Reflections from a Coffee Curmudgeon

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By Timothy J. Castle

 Upon arriving here in Atlanta on Tuesday and attending the opening reception for this year’s Re:co Symposium, I pulled out the program for the next two days and began quibbling immediately:

Cold Brew? Really? How could we devote a chunk of our precious time at Re:co to “Cold Brew: Category or Craze”? Aren’t we over Cold Brew? Is it really something we should be discussing here, within what I consider to be the hallowed inner sanctum of Specialty Coffee? I remembered, during one of my first visits to a coffee farm in the late 70s, being serving Cold Brew coffee at a farm in Guatemala that has since become very famous. My traveling companions and I sanctimoniously chided the farmer for using the Cold Brew method and encouraged him to use a proper, hot water method.

As I read down to the next program, “Moving Towards a True Understanding of the Coffee Consumer,” I once again took issue. As an old friend, who has had a long and distinguished coffee career, once told me, We sell our coffee to Coffee Drinkers, not consumers.” When we call them coffee consumers we make them sound like mindless livestock; “drinkers,” is a more intentional depiction and calls to mind the satisfaction and enjoy-ment that the coffee drinker might experience as they bring a cup of coffee to their lips.

Even the next session—“Farm Workers: Is Labor the Next Crisis for Coffee?”—got me riled up: I ranted to myself that the coffee farmers I work with have been having labor problems for years, why has it taken us eight years to put this issue up for discussion at our annual symposium?

I don’t believe I got down the list of topics any further before I realized, first of all, that if it weren’t for Re:co, I would not have had the chance to consider these topics and go off about them, much less discuss them. And secondly, I had a lot more to learn about each of these three issues and how they impact the specialty coffee industry. I would not have had the opportunity to do so without Re:co; which is more or less the point of this annual get-together. I am leaving Re:co this year with a lot more to think about regarding each of these three topics than I came here with, and I am sure that I will be discussing them—and the new ways with which I have to consider them—with friends and colleagues for months to come.

And I won’t even, (well, I’ll try not to), get upset with myself for going all off-kilter as I read the program because my reading the program and reacting to it—how-ever ill- or un-informed I might have been—was my way of enter-ing into this year’s conversation. I’m just glad I listened first, before putting my quibbles and rants out there. I’d still like us all to consider dropping “coffee consumer,” and remember all the loyal, thoughtful coffee drinkers in the world that make this ongoing conversation possible.

For 30+ years, Tim Castle has sold green coffee and has been writing about coffee and tea. Castle co-authored The Great Coffee Book (Ten Speed Press, 1999) and wrote The Perfect Cup, (Persues Books, 1991). In 2003 Castle Received the SCAA’s Distinguished Author Award and was the Association’s President in 1991.