A question several asked this week: how was ECCM?!? For the unfamiliar, East Coast Coffee Madness or ECCM, is part trade-show with coffee roasters brewing cups for attendees and part coffee-conference with panels and lectures. Now in its second year, the two-day extravaganza was held in Montreal and I had the great pleasure of chairing a panel on Saturday and brewing Quietly on Sunday.
So how was it? Well, it fulfills many of the mandates I am constantly ranting about: public outreach from specialty coffee in non-shop form, events that focus on elements beyond competition, and critical reflection about representation and voice within our industry. So, it was great!
On Saturday, my panel introduced two core themes explored throughout the day: ‘making coffee better’ and the idea of ‘raising the floor rather than the roof‘ in coffee. I was lucky to have Maya Bluestone (Crop To Cup), Jim Osborne (Dispatch), and Laura Perry (Luna) who worked through several points starting with a diagnosis of those obstacles preventing progress to the challenges of climate change at origin to converting drinkers of commodity coffee to the light, bright side. It was followed by a plethora of great speakers culminating, in my personal highlight of the day, an “Unfiltered” panel that explored how our industry faces serious issues in terms of diversity, visibility, and amplification at all links from seed to cup.
On Sunday, I joined a swath of roasters brewing and chatting coffee. In the past, I have usually gone the pour-over route but wanted to try to re-think my approach. Given how much I have been stressing the need to orientate towards origin and producers, I set-up an ongoing cupping and ladled out coffee into mugs. Cupping as a practice is well tread territory in Ask Lee but for those non-industry readers, it is a simple way to brew coffee in which water is added to grounds, the surface is skimmed and after ten-ish minutes, you dip a spoon and slurp away. At origin, it is often the central factor in determining a crop’s standardized score, which in term establishes the price per pound. My hopes were to connect the more abstract elements of flavour and tastes notes back to the practical and real economics allowing or denying producers access to markets and living wages.
To try to really contextualize the cupping practice, I even brought my taste strips and visitors were able to test their thresholds for bitter, sour, and salt. It is always fun and useful tool to illustrate how a taste (like sour) differs from a complex flavour (like citrus). Was it successful? Well at the end the of day, a friend pointed out after traversing the taste strip gauntlet, my coffees tasted different. And indeed, after I actually tried the experiment, the high concentration of something like phenylthiourea that tests bitterness, really sticks around and lingers. SO, I might have poisoned the well slightly, but besides literally leaving a sour taste in the mouth, I had lots of nice chats and leveraging cupping as an inroad to frame a complicated concept like the current price crisis worked fairly well.
To try to summarize all the varied conversations, stories, talks and exchanges, I would say the cohesive thread that tied the weekend together was seeking change through process rather than fixed goals. What do I mean by this? In the past, a great deal of improvement in the coffee world was marked in certifications, benchmarks, and checkpoints. Take fair trade through to direct trade, with these third-party or self-governed certifications, once the bag had the logo – the problem was solved. Any questions of exploitation fall to the wayside. Equally with diversity at shops, as the third wave flooded cities marooning a plethora of new cafes and shops, there was a clear lack of representation and a monoculture of bearded, tattooed, cis white dudes. Obviously, a problem and one many grappled with through better hiring practices. Yet, an ongoing and justified complaint was that the fundamental culture of many shops remained unchanged and unchallenged.
Against these simple and fixed goals, a more dynamic or process-oriented approach was the call to action at ECCM. Take for example, origin relationships: we need to rethink the link between roaster and producer beyond pricing. On my panel, Laura stressed the idea of business partnerships with producers rather than more lopsided, one-time transactional relationships. Maya echoed this with stories about how producers are often isolated in the chain and how beneficial it is to establish concrete connections to overlap aims: be it particular flavours in the cups, types of processing, or approaches to fermentation. It was nice to even dismiss oft-cited simple solution, like ‘just pay more lol’, when trade or taxes often make it impossible, especially in an age ruled by environmental cataclysm and market crisis.
Or alternatively, how do we ensure diverse visibility and voices in cafes and shops through a process-oriented approach? The panels, stories and conversations consistently suggested its ongoing work on multiple fronts. Make sure you have space for everyone on both sides of the bar. Set up policies and enforce them. Start taking internal statistics and leverage them to do better. Start with benchmarks but then exceed them and ensure vigilance to guarantee that all people can be seen, be heard, and have a voice.
No event is perfect and I think it is especially hard in coffee because one needs to balance focus with audience draw. At ECCM there was three overlapping circles with roasters serving coffee, competitions like tasters and brewers cup, and then the panel discussions. The logistics make sense to bring in as many specialty enthusiasts as possible but it does dilute the emphasis on any one thing – or any one message. I also have a real tough time with the ‘madness’ title; I see the intended effect but stigmatizing mental illness in service of making an event seem ‘fun’ is pretty poor form. And lastly, coffee professionals (myself included) tend to emphasize taste above all. A hallway of cups certainly augments this tendency, as it becomes an arena of rapid-fire, head-to-head judgments. Not to say we should ignore sensory impressions, but I think a core part of opening the third wave landscape is re-positioning towards origin and that does not happens when taste blocks the horizon.
These points aside, I think the more we can all get together, discuss the politics of our industry, and celebrate the diverse plethora of roast philosophies and approaches under the third wave umbrella, we help make coffee better and not only is that positive but it is necessary to evolve as an industry.
Trust the Process,