Specialty Coffees Wallpaper Problem

In the last week, there have been reverberations from the Dallasfood.org piece breaking down the falsehoods behind Mast Brothers Chocolates, and the subsequent media firestrorm that has followed since. Much of the post-facto deliberation has focused on issues of authenticity, the anger and schadenfreude over the hipster-$10-a-bar chocolate hating crowd, and sometimes asinine thought pieces such as the one in Eater by Helen Rosner, which attempts to blend the two in one of those navel-gazey thoughtpieces that attempts to downplay outrage and talk to consumers (and for that matter, professionals) as if they were children. Thankfully, most commentators, and indeed, other chocolate makers and experts, have made clear that these are not the reason for outrage; rather, it comes down to matters of trust, and more importantly, the ways in which deliberate obfuscations such as those the Mast Brothers have engaged in (and continue to engage in), potentially inflict a lot of damage on an industry that has many practitioners who actually desire to change the way that individual consumers, supply chains, and economics work around cocoa production and chocolate making. 

No one has made this case more clearly, nor more eloquently in 140 characters than Colin Gasko at Rogue Chocolatier. Key among them, Colin has built a strong case for the characteristics that craft chocolate can be said to abide by, and the way in which the Mast Brothers harmed, failed to participate in, and in some ways undermined those norms and behaviors. (Carla D. Martin has also been filling in a lot of beautiful print on the matter, adding history, economics, and sociology to the mix.) The key point they, among others, is spelling out should sound familiar to those in craft industries, specialty coffee, and sustainable agriculture circles: that fundamentally, what craft chocolate is about is redefining the relationship between people and chocolate, from on-farm cocoa production & economics, to chocolate production & sales, to the interactions with customers and shifting expectations as to what chocolate is/can be/should be. That one can have an ethical production practice around cocoa and chocolate and perhaps make a buck at it too. And that there is an education, a learning curve, that can be built upon as being the basis of those activities, understood and recognized in individuals who participate in that process as a craft producer of chocolate. And that one of the key issues of the Mast Brothers case is not the beards nor the fine wallpaper wrappers of their chocolate, but that they broke trust -- with the industry they actively chose to avoid and decry, with the public to whom they knowingly obfuscated the truth and history of their practice, and that they took the moniker of bean to bar as a marketing ploy, less an actual statement of their activities. In an industry that, above all, was encouraging transparency in production and sourcing, they chose to engage in marketing over entertaining those values*.

While there is a furor over the nature of how much of a scandal this constitutes -- from Rosners piece to those who laugh over hipsters buying overpriced chocolate to those who feel shamed or shammed -- there is a clear sensibility that what happened in the Mast case does constitute a failure in what Arjun Appadurai refers to as the "regime of values of goods". The concept is a way of evaluating the "true value" -- moral, financial, and symbolic -- of a particular good. Producers, consumers, and all variations in-between carry with them a distinguishing sense of value over a given product, influenced by media, market information, cost, and a host of other concerns. What speaks to me in the Mast circumstance is twofold: that in an age of increasing consumer consciousness over sourcing and knowing where products are made, the Mast valuation of their goods was decidedly different from those primarily purchasing their goods; however, a willingness to co-opt the values of the industry were part of their marketing and origin branding, in turn damaging the industry they were in, and potentially harming plenty of businesses who were, in fact, engaged values-focused production and sourcing work. 

Unlike Nick Cho's piece on the matter as it pertains to the Mast Brothers relevance to specialty coffee, I'd like to focus the matter moving forward; or rather, to respond to James Hoffmans piece about the lull in specialty coffee, and the way the Mast Brothers issue is part and parcel of that lull, and how we can perhaps move forward. 

When I started out in specialty coffee, in 2006-7, education was something at the forefront of a lot of roasters and shops who I respected. This was especially true when I worked at Barefoot Coffee Roasters (2008-2010, now really Chromatic Coffee),  where the ability of the staff, in the middle of the San Jose-South Bay suburbs, were able to make geekish enthusiasm and hella tasty language come together in a way that Silicon Valley coffee geeks and soccer moms alike feel welcome, try new coffees, and adventure into the specialty coffee world. It was in that space that coffee as a culinary ingredient was at the fore, community knowledge was applied in shop, and when marketing our beans, clear lines where established on labels as to which farms we bought from directly, which ones we got certified, and which ones were just straight up coffees we bought on the fly. Yes, this meant the labels had 100 different symbols on them (UTZ! USDA ORGANIC! FT! SMITHSONIAN BIRD CERT!) but it had the advantage of letting Joe Customer or Sally Specialty Coffee Pro know what they were getting, and encouraged discussions about what was in the bag -- which is half the point of Specialty Coffee.  

Over that time, I began to develop a clear thinking of what specialty coffee could be -- the ways it could move forward, the types of hospitality it could encourage, the ways we could work with customers to increase the drinking public who sought out specialty coffee, and like Alice Waters cajoling in her cookbooks to inquire about farm fresh and organic products, maybe encourage a similar movement in coffee. Specialty coffee could be a vehicle to improve the livelihoods of farmers, professionalize the barista trade (in turn, improving the economic prospects of the coffee labor force), and change customer norms on coffee, maybe even taking consumers and making them what Carlo Petrini refers to as "co-producers" -- people who take an interest or awareness in the making of things. This became cornerstone to my approach in consulting for coffeeshops; that is where I got my rude awakening.

Since 2010 there has been an explosion of specialty shops. Many are run by coffee professionals making it work on their own; many are also run by people with no affinity or history to the industry. These are both fine, and good examples of both exist. But something became clear between then and now, as more shops opened, the less that clarity of mission became . Fewer shops seemed interested in staff education or professionalism than demanding it at standard wages. Many shops I entered would feature coffees from various roasters of good note, but not know anything about the coffee they were serving. The importance of branding and aesthetics seemed to crowd out understanding what made specialty coffee different from the vast coffee world, and education somewhere became a dirty word, loaded in with pretentious barista backlash (much of it coming from shops where, honestly, the staff sometimes knew little about the product being sold. I'm looking at you, LA Mill).

This issue probably took its clearest form in the way latte art became a measure of a "good" shop, especially for consumers. While latte art is a valid way of ensuring certain quality assurance measures are being met, and is indeed a visual plus that distinguishes specialty shops from a majority of their competitors, latte art became paramount in a way that properly calibrated Fetcos or dialed in espresso haven't. Latte art floods instagram feeds, acting as the calling card for shops or baristas, while for customers, a beautiful cover can many times overlay a less than acceptable experience (not asking for a god shot moment, asking for an acceptable experience).  While a bit of a shorthand, I give you this -- we have latte art competitions, but no one is tasting the shots from those comps, are we? When consulting with shops, several were fine with the notion of ok espresso, but sub-par latte art was something that ranked up there with unfavorable P&L's and embarrassing public behavior. Like the Mast Brothers wallpaper wrappers, latte art became representative, to me, of something of specialty coffees equivalent wallpaper problem -- beautiful to look at, highly branded, but increasingly hiding what was going on beneath the foam -- from sourcing claims and buying, to barista treatment, to the outlook the industry was taking on these sorts of issues (which, much like chocolate, had a live-and-let-live sort of attitude, while mulling somewhat glumly all the while). 

Beautiful shops, beautiful latte art, beautiful stories became the (oft uncritical) refrain, which leads to the issue: the regime of values in specialty coffee is having an issue right now. If the SCAA surveys on consumer feedback are any indicator, there is a notion that specialty stands for a series of values -- ecological and social sustainability, flavor, etc -- but that a lot of it is trend and brand associated. This isn't wholly bad -- I don't expect customers to see specialty coffee the entity as the thing to observe -- but the dependency on brands-as-carriers of accurate execution of values expectations creates an issue. It assists in consumers -- at this point passive individuals -- valuing the wrong things, or making it easy for consumers to bank on certain expectations without any of the values underlying those elements actually being met. $5 pourover doesn't make for well paid baristas, usually. $35 for 8oz of Gesha doesn't lead to improved livelihoods for farmers, ecological soundness, or even good messaging in the broader food world. And sometimes, this presumption doesn't even come with well executed coffee. Consumers of specialty coffee are, IMO, being marketed to, and in so doing, losing a lot of what specialty coffee has to offer -- a richer understanding of product and of the world we live in, alternatives to the status quo of "the market"**, and livelihoods for its participants that aren't built on exploitative practices. I believe, as my explosive Christmas eve-Twitter outburst sort of signifies, specialty coffee, as an industry and its membership, has the capacity to do much more if it embraced those elements and what feels like stagnation or saturation within the industry is too many companies who are willing to market themselves and their cafes in the specialty space but not fundamentally engaging with the alternative that specialty coffee represents. 

This it not a post intended to call out individual companies or segments of the industry; indeed, I dont think we have a Mast equivalent. But this piece is to observe, in the face of a current event, several trends that I have been able to observe within the industry, from the perspective of time spent within it, from the feedback of those with longer histories than my own in it, and from the contextualizing work of people who are in specialty coffee in the spaces you don't always hear about -- the Michael Sheridans and Irene Cardosos of our world. I do not think the choice is between latte art or good extraction, hospitality or knowledge, aesthetics or quantifiable measures of quality (or that bogeyman of authenticity) -- it is all of these things. We can improve where we presently fall short, and prove that there is difference between the experience, the product, and the work we do as an industry. We can leave the aping to the larger chain entities of our world, and prove we have viable alternatives***. We can view our guests and customers not as consumers, but as viable partners in that alternative. And we can reclaim the mantle of specialty from the lull we find it in. And it begins with us tearing off that wallpaper****.

* As is spoken about in a number of texts, modern marketing and branding was, in part, specifically engineered to make consumers comfortable with products whose production origins and materials they might never know, and whose production conditions -- usually overseas factories exempt from American labor laws -- were deliberately obfuscated or determined immaterial. 

** There are a multitude of sources on this, Appadurai and Habermas being two, of the notion that there isn't a singular market weighing the world, but a plurality of markets, that we create, engage in, and participate in all of the time. The structures to some of these markets are monolithic -- they're hegemonic in practice, and perceived of as the status quo. But they are man-made, just as any alternative to them would be. This is of particular importance in specialty coffee, where unbinding production from C-pricing could be said to be of paramount importance. 

***Also the reason the purchases of many specialty coffee roasters has proven problematic, but that's another tale for another time. 

****And no, this is not a re-hash of the no latte art movement. But certainly we can see the forest, yeah?