essay with this question, “Can we attract the brightest and the best to fill these jobs and join us in presenting excellence to the American public?”  One look at our current coffee community leaves but one answer, and that is a resounding, “YES we can!” And we have.

As for where we are headed, destiny is where the unknown waits to become known. I’ll put my money on love and magic.

Paul Katzeff is a founding member of SCAA and served on the Board of Directors from 1983-1990 and again from 1994-2002, with terms as President in 1983 and 2000. Paul was the creator of the Environment Committee (now Sustainability Council) in 1994 and received SCAA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008. He set up the first cupping labs at producer co-ops and sued President Reagan over the 1985 Embargo on Nicaragua. Paul is a baseball player who continues to play Senior Major League Baseball at the age of 75 and played in the 2012 “Over 70 World Series” in Phoenix. Katzeff is not retired from either baseball or coffee.