Seattle, Take 2
From April 8th-12th the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) held its 27th annual Event, and for the second consecutive year the world’s best coffee makers gathered in Seattle. “Make” is a broad term, and the SCAA Event (Expo, lecture sessions, competitive drink preparation) lures producers, processors, exporters, importers, government delegations, trade guilds, non government organizations, roasters, equipment manufacturers, allied vendors, baristas, shop owners and a few die-hard consumers to convene in order to discuss problems, draft solutions, stroke feathers, ogle gadgets, rub elbows, spot gurus, showcase innovation, climb ladders, congratulate trailblazers, honor veterans, inspire newcomers, gossip nerdily, party harder than any other industry, and to raise a demitasse and sip a little bit of the world’s best coffee.
Returning to a place you’ve been before and seeing familiar people after a significant span of time is an experience that always twists my brain a little bit. I wrestle with it in The Aliveness of a Fleeting Century. In the context of everything we all do with our days, a year can seem a steep stretch of alarm clocks, laundry, dishes, carpooling, commuting, market movements, meetings, computer glitches, family affairs, work surprises, and all the other things that take up our daily time. But a year can also fly by, and returning to a convention center where exhibitors’ booths are in the same locations they were last year made The Event feel even more like a reunion.
Year as blink; year as span. A lot can happen in a year, but a lot can also not happen. Foundations that you build don’t necessarily dissolve from one year to the next. I seem to be really good at restarting things from scratch over and over, building elaborate Gothic sandcastles only to have to begin again after the ebbing of the next tide. SCAA was a comforting reminder that connections might be silent over the course of the year, but that doesn’t mean they are gone.
Total-immersion conferences like SCAA have the tendency to bend time (ie to fit a few years’ worth of sensory experience into 72 hours), but they also achieve the formidable metaphysical feat of gathering an entire industrial chain under one literal roof. Attendees constantly express their amazement that in the same hour you can meet a smallholder coffee farmer from Ethiopia, an industrial coffee farm business owner from Brazil, an artisan roaster from Taiwan, a marketing rep for a German foodservice roasting conglomerate, socially conscious importers, espresso machine builders, sales guys hawking flavored whipped cream, and a competitive latte pourer. If anything is mind-boggling it’s SCAA. Trying to imagine all of these people doing all these disparate jobs separately yet simultaneously, all for the motive of selling a beverage (albeit a versatile and potentially addictive one) takes a willing and elastic imagination.
Imagine we do. If one characteristic unites coffee the farmer, the whipped cream sales guy, and the DIY garage roaster, it’s the propensity for global vision. No one in coffee thinks small. SCAA is contagiously electric because everyone in attendance is actively exercising the mind’s capacity for international, interconnected thinking. Maybe its attributable to coffee’s legacy as an imperial good propogated by greedy empires, but no one involved into the business today is afraid of taking on the world. And take they do.
Throughout the conference I found myself constantly asking “where do coffeepeople keep their clones?!” This is not an industry of lazy people, but within the pool of people who obsessively get stuff done, there are those who do what seems logistically impossible and defy the laws of time and space in order to be everywhere at once. People like John Moore of Nobletree Coffee, who hosted a cupping at SCAA in Seattle one day and a cupping at Food Book Fair in New York the next. Pedro Echavarria of Santa Barbara Estate Coffee, who single handedly runs Colombia’s most wholly vertically integrated coffee business. Graciano Cruz of HiU Coffee, who owns farms in Panama, processes magic honey coffee in El Salvador, and has innovative grass roots biodiversity/rural empowerment projects launching in Ethiopia. Mayra Powell of Royal Coffee, who imports coffee in California while transforming the lives of Honduran smallholders in her home community through youth engagement and innovative profit sharing purchasing models. Crediting the caffeine wouldn’t be credit enough; coffeepeople make me want to get up early, stare the full world in the face, and make things happen.
This year’s SCAA was cause for celebration and inspiration and lots of abstract Latin nouns, but it wasn’t perfect. What might coffeepeople want to see next year? Producer to producer connections, for one. It dawned on me (maybe I’m late and other people have asked this question before) that the Event includes opportunities for baristas to convene with each other, roasters to convene with each other, importers to convene with each other, and lots of other lunches and breakfasts and parties aimed at giving people from one sector the chance to mix and mingle and brainstorm and socialize. But there is nothing on the agenda the officially invites producers from around the world to gather and shake hands with one another.
Is it fear that they might mutiny and make demands if the market price is below the cost of production (which it undoubtedly will be) at the time of the Event? Is it an awkwardness at the language barriers that would be involved? I don’t know. Coffee producers from different continents, from the tops of mountains in the earth’s most remote corners, are all in the same conference center, and all they do is pass each other in line for samples of scones. Some sort of gathering wouldn’t need to be a big to-do with translators and presentations and actual content; I’m just picturing how cool it would be to have a producer breakfast where growers from Chiapas to Aceh could all eat bagels together and shake hands and meet the people they hear rumors about from places that are no more than dots on a map for the other 362 days a year that SCAA isn’t happening. The business of being a farmer is that you don’t get out much; you have to be tending your land diligently in order to produce the good stuff. SCAA is an outing if ever there was one; why not facilitate chances for cross-continental connection that really cannot happen anywhere else?
SCAA is a potential-laden as it is coffee-star-studded. 10 days later I’m still coming down from high; my contact list is updated, my follow up emails are mostly sent, and I now know people by face who for years I have only known by name. New and old connections may lie dormant for another year, but as I face the crosstown bus and grad school finals and all the other unglamorousness of life, it is an invaluable bolster to know that they are there.
As I was getting ready to publish this post, I received an email from a panelist at the Young Producers session, a representative of 2,900 smallholders in Chiapas, Mexico. His email included an 11-point list of urgent topics about which he is willing to provide information for any articles I might want to write, representing the thousands of producers for whom he is the spokesperson (including roya, womens’ rights, migrant labor, costs of production). So many SCAA attendees arrive with the massive burden of having a 72 hour window to establish the connections that might make a fighting difference for the people they represent. More to come on Chiapas.