Is there a new disconnect between coffee hobbyists and professionals?

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#1: Post by another_jim »

In the early 2000s, the SCAA, the industry association of specialty coffee roasters and cafés, reached out to the emerging on-line hobbyist community. There were special events for us: local ones sponsored by top roasters, and national ones at the SCAA annual conventions. We were invited to join the SCAA in a new consumer category, a consumer committee was created with Mark Prince and Fortune Elkins as members, there was a consumer track of classes at the convention, and we were welcomed as judges at USBC competitions and as equal participants at many other events.

The SCAA at that time represented the wider coffee community as well as the industry. But in the aftermath of a financial crisis, it stepped back from wider commitments, and closed its doors to amateurs. Individual roasters and other organizations picked up the slack on the specialty supply chain side; but on the community side, the contacts between professional and amateur coffee lovers have suffered. The SCAA annual convention was the occasion when many of us amateurs got to meet both each other and the top professionals. Most of the local joint activities were arranged at the convention too. So in the aftermath of the SCAA's retrenchment many of the contacts between amateurs and professionals were lost.

In 2000, direct pro-am contacts were needed. Many professionals had stopped believing that amateurs knew or cared about good coffee; and many amateurs thought the same about cafés. These beliefs were so widespread that they prevented any possibility of a market for really top quality coffees. But are pro-am contacts needed now? There are dozens of roasters selling what might be called "super specialty coffees;" auction coffees, direct trade coffees, zero defect preparations, etc. They are being bought by a wider public than just on-line hobbyists. The same is true of equipment designed for enthusiast users. Moreover, many of the intangibles which required direct contacts now can be had on-line, coffee information at the much expanded range of regular sites, and personal contacts at the new social networking sites.

Nevertheless, I think direct contacts are still necessary. It's been four or five years since there have been large scale social contacts, and a new generation of pros and hobbyists is now active who have no direct experience of one another. In encounters I recently had with this new generation, it's become clear that the old stereotypes we had of each other in the 90s and early 2000s are back in place. We hobbyists are seen as geeks so engrossed in technical trivia that we wouldn't know good coffee if it walked up and bit us. And professionals are seen as talking a great cup or shot, but just to promote business and career interests, not for the love of coffee. These stereotypes do not threaten what we have now; but they do destroy the wider community surrounding the coffee marketplace. Without this community, new ideas on either side just disappear into the gap. Without a wider community, there will be no more innovations, no more buzz, no more excitement. It'll be reruns from here on out: with both the conversations and the coffee going stale and unprofitable.

You don't believe it? In the last few years, we've had great new ideas about basket construction, dosing and weighing, pressure profiling, brewing and extraction levels, roasting profiles, and probably a bunch more stuff I haven't heard about. All of these ideas have worked promisingly for those who tried them. But they have not spread far, nor have they been worked out as completely as they should be. And how could they, if we no longer get together? All coffee ideas are ultimately hands-on skills; and without us getting together, the new knowledge remains, for the most part, just say-so theory, rather than creating better coffee.

I do not know the full solution for recreating the coffee community that included us all. But if we work at it, we can restore many of the lost contacts without relying on the SCAA convention. Instead, we need to schedule regular pro-am events locally, in the places we live. Dan has good local relations with Counter Culture Coffee, and they have frequent get togethers. I admit to not having done my part in keeping such contacts going here in Chicago; and others in other towns have not done theirs. When we travel, lets try to visit the top amateurs and pro at our destinations. If you let the people there know far enough ahead, you might even get to the guest of honor at a meet-up! Admittedly, this is more complicated than meeting at the annual conventions; but the reward of new and better coffee experiences will justify the extra work.

Please post your criticisms or ideas; or contact me by email if you prefer to comment privately. Lets get this going now.
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#2: Post by michaelbenis »

I know that contacts between the real enthusiast coffee bars here in the UK, their roasters and their "publics" - not to mention each other - can create great virtuous circles, although all this is still pretty ad hoc and fragmented. There's no denying that it has however benefited all concerned, however, including getting some pretty stunning beans to enjoy both in the cafes and at home.

But I think it's also worth noting that organisations often go through phases. I can't speak about the SCAA, but I perceive a disconnect here not simply between hobbyists and professionals but between professionals and the organisations "representing" them which goes beyond the simple griping about WBC judging and the rest of it.

I think there is, however, real vision in your suggestion that it is now timely for the energy that has gone into online communities to come back out into bricks and mortar - a bit like online dating if you like :shock: I know this works well with other "hands-on" passions, like weightlifting, for example.... Even in terms of marketing trends, it is becoming increasingly recognised that online and bricks and mortar aren't separate worlds, but feed into and nourish one another. That's especially true of speciality coffee, which is a lifestyle choice/experience, not a commodity or even a service. And people meeting over a cup or two they can compare inevitably results in the discovery of more similarities than differences, unlike online discussions which can easily get bogged down in the latter, which can of course be very off-putting for those not familiar with the phenomenon and may also have contributed to the disconnect you perceive.

On a practical note, maybe there could be a new HB section on coffee meets/tastings etc. with a calendar of events?


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#3: Post by orphanespresso »

Jim...first off, though we have never met, I admire and respect your knowledge of coffee more than any human being...and it is with some sadness that I must agree with much of what you have said, as I generally agree with your observations.
We are in an odd position, as we are coffee geeks in our own right and involved in a business, so SCAA events should be a natural draw for us...but this year we are pretty much feeling so-so about SCAA Houston. Another walk through the trade floor to view products? Maybe a lot of free coffee? We enjoy going to Coffee Fest events as well but they are just a little less trade oriented than the SCAA. But one is a bit naive to think that the SCAA exists to meet the needs of any portion of the industry that does not pay SCAA fees...they are the organization for the coffee industry and not the coffee consumer.....geek or not.
From our albeit brief experience in this world of coffee it seems that there are coffee people and product people....doesn't matter what product...machine or grinder or cup or pitcher or mini donut maker (I grieve when the mini donut maker is not at the show).
I will drop the coffee geek moniker as this little pigeon hole is tiresome...lets call us the Home Barista. HB interests are generally not met at SCAA, I agree. Very few prosumer machines and NO levers, and what we would like to see and talk about is not represented....sure, a lot of pretty hardware, but unless you corner the EPNW guy when it is slow in the booth to yak about filter baskets one leaves with a pretty much stale experience. I marvel at the giant roasters and conveyor systems and look at the machines and hang out with the Italian salesguys who are always looking past us for some REAL customer.
We have actually learned much more from this forum than at an SCAA gathering, and even more from the few get togethers with fellow Home Baristas, who are generally friends, so the conviviality combined with coffee just makes this part of the coffee life more rewarding.
I don't know where to go with this but I think that I get your general feeling on this, and that is that when we were in Chicago last spring that we damn well should have shot you an email and gotten together to exchange what tiny percentile of information (compared to the whole mass) each of us had, bounce some ideas around, pull a few shots, and have had a very enriching experience, no doubt. We could all try a little harder, eh?

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#4: Post by Bluecold »

I like James Hoffmann's blog because it talks a bit about the present problems in the industry and with enough clarity that it's also understandable for non-industry folks.

I do sense a worrying trend here in Holland. For some reason, industry people seem to try to claim 'slow coffee' and impose all kinds of ridiculous barriers ("you absolutely need an uber boiler and you need to buy special thin walled porcelain to have any hopes of appreciating pourover coffee") with seemingly the sole intention to stop people from appreciating exquisite pourover coffee at home.

And this might seem a very cynical, harsh judgment and a sign of distrust against the industry, it's the only thing I can make of it. It doesn't seem to happen in the US of A.

I also think that there is a righteous distrust of pro's against us H-B's because we sometimes are guilty of the same behaviour; overcomplicating coffee and thereby creating barriers for casual consumers. If the casual consumers lose interest in brewing great coffee at home because they are daunted by the entire process, they won't buy fancy machinery or great coffee. In the end, both H-B's and pro's suffer.

On the plus side, professional espresso equipment manufacturers seem to care more and more for consumers, as is exemplified by the Bezzera Strega and Mahlkoenig Pro-M

Not sure if I made any real points, but I wanted to express my feelings on this subject.
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#5: Post by farmroast »

I found the SCAA "C" membership just as it was still willing to take my money but had no longer a pulse. I was able to join the RG public forum and had some nice interactions but also felt the cold breezes not only to Home roasters but also I found to new small pro. Roasters. Interesting conversations would start and once they got into details they would stop. Then non-members were shut out of the conversations and now very few conversations develop at all. I also noticed that my local cafes and roaster/cafes showed no signs of being part of an assoc. even when they were members. The SCAA talk of consumer education never seemed to go anywhere. I kept hearing rumors that this would change but so far they remain rumors from what I see. It just seems to be an ever smaller group of bigger players. From my experiences with other national associations this is a recipe for irrelevance.
On the other hand, I've been sooo impressed with the home coffee community and their "professionalism" and productivity! The keen focus on a "better cup for all" has held true for the years of my involvement. The interests and accomplishments in technical improvements has in my opinion been astonishing.
This thread is an example of the continued drive to take the coffee craft to an even higher level. And again, it continues to be about "a better cup for all".
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#6: Post by malachi »

I don't know where to start.

Yes - this is an issue.
Yes - it's getting worse.
Yes - it's a recurring problem.

I'm in an odd position as I see both sides. I used to work on the pro side of the table, and now I'm on the consumer side. So I can see a little more of the whys and hows than most I think.

Hmmm... actually, I do know how to start...

I joined back when I worked at Stumptown. My belief was that the gap between passionate consumers and passionate professionals was a problem for the industry that would only get fixed by people from both sides making an effort to meet in the middle. And someone had to make the first step.

To be blunt - it was a challenging experience.

Over time, and as I transitioned from a professional to a consumer, I had to constrain my efforts here at -- whereas once I wanted to try and be an ambassador and a diplomat and try to humanize the dialogue - in the end I simply spent my time attempting to counter misinformation and disinformation.

And in the end even that became too frustrating.

I tell this story because it is a common story. I know of a half dozen people in the coffee profession who have gone through the same process. And I know of probably a dozen consumers who have tried to bridge the gap and have themselves eventually become burned out and frustrated - and in the end have thrown in the towel.

IMHO - the problem can be roughly grouped into a number of issues.
1. Respect
2. Poor interpersonal skills
3. Understanding


The lack of respect from both parties is the single largest problem. 95% of coffee professionals have little to no respect for passionate consumers like the core audience. And 95% of that audience have little to no respect for the passionate professionals out there. Every time some barista at a top shop talks to his friends about all home baristas being idiots because someone came in and wanted to buy a pound of french roast ground for espresso to take home the problem gets worse. Every time someone here posts about how a bad experience at a crappy indy shop means that all professional baristas suck the problem gets worse. This lack of respect seems endemic and pervasive to me. It's - to be frank - the single largest reason I've walked away from the whole discussion.

Poor interpersonal skills

A significant percentage of professional baristas have the interpersonal skills of an indy vinyl music store clerk. An equally significant percentage of passionate home barista have the interpersonal skills of a ham radio fetishist. When combined with the generally lowered standard of behavior on the internet - this becomes nearly toxic. This combination amplifies and exacerbates the respect issue noted above. Now... to be clear... this "significant percentage" is probably less than 20% and might be less than 10%. But it is a very vocal and present group. The stories I've heard from Customer Support reps about dealing with some home baristas are truly horrifying. And obviously the coffee shop barista experiences shared by folks here are often equally terrible. To be frank... this would be a minor issue were it not for one thing. Because of the two other major issues noted here -- the "diplomats" (on both sides) have largely been driven away.


As a general rule, neither party is making any meaningful effort to understand the other party. Pros are for the most part simply trying to co-opt the consumers (selling to them) without trying to understand them. Consumers are for the most part simply demanding that the pros give them what they want. Understanding takes effort. It takes empathy. It takes work. It's not easy. But there are VERY few people really trying. And at the end of the day, this is the big issue. Until people (on both sides) start trying to understand the other party, there can be no respect (mutual or otherwise). Without respect, the gap will get larger and the dialogue more hostile.

The saddest part of this whole situation is that there were some good people who were really trying to fix things - and they've all abandoned the effort. I know of multiple roasters who have explicitly decided that the passionate home barista consumers is not worth the pain. And these are good roasters, who spent a lot of time and energy trying to cultivate this group. I know of tons of caring, thoughtful home baristas who have simply given up on trying to work with pro roasters.

No-one wins this way.

It makes me sad, and it makes me feel weak. Yes... I gave up. And yes... that was a failure on my part. I cannot blame that on anyone else. I just couldn't do it anymore. I hope that others can step up, can try to push things forward. I hope that we see change and that there can be the development of mutual understand and respect over time.

But I am not confident that will ever happen given the history and the toxicity of the environment.
What's in the cup is what matters.

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#7: Post by yakster »

Jim, great topic and very cogent post.

Malachi, I really enjoyed your response and it makes a lot of sense. I especially liked this passage.
malachi wrote:A significant percentage of professional baristas have the interpersonal skills of an indy vinyl music store clerk. An equally significant percentage of passionate home barista have the interpersonal skills of a ham radio fetishist.
I'm wondering, though, if we just need our own gig. Let me briefly explain.

When I started getting deeply into coffee (roasting, brewing, then espresso), I went looking for resources similar to the ones I tapped into when I was a home beer brewer: local clubs, retail outlets, amateur associations, conventions with classes and products aimed at the consumer, magazines, etc. I didn't find this.

I believe that part of the reason is that the American Homebrew Association formed long before online forums took off back in 1979 and actually was party of an effort to legalize home brewing in the United States. The association, magazine (Zymurgy), conferences all have a lot of passion and many home-brewers have gone on to become commercial micro-brewers. The Beer Judge Certification Program is open for all as well. I realize that coffee is legal in the states and not a big cause. I think that this is a big hurdle, plus the fact that people now are so busy that they don't take the time to have meetings or get together and learn things, relying on online forums, but those forums can only take you so far. We all know how hard it is to describe to a new member what a good espresso should taste like or how to judge a roast based on pictures posted on a forum.

I spoke to a local home-brew shop owner here about the possibility of carrying green coffee beans, he explained a little of the economics of being able to make money based on the number of hobbyists in the area for beer and wine brewing and the case for expanding to coffee was pretty bleak. I wish I remember the argument, but it was quite a while ago. I occasionally visit these shops to pick up citric acid and browse for other cross-over supplies. I know in other parts of the country there are a few examples of brick-and-mortar stores that cross over and sell roasting equipment and greens alongside brewing equipment, but it seems to be the exception.

To me, it would be a dream come true to go to an amateur coffee, espresso, and coffee roasting conference, attend classes, compete in cuppings and roastings, learn about off tastes and troubleshooting, and have a convention hall with vendors trying to sell me Behmor and Quest roasters, Bezzera Strega espresso machines, etc., but I haven't seen any movement in that direction.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that the SCAA and any association is formed for the benefit of their members. Outreach to consumers could be included in the mission but I'm not sure that the consumers will be served in the manner that they really expect until they have their own association. It's a funny line because most of the coffee I drink I'll drink at home and a lot of it I'll roast at home. I enjoy visiting the quality focused coffee establishments in my area, especially if there could be a meet-up with like minded home-baristas, but I realize that these companies need to make money to survive and that I'm probably not their regular customer.

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#8: Post by Ken Fox »

I see this topic as basically being of no importance. It reminds me of many long threads that have preceded this both on the old and here on HB, dealing with such topics as civility to other participants and whether the forum (a.c. in that case) was dying and lost forever. Online discussions such as this never in my experience produce any positive results, except maybe at the margins (and that is debatable).

People behave the way that people behave. There will be a few members of any community who are open to and/or seek out contacts with others in parallel or similar communities. Granted, there are a huge number of people involved in the professional community, and only a small percentage of them seek out contact with consumers, but it is still a fairly large number of people in the aggregate.

In my experience I have had very few (like maybe one) bad experiences with professionals I tried to contact, when I showed genuine interest in what they were doing. A few have even become friends. But the overall relationship between amateur coffee lovers and professionals in the coffee industry is what it is. I don't think it is any different in this milieu than in any other where there are pros trying to make a living and passionate consumers having their own interests in the same field.

Certainly, one should welcome any pros that want to interact with us here on these forums and we should treat them with respect. But saying that will have little or no impact on those who would act differently, so it is just a waste of bits and bytes to pontificate about it.

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#9: Post by Junior »

I will offer a slightly different perspective, that of a novice entering the world of espresso preparation. It was only through the vast body of information and contacts available on this site and a few others which allowed me to bridge that gulf between home and the professionals. Reading the above-posters in particular gives the background for people to engage professionals in a somewhat more intelligent manner. This means the ability to talk with local roasters, acquire and repair older machines and engage in a wider market for commerce including roasters and equipment suppliers. I'm actually excited to order from those in this community.

While this may be an ad hoc collection of professionals, semi professionals and amateurs, this is as good or better than industry sponsored efforts. I've read SCAA's various published whiteish papers and they pale in comparison to what is available here.

I have to believe my experience is repeated a thousandfold for the lurkers out there perusing these sites.

Sure, it is hit or miss whether a professional will interact with me at the counter, but my ability to at least have the conversation is at least possible. Not to mention I can spot the ones worth engaging pretty darn fast. And Malachi, while you may have felt like you were fighting a lost cause, getting the professional prospective has allowed countless hobbyists to engage in a fantastic craft at a very high level.

It's always going to be frustrating dealing with the people who don't bother educating themselves or have disdain for those with lesser experience. But the size of this community and the truly excellent vendors out there seem to show that while the entire industry may be deaf to the craft end of coffee, there is quite a healthy interaction in a real subset of the industry. While the bigger industry isnt very responsive to hobbyists, or cultivating their education/participation, it's a shame, but not a surprise.

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#10: Post by another_jim (original poster) »

Ken has been using his GS3 since 1991. The rest of us have probably benefited from the pro-am contacts that began the current high end market.

Chris Tacy is right about how it ended. The people I know and cherish personally who spearheaded that effort, Don Schoenholt, Doug Zell, and above all Mike Ferguson on the pro side, Mark Prince and Fortune Elkins on the consumer side, all became disillusioned and stepped back. More people on the West Coast and Pacific Northwest have also given up.

Chris Moritz is also right that we are too thin on the ground to sustain anything except e-commerce. We are also not the "opinion leaders" required by the classical two step marketing strategy; those are instead the leading foodies, top restaurants, restaurant critics, etc, in a given market area. The recent outreach programs conducted by Intelligentsia, and, I believe, other roasters, are targeted at them rather than us.

Does this mean we are irrelevant to the high end coffee market? Not even close.

The first ten hits on most any technical coffee question are HB and CG posts. The advanced info is here with us, not on professional or commercial sites. We are at the top of the 21s century information food chain for coffee. Every day, for every one of us regular members, a hundred unregistered information seekers read our past posts. News of coffee innovations starts here, and then trickles down to the rest of the world.

So when roasters reach out to opinion leaders to tell them about the latest and greatest in coffee; it will be with information that we were discussing two years ago. And when the opinion leaders confirm the claims, they will read our posts to do so. Our consensus, in effect, acts as a veto on the high end coffee market. If we and the pros start saying different things, the high end coffee market will collapse in a few years.

Moreover, mass production alway catches up to any fixed quality level, no matter how high. Anyone for New! Artificial Cup of Excellence (tm) Flavored Nespresso (tm) pods?. If not, we need enough pro-am contacts to stay ahead of Nestle/Starbucks juggernaut.

We don't need to like each other, but we do need each other.
Jim Schulman