Toronto coffee industry heavy weight and one of my best friends, Derek Hamers, asks “coffee, you jerk, what is wrong with you?”

Well not really but kind of; he writes, “I suppose this question comes from observations and experiences attending coffee events, festivals, workshops, panel discussions and competitions in the past. These events seemingly try to involve public participation and interest but are often self-serving, insular, solipsistic, fraught with industry jargon and/or issues that concern only the specialty coffee community. Consequently, coffee events tend to, in my discussions with non-industry people, have the opposite effect in that they perpetuate a public perception of our industry as pretentious and obscure while reducing our community involvement.” So coffee, you jerk, what is wrong with you?

There is no shortage of stereotypes when it comes to the third-wave coffee shops: too-cool customers glaring at you for encroaching on their turf, feeling rushed as you order from an intimidating and opaque menu of drinks, and dude-heavy staff making you feel outside of their seemingly closed, personal worlds. It is sadly out-of-step with the history of cafes as social community hubs and dynamic public spaces. And I think that Derek describes a tension originating in this rift: third wave shops want that sense of vitality and outreach, yet there is ghostly specter obstructing the way and always chilling the connection to a non-specialty public.

To borrow from a previous dispatch, the first-wave is functional consumption (caffeine), the second is enjoyment of a drink (java house whipped toppings), and the third is about appreciation of the coffee from bean to cup (specialty). This progression relies on a value proposition: you pay more for coffee. Farmers, producers, as well as the work-force behind picking, processing, and shipping get higher wages for their labour. Because quality increases, roasters can purposely roast lighter. By way of precision and technique, roasters unlock the unique and sweet tastes inherent to the green, rather than using char or scorch to cover crummy flavours. The cafe then becomes the stage to showcase the possibilities for the cup with no bit players: well-sourced milk, steamed for sweetness and proper density, served in beautiful ceramics, beside artisanal pastries, and – sometimes – with a classic hip-hop soundtrack.

All great things, right? So how does this fall apart into the “self-serving, insular, solipsistic” mess described by Derek? I would argue the value proposition is a difficult sell. On one hand, there is a ‘welcome home’ sign that offers a massive cup (with built-in rollable lottery ticket) that mixes a familiar medley of bitter, creamy, and sweet; on the other hand, there is a sterile mix of white subway tile and reclaimed wood, which demands five dollars for a lukewarm milk swan drowning in grassy and pithy espresso. I exaggerate but the reason coffee should be expensive is a mouthful and our model for service certainly does little to translate or communicate it to guests. Somewhere in the breaking crests of the third wave, the core message message is lost at sea.

To make matter worse, the precarious nature of a quality-based up-sell often means low margins and unstable work. To be a successful barista one must out-perform their team. Pull better shots, pour more intricate art, or know more about coffee. We have to fight to gain prominence to ensure tips, shifts, and ultimately a living wage. The battle is internal and systemic: the lone individual who cultivates visibility ensures their employment.

This is the Janus-faced monster mask that we all wear. On one side, we become self-righteous and indignant to coffee-drinkers who should pay more because the intuitions we work for fail to do so. We continually make technical and design advancements but do little refocus our spaces and places around the environmental, social, and political stakes of origin. Then on the other side, this mask bares its teeth and takes aim at our colleagues with the hopes of garnering a living wage and, gasp, some kind of future in a purported growth industry. We act and operate in constant direct competition. No wonder we socialize through latte throw downs, barista competitions, and ruthless cuppings. We rank and judge, rather than organize and cooperate.

Ultimately, what Derek has identified is one of the many ugly consequences of inequality. No philosophical or literary affirmations here, just a call to do better, support each other more, and to never lose sight of the value of coffee – at each and every link in the chain. Oh! And if you are not the industry, come to more events. They are super fun, I swear πŸ˜‰.


Trust the Process,
Lee Knuttila