Rules of the New School: Thoughts on Education and Shaping the Future of Specialty Coffee


By Todd Mackey

Let’s face it–coffee is cool. You’re probably thinking, “Yeah, I already knew that!” But now the market is telling us loud and clear that it thinks so, too.

Consumers are seeking more of the qualities that we always hoped they would, while slowly but surely beginning to pony up the premiums that enable us to deliver on our promises. Along with their thirst for outstanding coffee beverages, many display interest in how the value chain is collaborating to showcase these exceptional coffees. We are seeing innovative companies bringing increasingly diverse and dynamic offerings to an ever-more-educated specialty coffee consumer.

Meanwhile, new roasters and retailers are entering the marketplace at a breakneck pace. Established companies are investing deeply in ongoing professional development, while newcomers have to hit the ground running at lightning speed in order to survive. Bottom line: there has never been more pressure in the specialty space to know what you are talking about when you put your nose to the grindstone each day. As a result, we have all been spending more time “in the woodshed,” and, if you are anything like me, loving it.

Education has come to the forefront of how we in the industry do specialty coffee. The demand for effective training has inspired robust educational initiatives to drive wholesale sales from the roasting sector. Retailers are dedicating more time, space, and resources to offering increasingly comprehensive consumerfacing educational programs. Even green coffee trading-houses have begun creating lab spaces dedicated to capacity-building across all segments of the trade. Certificate programs developed by the Barista Guild, Roasters Guild, SCAA, as well as the Coffee Quality Institute’s Q Grader program, are all growing rapidly in light of a deluge of new entrants into our industry, as well as coffee professionals demanding ongoing development. We are seeing swift expansion in the influence of these programs throughout the world as new markets respond to growing consumer interest in specialty coffee. Additionally, we now boast a contingent of coffee professionals who focus solely on teaching others the skills of the trade.

While the importance of training and education is indisputable, the real challenge educators are facing is how to best prepare incoming professionals for success in the field. We cannot simply teach what has worked for others—we must supply the tools that individuals need to create their own clear and salient points of view to offer their consumers. We need to teach the language of specialty coffee in an effort to build fluency, rather than requesting our students memorize and repeat formulas from others’ past successes. Additionally, it is our responsibility to create standards and resources that are inclusive, allow for diversity, and offer the capacity for different perspectives on specialty coffee. At the core, specialty coffees are not fungible commodities, but rather hold the potential for unique and distinctive experiences. It is imperative that we are cautious to always leave room for the “unicorn,” maintaining our belief that there are a myriad of new directions specialty coffee can take us—all the while never betraying its core identity and objective quality.

A teacher’s knowledge and skill is only as effective as how they well are able to organize and communicate to their specific audience. It is essential for professional trainers to be agile in this role. Educational mediums, platforms, and tools are changing dramatically as we see substantial shifts in how learners consume information. Internet-based training solutions are coming to market in what has traditionally been a classroom-dominated space. While these offer tremendous value for lecture and/or discussion based content, audio/visual learners, as well as those geographically remote, they are no substitute for the workshops focused on building experience and skill through hands-on activity that are in high demand at the annual SCAA Event, Roasters Guild Retreat, Barista Guild Camps, and in Certified Labs around the world. From the Expo classrooms and Certified Labs offering instructor access and hands-on practice, to informal sessions under the roasting tent at the RG Retreat exploring the potential of coffees and equipment, these settings cater in many ways to specific millennial-learner needs. Similarly, the team challenges at the BGA Camp events create opportunity for collaborative learning with clear relational focus.

While we face numerous challenges in building up this next generation of coffee professionals, there is one huge opportunity to recognize and capitalize on – at no point prior have we collectively recognized and valued our need for training, education, and information-sharing. A distinct inclination towards learning and stake in on-going professional development is characteristic of this incoming generation. This young coffee professional readily absorbs as well as shares information, making for rapid growth in knowledge and skill. I have seen first hand in my years as a trainer the acute shift away from teacher and towards facilitator–I could not be more excited to serve our community in this role and learn so much myself in the process.

Those of us who find ourselves in leadership roles in the classroom better get ready to be thrust forward by the incoming generation’s insatiable hunger for learning. It is on us to carefully position the same passion for discovery at the center of what we bring to the table. We are in for one hell of a ride…two hands on the wheel…here we go!

Todd Mackey is an accomplished cupper, barista, and roaster based in Providence, RI. Through his years in the trade, he has specialized as a trainer to each of these segments. Todd currently serves as an SCAA Lead Instructor and member of the BGA Executive Council.