MICK WHEELER, past President and former Executive Director of SCAE, reflects on the early days of specialty coffee in Europe and the hurdles a nascent SCAE faced as it sought to build a community-focused organization across geographical and cultural borders.
This is not a long, historical account of the SCAE – there are far too many dedicated volunteers who gave freely of their time, resources, and ideas to mention in an article as short as this. Those who were there at the time know who they are (and who else was there alongside them); while a longer historical account is certainly warranted, this is not it. Yes, those of us who were there all worked hard, became friends, went “that extra mile,” and enjoyed ourselves, but one person in particular deserves special mention: our first president, and the inventor of so many of our championships, Alf Kramer. His inventiveness created so many valuable tools that would help us along our journey to promote coffee excellence.
The first real attempt to start an organization within Europe was at the Coffee and Cocoa International show in London, held at the Royal Lancaster Hotel in September 1997; Alf Kramer organized a session to see how many people would be prepared to get involved organizing a European Speciality Coffee Association. Fortunately, many were – further meetings were organized at the International Coffee Organization’s offices in London over the following months, finally culminating in the establishment of the SCAE as an official entity in August 1998.
Our philosophy was simple, and still holds true today; our common goal, to continually strive to improve coffee quality at every stage in the supply/value chain, for doing so benefits all along the chain. We had long debates about setting standards and restricting membership to only those who could demonstrate their commitment to such an ideal, but in the end, we saw ourselves as a movement rather than a restrictive trade association. We decided we would welcome everyone who saw enough value in our message to want to get involved, aiming to be inclusive, rather than exclusive.
Of course, we had a valuable role model in our sister organization, the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), but we realized that we could not simply be a mirror image, as Europe is fundamentally different: we speak numerous languages and are governed by different laws. However, as a group, we understood and respected that we were there to learn from, to share with, and, most importantly, value the diverse European coffee culture that is so rich, interesting, and different from country to country. We had to create an association which took all these things into account, yet still promoted our core message.
Someone proposed the ideal solution of national chapters, inspired by an unorthodox source – a well-known worldwide motorcycle club – and, as they say, the rest is history. Well, not exactly – there was still the very real problem of how we would communicate with our members, who spoke many different languages. We overcame this by recruiting volunteers who were to become the backbone association. These super volunteers not only organized events on a local basis, but were effectively the face of the association in their home country, working tirelessly to ensure that SCAE functioned as a single organization rather than a federation of different country chapters – a difficult brief to fill at the best of times.
Our next challenge was of a more earthly nature: raising finance to support the events our organization would host (even fun costs money!). By the end of November 1998, we were delighted and surprised to find we had 114 members: 52 pioneer members, all of whom donated an additional €500 to their membership fee, had been quickly joined by 62 regular members.
Between 1998 and 2002 everything was done on this volunteer basis: SCAE had no paid staff, just a group of highly dedicated volunteers, mucking in. These early years were characterized by our willingness to “have a go,” to try new ideas – no matter how wacky they sounded – as long as they furthered our goal of promoting coffee excellence. October 2000 saw the launch of two events, both designed by our then-President, Alf Kramer, in Monte Carlo: the World Barista Championship (WBC) and the Cup Tasting Championship. Once launched, the WBC never looked back, but the first Cup Tasting Championship proved to be an absolute disaster. It would take three years before we relaunched the event in Rimini, learning from our mistakes and revising the format into what is known successfully as the World Cup Tasters Championship today. Like everything else SCAE has achieved, the development of all its world championships relied heavily on numerous volunteers, meticulously creating and updating rules, constantly revising different elements of each competition to create the polished, world-class events we celebrate every year today.
That first event in Monte Carlo may have been small, but in its way was hugely successful: it cemented the notion that what we were creating had widespread support. Our next event (Oslo, 2002) was bigger and even more impressive, although perhaps all the more memorable for the disastrous barbecue held on an island just outside the city: the evening started well, but an abrupt change in the weather conditions stranded more than half of the attendees on the island until the wee hours of the morning, when a rescue could finally be made. Apart from this particular mishap, the Oslo event was considered to be a superb success, setting the standard for future events.
Despite our reputation for fun, we took the association’s core functions, including communication with our members, very seriously: Café Europa, our first newsletter, was launched in September 1998 as a 4-page flyer outlining our aims, highlighting our achievements, and publicizing future events. It stayed in that format until June 2004, when it was launched as a 36-page glossy magazine, characterized by – and I could perhaps be a bit biased in this assessment – iconic covers and informative, well-written articles. It quickly became the mouthpiece and showpiece of the association, highly valued by the membership, especially as it was published not only in English, but jointly in other European languages.
It’s possible that the most important function of the association was education, initially delivered via workshops at SCAE shows and through dedicated educational events hosted by different chapters. It would be fair to say that we struggled at first to live up to our own very high expectations, but slowly, we began to meet our highest aims. I believe our most successful initiative in this regard were SCAE’s trips to origin: they offered a life-changing experience for those who had never had the opportunity to see coffee in the countries where it is grown. The development of SCAE’s AST system, which authorized trainers to provide SCAE-approved training, was another notable milestone, as was the development of solid educational curricula covering all aspects of the industry. The Coffee Diploma, first developed by SCAE but now the core educational program of the unified the height of our educational endeavors, providing all members of the industry with clearly identifiable qualifications that are respected and recognized worldwide.
This is but a flavor of the colorful history of SCAE: if anything, I hope to highlight and acknowledge the impact of and incredible result achieved by the effort of many volunteers within the organization across the years. Many should be recognized and acknowledged, but space does not allow us to mention them, so a big thank you to all those who joined us in this fantastic journey – it has been a pleasure and a lot of fun.
To me, the history of the SCAE is one of dedication, comradery, selflessness, and fun: the evolution of our organization clearly demonstrates the immense importance of continually promoting a sense of community and unity in working towards a common goal. Community arises where we join together, have fun, share experiences, and feel that we are doing something worthwhile. It is this, and this alone, which will ensure that we – now as the global organization SCA – will continue to grow successfully.
MICK WHEELER served as SCAE’s Executive Director from 2004 to 2011.
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