Talk to the Hand

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#1: Post by HB »

This poll has been on the front page for the last month:
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Given the number of visitors who've never heard of the SCAA, a brief introduction is in order:
  • What is the SCAA?

    The Specialty Coffee Association of America is the trade association for the specialty coffee industry, one of the fastest-growing food industries in the world. Specialty coffee-- sometimes called "gourmet" or "premium" coffee --is grown in the world's most ideal coffee-producing climates and prepared according to exacting standards.

    One of the SCAA's primary functions is to set the industry's standards for growing, roasting and brewing. Members of the SCAA include coffee retailers, roasters, producers, exporters and importers, as well as manufacturers of coffee equipment and related products.
My knowledge of the SCAA comes from discussions of it online, attending their conferences, and attending/participating in the barista competitions they run. Although the organization's membership is professional, they do have a small consumer membership called "cMembers". The last two conferences even featured tracks oriented to coffee consumer concerns and I attended several interesting sessions. From what I've heard, not all cMembers were pleased with the conference offerings, but it's worth mentioning that coffee enthusiasts are probably one of the most critical groups you'll ever encounter.

At last year's conference, Bob Yellin and Jim Schulman approached me about proposing a session to the following year's committee. You can read our submission below. That's all you'll ever see of it since it was rejected. Perhaps it is vain to think that our first submission would be accepted; I admit being surprised by the bad news. Sure, I've submitted plenty of proposals to conference committees in my own field (Information Technology) and only a couple have made the cut. Still, I thought our unique perspective would pique their interest. Evidently not.

I haven't closely followed the details behind the rough year the SCAA recently experienced. As I understand it, the organization's leader abruptly left and soon thereafter some "financial irregularities" were discovered. Calls went out to the membership to stem the flood of red ink. There may have been staff reductions, I don't know really. Needless to say, the organization's new leadership turned to the formidable task at hand: Restoring the SCAA's reputation and its fiscal foundation.

Years ago, the idea of the cMembership was not warmly welcome in all quarters. Consumers crawling the Atlanta showroom floor asking questions of vendors who'd paid serious amounts of cash for space didn't help. I thought the consumers mixed among professionals at the SCAA conference the following year in Seattle were reasonably unobtrusive. The only complaint I heard about was with regard to Barry Jarrett, who carried around a prototype thermofilter, testing vendors' equipment, and not necessarily asking first. He's a full-credited SCAA member, so his actions don't count as a strike against cMembers. ;-)

This year there's no cMember sessions. As a small compensation, Counter Culture Coffee and are joining to offer EspressoFest 2006. The conference's locale in Charlotte worked in our favor, since Counter Culture has a training facility there. In addition to our little get-together, I'm hopeful that Barry will throw another altie party (and that I'll be invited).

A coffee professional organization is different than that of other fields. It's hard to imagine anyone but the geekiest of computer geeks wishing to attend one of my profession's conferences. But coffee is loved by millions, and the barrier into a world where others share your appreciation is low. From what I've heard, that was what spurned the creation of the SCAA's cMembership: Tapping the vast network of consumer advocates.

Sadly, priorities have changed.


Enthusiasts, Quality and the Internet: A New Market Opportunity

Intended Audience:
Roaster/retailers, cafe owners, and sellers of domestic coffee equipment.

Learning Goals:
Many professionals have become pessimistic about how much, good coffee quality can help their sales. The goal of this presentation is to show how quality-centered marketing approaches can succeed by recruiting enthusiastic amateurs.

Key Points:
In recent years, some roaster/retailers have been able to sell limited amounts of fine coffee at over $40 per pound -- and not just Kona and JBM. Coffee machines costing over $1000 are finding increased sales. The presenters are customers and Internet-savvy voices in this developing high-end market; they know the successful retailers and know the strategies that influence their respective Internet communities.

Those strategies are similar to the marketing of fine dining and wines. The "buzz" that crowns one wine or restaurant does not come from regular customers, but from a narrower group of enthusiasts whose opinions guide the wider public. In the social sciences, this form of opinion formation is called "the two step process of social influence." Coffee professionals can make use of it by making contact with local coffee enthusiasts, while conveying to their wider public that coffee, like fine dining or wine, is a highly rewarding taste experience. With the Internet, such marketing strategies have become much more available.

The presentation will focus on the mindset and preferences of coffee enthusiasts, the strategies of some successful vendors, and how these have meshed to create the new market.

Promotional Description:
A new market for higher quality coffee and coffee equipment, catering to enthusiastic amateurs and those they influence, is emerging. Meet some of its customers and learn how it works.

Jim Schulman, previously in the controls business, is a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago in sociology. He shares his passion for good coffee, and expertise in home espresso and roasting, on the "coffee-internet." He is a founding SCAA C-member, and serves on its liaison committee.

Bob Yellin, an SCAA C-member since April '04, lives in rural Northern Vermont but was born and educated in New York City. He learned to roast coffee from Bedouin friends during a 13-year period in the Middle East. He was an engineer by profession before retiring in 1990 and starting his own retail business. He is currently an administrator and cupper for a green-coffee-buying cooperative of home roasters known as The Green Coffee Cooperative.

Dan Kehn is a software developer and espresso techno-junkie. When he's not at his real job, he's plugged into the coffee Internet via online communities like and his own website, His site reviews the high-end espresso equipment market and features advanced how-to information for home espresso enthusiasts.

Jim Schulman has extensive teaching and workshop experience in sociology, writes frequently on coffee matters on the internet, co-led the consumer espresso lab at Atlanta, 2004, and was on the "Reverse Panel" presentations held at Boston, 2003, and Atlanta.

Bob Yellin had considerable experience with presentations while he was VP Sales during his corporate career and has since posted many coffee-related articles on various Internet coffee forums. He was on the SCAA "Reverse Panel" presentation in 2004 in Atlanta and is the main cupper and an administrator/manager of a 550-member coffee buying cooperative.

Dan Kehn has extensive experience in public speaking in the business world as a workshop instructor. His presentation style is dynamic, engaging, and spontaneous. Dan is a software developer by profession, but has also published a best-selling book on programming. Weekends and late weekdays he's writing about espresso and espresso equipment for his website,, in addition to moderating on

To: Bob Yellin
Cc: Dan Kehn ; James Schulman
Sent: Friday, July 29, 2005 5:38 PM
Subject: SCAA - Charlotte Proposal Status - Enthusiasts, Quality and the Internet

Dear Bob:

Thank you for submitting a proposal to make a presentation during the SCAA's 18th Annual Conference & Exhibition next April in Charlotte, North Carolina.

During the selection process, the Conference Committee reviewed each proposal in detail. Their task was to choose presentations that address the educational needs of all segments of the industry, while maintaining a balance between general, technical, and advanced subject matter. In addition, the Committee had to work within the space limitations of the Charlotte Convention Center.

Although your proposal, "Enthusiasts, Quality and the Internet: A New Market Opportunity," was not selected for presentation in Charlotte, we want to thank you for your interest in creating an important learning experience for our membership. We strongly encourage you to consider submitting a presentation proposal for our 19th Annual Conference & Exhibition in Long Beach in 2007.

Rob Stephen

Charlotte, North Carolina 2006
Dan Kehn

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#2: Post by cannonfodder »

HB wrote: The only complaint I heard about was with regard to Barry Jarrett, who carried around a prototype thermofilter, testing vendors' equipment, and not necessarily asking first. He's a full-credited SCAA member, so his actions don't count as a strike against cMembers. ;-)
That is hilarious, for some reason that does not surprise me. Go Barry, go Barry
HB wrote:I'm hopeful that Barry will throw another altie party (and that I'll be invited).
And awesome Christmas parties. I am still trying to put all of the tricks and practices I learned from just listening and watching all of the big brains. I was glued to his bionic LM until 2am. Hopefully I will be graced with another invite next year.
Dave Stephens

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#3: Post by barry »

HB wrote:The only complaint I heard about was with regard to Barry Jarrett, who carried around a prototype thermofilter, testing vendors' equipment, and not necessarily asking first.

uh, no.

i didn't stick it in any machines without asking permission first. now, perhaps the permission was given by someone who didn't have the authority to give it, but i don't know and would have no way of knowing that. anyone with a complaint ought to complain to me directly rather than making it out that i was running around testing various machines w/o permission. truth is, it went into very few machines and not for very long in any machine, and no "tests" were made other than the casual observation of a fluke readout by one or two people (which i don't even remember). no notes were taken, no data recorded. my goal was to introduce and demonstrate the thermofilter, not to evaluate machines.

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HB (original poster)

#4: Post by HB (original poster) »

barry wrote:anyone with a complaint ought to complain to me directly rather than making it out that i was running around testing various machines w/o permission.
Darn it, I thought my unsubstantiated claim would go unrefuted because you never read Overextracted. Anyway, it was a secondhand recounting, and honestly, I know that the rumors of you squealing with delight as you ran from vendor booth to vendor booth are simply untrue. ;-)

Well, there goes MY chances of an invite to Barry's party...
Dan Kehn

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HB (original poster)

#5: Post by HB (original poster) »

It's funny how two people thousands of miles apart can be thinking of the same thing the same evening. While I typed my post above, Mark was responding to David Haddock's Why come to Charlotte? on CoffeeGeek. The gist of David's commentary is captured in the last paragraph:
David Haddock wrote:All the fun stuff as well as the expanded sessions and new tracks were designed to attract more and more new attendees to come but it is most important to encourage everyone to support the Association by showing up to continue the rebuilding process. The Association is critically dependant on Charlotte and Long Beach being exceptional years as far as attendance and sales of resource materials and classes are concerned. It is also critically important for every member to promote and encourage people who are "on the fence" to come out and play. Staying home can't be an option this year or next.
David is speaking as a SCAA Technical Standards Committee Member and 2006 Conference Committee Member. Mark didn't reply immediately to Dave's points, but instead chose to focus on a topic nearer to my heart:
Mark Prince wrote:As everyone knows, the focus on consumers has all but evaporated at the show. That's actually fine for me right now... maybe in a few years, we can redress the need to get the SCAA forefront in consumer minds as being the voice of specialty coffee.

But, Dan Kehn is organizing, through his own tireless efforts, EspressoFest 2006 in Charlotte during the show. Peter G. is helping out immensely.

But not many other professionals are helping out. Very little in fact. Dan put out the call for some pros to get involved in fun events, off-location, to get consumers talking to professionals. And no one's jumping up, and no support at all from the SCAA has been evident, as far as I know.

It would be a great boon to Dan's efforts, and helping ease the disconnect between the org and consumers, if Dan got a bit more "official" acknowledgement, a few volunteers, and the offer of some pros to help out or participate (ie, for eg in the pro-am barista thing).
I appreciated Mark's concern. We've briefly exchanged e-mails on the topic of EspressoFest and he's expressed interest in partipating. However, like the other industry attendees, his first priorities aren't having "fun", it's work. We'll see if he'll make it, or any of the pros to which I've extended an invitation. I would be surprised if there aren't a few drop ins, but I never expected a big turnout among full SCAA members or staff.

Despite the conflicts EspressoFest presents to would-be attendees, the opportunity was just too damn good to pass up. Beautiful venue, lots of equipment, Peter's promises of coffees to delight attendees. Maybe even a swag bag. How could I let the chance slip by in my home state?

David contacted me as Mark suggested and confirmed that no SCAA staff or volunteers could be spared. No hard feelings guys, I understand that the SCAA priorities had to change. Assuming I pass the certification, I'll see you at the judges' appreciation dinner and we can share stories of what each other missed. Well, if the SCAA has the budget...
Dan Kehn

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#6: Post by another_jim »

There's two sides to every story ...

I'm sure the SCAA brass is wondering about our loud whining about the couple of hundred dollars cost of the professional track when we are all fairly affluent, paying a lot more just to show up, etc. etc. If I were an SCAA officer, that's what I'd be plastering all over the coffee boards (in a slightly more polite tone, of course). We all spend a good deal on coffee each year, but start complaining gratingly, and no doubt quite hilariously to their ears, when it comes ponying up a small fraction of that total for the SCAA. They gave us freebies, and got a lot of complaining for their troubles. In their shoes, I'd be at the "screw them, no good deed ever goes unpunished" stage.

However, despite being aware of all this, I'm not ponying up for the professional track either. Instead, here's this c-whiner's honest two cents.

1. It was probably a mistake by the SCAA to put on a lot of free stuff for us hard core types. That money would have been better spent trying to attract a wider, non-expert audience.

2. Yes, an **expert** audience. The few alties/cger/hbers who did sign up for the full program were not impressed. The courses either deal with the business aspects, or are a complete beginners introduction to the topics designed for new employees, not experienced amateurs. The reports about the espresso, roasting, and cupping labs were anything but complimentary -- low level information, poorly presented and often wrong was the overall judgment of amateurs attending the skills track. There are shining exceptions to this, for instance, Joseph Rivera's organic acids piece has been getting raves for years, even in its abridged form.

3. So do you want us to participate, and get some real feedback on your offerings to boot? Charge $20 to $50 for each of the lectures and courses individually (depending on membership level and number subscribed to, like a pro sports tickets or music performance subscriptions), and see which rooms are full, which are empty.

4. More fundamentally. Realize that you need us to sell high priced, ultra-specialty, coffees. For all the talk of wine and fine food, you're missing the most fundamental social feature of these businesses (see Dan's, Bob's and my proposal above). Enthusiasts are willing to spend big bucks and crow about it; but in return they get access, first dibs on the goodies, and get treated with a great deal of respect, since their word of mouth makes or breaks the high end of wine and food markets. Some of the roasters get it, Counter Culture, Paradise, Intelly, Terroir, Oren's, and a few others all are active telling us about the great coffees they have -- and they sell them out as fast as they get them.

I was disappointed, but not surprised, that our proposal didn't make the first cut. Unfortunately, it shows more ignorance on the SCAA's part than on ours.

But, fair is fair ... sorry for all the whining.


#7: Post by Nick »

Jim, I appreciate your wanting to be fair and balanced in your assessments.

I'm no "SCAA brass" by any means, though I have my own opinions.

There are some things that an association like the SCAA can and should do... and things that the SCAA can't or won't do.

I think that most folks who are familiar with me know that I'm 100% supportive of early-adopter coffee and espresso consumer enthusiasts, and I've put my money where my mouth is. That being the case, I believe that the best way to support and provide fun and valuable experiences for you guys is NOT through the SCAA directly, but through the sort of companies who are interested in engaging the enthusiast community (like the folks you listed).

If you look to the SCAA as an association to fulfill your needs, I think you're going to be disappointed. Again I'm NOT talking as a spokesperson for the SCAA; it's just my perspective. There are many more things than just cMembers and enthusiasts that are being passed-over during SCAA conference.

That being the case, I'm personally committed to contributing to the enthusiast community.

A thought: maybe starting preliminary exploration into an independent enthusiast-gathering of sorts at some point, with sponsors and professional-folks, could be something much more fruitful and relevant than trying to make something happen during the SCAA conference. As Dan has experienced in soliciting professionals for the EspressoFest, the same folks who you'd want at an event like that are the same folks who realistically can't make time for it. That's the reality that we ALL face during SCAA conference.

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#8: Post by barry »

Nick wrote:If you look to the SCAA as an association to fulfill your needs, I think you're going to be disappointed.

the trouble is, that comment can be applied to professional membership as well.


#9: Post by Nick »

barry wrote:the trouble is, that comment can be applied to professional membership as well.
All the more reason that it's true.

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#10: Post by another_jim »

I was mostly thinking out loud, trying to get some sort of feel for what's happening. The specialty coffee business is changing again. First it was roasters selling coffees and a few drinks. Then came the Starbucks steamroller, and it turned into the the specialty milk business. Now both the roasters and cafes are getting serious about coffee and finding an enthusiast public. The SCAA may keep up or not; we'll see.

That enthusiast public, us, is still too small to really sustain a big growth spurt in this new specialty phase. We need to connect with the existing food, wine, beer, bbq, and other audiences and grow some. Maybe the beer model makes more sense than all the wine talk. When a roaster gets in a phenomenal coffee, don't sell it crazed home roasters (sorry about that, Barry), or even offer most of it as roasted. Create a network of the best cafes, send it around in 5 or 10lb lots roasted, and have a standing "this week's guest micro-roast" on the menu -- brewed or shots, as the case may be. That would reach us, the current market, and create some buzz to expand it. Such informal networks are already taking shape as alliances at the coffee auctions; a "guest micro-roast" network could be larger scale.

BTW, this, in a "super-e-coffee shop" form was probably one of the better ideas that came out of the C-member discussions (Fortune's, I think). But the SCAA couldn't do it, since it would have po'ed a lot of their regulars.

There's probably around 25 roasters and cafes involved with enthusiasts right now. That's enough to create a pretty high profile if everyone works together, sells each others specials (as single drinks at the cafes), and puts on occasional get togethers that feature these for tastings, etc.