Seeing both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in the same day elicits a special kind of “manifest destiny” stomach-butterfly flutter that our forefathers could only dream of. I didn’t battle disease, famine, hostile natives, wildlife or extreme weather to make it from Boston to Seattle, but, all the same, the vast, overwhelming impressiveness of gazing at the Pacific Ocean during lunch after waking up on the shores of the Atlantic is not lost, even in 2014.
I have done a fair amount of traveling, but none of it has taken me to the Pacific Northwest, and when the stars aligned (generosity and coincidence converged) for me to attend the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) Event in Seattle, I was overjoyed.
For once, I was traveling with one consorted purpose and would not be hauling a backpack that included work boots as well as blazers and ball gowns. Most significantly, I also would not be lugging boxes of “When Coffee Speaks;” I would be attending as press–as a humble contributor to Tea & Coffee Trade Journal–and as a general SCAA first timer (and only mildly promoting the book).
I had heard different takes on the SCAA from various past attendees, and I didn’t know what to expect other than that it would be massive. That it was. But it was massive through compounded intimacy. Since it is such a large Event, (large and relevant enough to grant itself the title of “The Event”) people carve out their own experiences. During the week I heard many people say, “two people could go home talking about SCAA and it wouldn’t sound like they were at the same event!”
The Event is not a traditional conference where everyone is sheparded between the same sessions, nor is it a conventional where everyone makes the same glassy-eyed laps around the show floor. It really is the coffee event of all coffee events. It starts on a Wednesday (but the pre stuff starts Tuesday) and ends Sunday. The philosophical and veterened coffee elite can kick off the Event by scribbling notes during the two day Symposium. Baristas and brewmasters can spend days watching the seconds tick by on the giant digital clocks counting the minutes in which competitive coffee makers prepare their shots, cappuccinos, and pourovers.
I did neither. I press–passed my way into sponsored breakfasts and lunches to hear speakers discuss everything from new Denomination of Origin initiatives in Brazil to empowering women in Zimbabwe to grow mushrooms in coffee pulp. I also attended the daily morning lectures, which represent the single most thought provoking, pertinent, comprehensive, astute, and researched body of coffee information I’ve seen or heard shared in any way, anywhere. I was impressed. From the lectures alone, The Event seemed to be on the money.
As a teacher, there are very surefire ways to tell whether or not your students are paying attention. In the lectures, attendees did more than attend, they actively participated. They took notes, asked questions, and stayed after class for more. Many sessions had simultaneous translations, and participants with headsets would press the headphones into their ears in order not to miss a word. It was the kind of student body most educators only dream about.
During one session about various sustainability projects taking place around the coffee world (most notably Radio Lifeline’s core work of distributing radios in Rwanda and Kenya and their new Black Earth Project using biochar as fertilizer) an interpreter provided simultaneous Spanish translation. About half the room had headsets. All the seats were filled and people stood around the perimeter of the room. I was seated in the back row of chairs, with the interpreters “sound booth” behind me to my right. Behind me to my left, a second simultaneous translation was taking place. A young man whispered a translation, what sounded like French, or a once-was-French pidgin, into an older man’s ear.
I could hear the same story being told simultaneously in English, Spanish, and French. This is what coffee sounds like: many languages all chattering simultaneously to pull off the same agricultural miracle. It felt like the agro UN, which felt pretty awesome. That particular lecture highlighted the Event’s compounded intimacy; the room was packed but there were still real moments of genuine interpersonal connection.
At a similarly packed-house lecture about Direct Business models, Andi Trendle-Mersch, a long time coffee importer, spoke about Direct Trade, Direct Sourcing, and Direct Relationship business models in a noteworthily concise, clear, and thorough presentation that oscillated between brilliant analytic summary and an open forum on the direct coffee trade. Producers spoke up about their experiences growing and selling coffee and roasters shared their realities buying and roasting it. It was exactly what you would hope to find at a massive international event; people who would not normally have the chance to connect, interacting in invaluable ways facilitated by open-minded experts. At the end of the session people traded business cards and gave and took orders.
That was a theme for the Event week: doing business. People come to SCAA to learn, but they also come to meet new clients, suppliers, partners, and advisors. Everywhere from the booths on the expo floor to the tables in the lobby and the stone ledges in the beautiful courtyard of the Washington State Convention Center (which is a gold star event space in its own right), I overheard people making agreements, asking questions, and reconnecting after many years.
I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of time in coffee countries getting my boots muddy and hiking up mountains and down valleys to meet people face to face, but I also spend a lot of time emailing people the world over. One of the main reasons I love New York is that it affords endless opportunities to just go Uptown or a borough over to meet face to face. I always prefer in-person conversations and to physically see spaces, even if the digital alternatives are more efficient.
The Event was the face-to-face goldmine for meeting coffeepeople I’d only read about or written to via computer screen. I spoke with Michael Sheridan, whose CRS Coffeelands blog I’ve been an avid reader of for the past year. I shook hands and posed for photos with Sean Boyd of Red Whale Coffee, who made one of the generous Kickstarter donations that made the printing of the initial run of “When Coffee Speaks” possible.
I met Timothy Castle, noted coffee writer and specialty coffee expert. I chatted with Paul Rice, mastermind behind Fair Trade USA’s divisively amplified new standards and pocketed his business card.
I met Jorge Luis Lagos Calix, a producer from Dipilto, Nicaragua whose coffee I drink every time I visit Think Coffee.
I ate lunch with the editors of other coffee magazines. I even got to reconnect with some of my favorite coffeepeople, the ones willing to be interviewed in “When Coffee Speaks:” Pedro Echavarria of Santa Barbara, Colombia, Miller Olaya of Pitalito, Colombia, Henry Hüeck of La Dalia, Nicaragua, and Graciano Cruz of Boquete, Panama, who was all smiles, as always.
I was also able to interview the Governor Sergio Fajardo of Colombia’s Department of Antioquia, where I lived for a month. He spoke about his Antioquia La Mas Educada program, which I saw implemented on the ground in various ways. I couldn’t have asked for a better context in which to meet so many “coffee celebrities.” (There were plenty more that I only saw from a distance. Next year!)
The Event was pretty incredible, and included some welcome yet unexpected experiences. With the team at UTZ I was invited to a “coffee and food pairing,” where a Brazilian gastronomist set out an array of foods for participants to taste before sipping their coffee to see how food informs perceived coffee flavor. The best? Coffee and cheddar cheese. The grossest? Coffee and caramel. Who knew?
At a second tasting participants sampled various Robustas. Two washed, high grown Robustas from The Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation’s Elkhill Estates in Karnataka were better than many Arabicas I’ve had.
I was so busy with press breakfasts/lunches, lectures, and tastings that I barely had time to explore the floor on Sunday afternoon, just hours before exhibitors were packing up. I was lucky enough to catch Edmond Kananura Kyerere of the Uganda Coffee Development Authority, who shared some fascinating news about the what’s on deck from Robusta’s birthplace on the shores of Uganda’s Lake Victoria.
There was a lot that inspired at the SCAA Event, but there was still some room for improvement. As I was making my harried final lap around the show floor, I finally reached the Starbucks booth, a gorgeous installation of light grain wood and original coffee art. As I was inspecting a painting, a middle aged black gentleman in a suit approached the Starbucks booth staff and pointed to a pile of green barista aprons. In a heavy accent he asked, “Can I have one? Of those? In Ethiopia we sell coffee to Starbucks for a long time. I visited my first Starbucks in Seattle.” The young woman packing boxes replied, “Uuummm well these aren’t ours they belong to corporate.” He tried again, “I sell to Starbucks for a long time. Just one. To bring back to Ethiopia.” The young woman looked at her coworkers, also stuffing booth gear into boxes, for help. They just shrugged. “Well, I don’t think we can just give one to you, because we have to return a certain number. Maybe we can take your address and mail you one?”
My biggest regret of the Event was that I didn’t ask for his business card so that I could send Howard Schultz and email with the man’s information, because after reading “Onward,” I know that Mr. Schultz’s email is no secret, and that he feels personally touched when someone feels connected to Starbucks. Sure, aprons are corporate property and you have return exactly the number sent to the show. So what. Let corporate take the $45 or whatever from your paycheck and give this man a green apron!
Ethiopia is not close and growing coffee is not easy—nor is navigating the Ethiopian Commodities Exchange. This man may never return to Seattle and may never set foot in another Starbucks. But I guarantee that he will continue growing or milling or exporting or whatever he does with coffee. And I guarantee that if he had returned to Ethiopia with a green apron, he would have been beaming with pride and joy when he showed it to his coworkers. I know that it would have earned a place of honor hanging on his wall, and that any time he or anyone else looked at it they would have felt connected to the far off places their coffee goes to.
This exchange in the Starbucks booth took place under a painting commanding:
Which is the title of Howard Shultz’s book about the genesis of Starbucks, the prequel to “Onward.” Right here, in the literal shadow of the painting commanding “POUR YOUR HEART INTO IT,” stands a man who pours his heart into it in the same way that all coffeepeople have to pour themselves into their work just to make coffee possible. The SCAA’s tagline is “great coffee doesn’t just happen.” People make it happen. And if one of those people wants a monogrammed piece of green fabric, we need to remember to get over our corporateness and give it to him willingly, along with a big hug and a sincere “thank you.”
SCAA’s Event is all about human connection within the specialty coffee industry, and not all human connection is exemplary. That’s ok. If the Event underscores one thing, it’s that when specializing a commodity that was discovered by goatherds, transported by pirates, and cultivated by cowboys, we have no idea what we’re doing. Which means we can all get better together. Onward!
Browse the When Coffee Speaks Instagram feed for photos taken during The Event.