Common Coffee Core

When an organization or institution crosses an uncrossable line, it is important to let out a howl.

The SCA (Specialty Coffee Association) issued a Deferred Candidacy policy regarding participation in global coffee competitions, stating that if competitors (eligible for global competition through winning regional and national competitions) are unable to attend world competition finals for any one of a list of extenuating reasons, then they should complete an application stating the circumstances that make travel to competition host country unsafe and await approval to participate in the competition the following year.

Howling, on its own, is rarely productive, and to inspire an organization or institution to check itself, it must be clear which layers of logic and reason and policy—the things that enable institutional existence—were misused or ignored to create circumstances where it was possible to step over the uncrossable.

The new SCA policy includes language requiring competitors to disclose why they feel unsafe and unable to travel to a given competition host location, specifically to enumerate if the inability or unwillingness to travel is related to identifying as LGBTQIA. (My underlines, their bolds.)

This policy is designed to protect competitors who may be prevented from participating in a world championship event due to nationality, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual identity/orientation, health, bereavement, or force majeure.

Under the new policy, national champions who have a qualifying circumstance that limits or prohibits them from participating may request to defer their world championship candidacy to the following year. National Bodies whose candidate’s deferment request is approved by the world championships committee of the WCE Events Advisory Council will be supported by a subsidy to cover additional travel expenses, should they occur.

This is the howl-inspiring core of the policy. Official new SCA competition terms arrived directly into the inboxes of global members (well-timed during the middle of the World Barista Championship in Seoul), and the tone read as an attack on the rights of SCA coffee competitors to keep personal lives personal while still participating in global industry competitions.

We all should decry this policy for its problematic language and troubling assumptions about asking professionals to justify aspects of private life to take part in business-related events, but we also must review the conditions that made it possible and necessary for a trade organization to issue the above.

The Deferred Candidacy policy was received as a band-aid solution in response to vocal member concerns regarding competitor, volunteer, and attendee safety following the World Coffee Events (event management organization founded by SCAA and SCAE prior to unification) announcement of 2018 global championship competitions to be held in the United Arab Emirates, China, and Brazil. Perhaps the policy was drafted for more general purposes of replicating this year’s first-ever one hundred percent attendance rate (zero visa-related exclusions) of world barista champions, but it was received as an ameliorative stretch.

Triage policies are only issued when the original decision affecting an organization’s full member base—in this case the decision to host competitions in these three countries—was made in a way that did not account for the needs of the full member base.

If SCA knew its members, it might have thought to develop better policies for inclusion and safety prior to and as part of selecting competition host countries and outlined these safe inclusion policies as part of competition site announcement. But, because the SCA announced competition sites and then only after complaints attempted an inclusive policy, the entire decision-making process for selecting host countries (by way of selecting host trade shows) has come, rightfully, under review. With review of the decision-making process comes, also rightfully, a review of the appointment process of board members and of members’ voting powers, all of which is not common knowledge because the SCA, as an organization, is uncharted territory.

The SCA is a new body, recently born of the unification between SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) and SCAE (Specialty Coffee Association of Europe).

Thinking globally, and accounting for growing membership in countries outside of the US and Europe, the SCA’s board (and advisors and committees and councils) understandably could have selected host cities in UAE, China, and Brazil with good reasons of global member inclusion and access.

Thinking financially, World Coffee Events (based in Ireland and self-described as an event management organization, not a not-for-profit like the SCA, but founded by SCAA and SCAE), could have understandably selected host cities with existing trade shows who bid attractively to host the competitions (endorsed by SCA).

After thinking strategically to establish competition locations, the SCA, as an organization operating for the professional betterment of its individual members and member business, could have also communicated its reasoning for location selection to make clear to members how and why competition host sites further specialty coffee industry. But it did not.

The SCA began as the SCAA in 1982 as a group of coffee business leaders carving out a new sector of the coffee industry by defining standards that would allow for differentiation of their products, therefore growing respective member businesses by establishing this new category of specialty, defined by the standards they, as a group, had just codified. The SCA is not a government designed to equally represent the rights and interests of all its constituents.

Then the SCAE emerged as a parallel to the SCAA; barista, roaster, and other sub guild groups sprung up under the SCAA/E to set additional standards for all the tasks related to producing differentiated products defined by SCAA’s new terms, and the SCAA established CQI (Coffee Quality Institute) to manage standards for defining everything quantifiable about coffee. Producers joined as members to attend trade shows and build skills. SCAA created pathways of curricula to issue industry recognized credentials. SCAA guilds started holding competitions and SCAA + SCAE created WCE. This year, SCAA and SCAE merged to create SCA, joining member bases and rewriting (literally) all the rules. What began as a business guild has become the global organizing body for the specialty (non-commercial) coffee industry. The SCA did not plan to operate in this capacity, and so it is in many ways unprepared to handle the varied needs of a truly global community.

I can divorce neither the SCA’s bad policy nor WCE/SCA’s opaque decision-making process for competition host sites from all its other flaws, the same flaws that usually characterize rapidly growing institutions that do not know who or what they really want (or need) to be.

Right now, the SCA smells a lot like the Common Core standards for education. Big organizations yield inevitable favoritism, and internal politics show up in all institutions with influence and a budget. Public education in the US used to be a state matter, and then it was a national agenda to be set and implemented from coast to coast. Coffee companies used to train their own staffs, and then there was the cupping form and barista score sheets.

Coffee competitions (and Pathways classes, and the CQI cupping form, and etc) accept standardized information as doctrine. There is a lot of faith placed in the design and content of these norms and not too much discussion of how they might be limiting and reductive. Measuring oneself against peers and striving for excellence is important, but increasing coffee standardization looks frighteningly familiar to ten years spent watching standardized testing destroy public schools.

Common benchmarks are not necessarily bad, but there is something unsettling about common benchmarks occupying the core of our concern. Competitions are a platform for telling stories, introducing new coffees and origins, raising awareness about issues from water quality to genocide—yes—but they also come down to a score.

The same way that I could not shake the chill of Common Core standards in New York public schools that allowed students to think critically, creatively, and exploratively only after they had passed the Regents exams, I cannot separate SCA’s policy tone from the chill of its metrics. Why do all coffees need to be cupped down to a single number? Why do all coffee competitions funnel into a final point tally? This is a much larger question of why we in the global north west need to quantify everything all the time, but reading offensive policy reminds us to look under the hood of the body issuing the policy, and that body, the SCA, is, like the US department of education, struggling to figure out if it really is possible to design a program that includes and accounts for everyone.

I am howling quietly but I am not surprised. I howl because the sentiment of the Deferred Candidacy policy that requires people to air private matters to participate in professional events will always be an unacceptable request, no matter the context. But I am not surprised because institutions display the most audacity in asking  such things. This is a business guild, and even pre-competitive business guilds theoretically organized to enable everyone to do better business do not always build us up.

I admire people willing to work within SCA to draft better policies and to sit on committees that will rework the organization into something more representative of its member base, that will turn an ad hoc guild founded by friends into a more formalized, intelligent version of the global network it organically became.

But, based on my experience as a public educator, I do not have sufficient confidence in institutions to give them too much of my howl. Standards are important as a reference, curriculum as a resource, and competitions as an exercise, but business is messy, just like learning, and the way business and learning happen on the ground will never fit inside the neat outlines of an organization’s agendas or policies.

When the SCA, like the Common Core, asks everyone do to the same thing the same way, someone will always be left outside of the frame. The Deferred Candidacy policy is bad, but, because it is a policy related to a global competition that attempts to fit every person from every country into the same arena, I do not necessarily know what might make it great. The policy could improve by not being grievously offensive, but it would still be a band aid over something universalized, monolithic, and therefore devoid of nuance.

Allowing students extra time to take a Regents exam does not undo the fact that all students take an identical test. One world championship hosted in one location means that someone will be unable to attend. For private reasons of identity, public reasons of nationality, unlucky reasons of disaster or other unforeseen causes, organizing a single, organization-sponsored benchmarking event means that people are left out.

Maybe a solution is to host not just one world championship, but simultaneous championships. Competitors compete against the clock and against organizational standards, not head to head. Why does everyone have to be in the same controversy-ridden, visa-dependent room together? The exhilaration of competing in the company of one’s peers is already soured when the arena becomes too fraught with exclusivity (this goes for Amsterdam as much as Dubai). Hosting multiple, localized world competitions for each even (Barista, Brewer, Roaster, Good Spirits, etc) means more judges and volunteers, more opportunities for continents’-worth of previously excluded participants to pick up their tools and compete. Maybe this would mean that a national champion never has to defer or sit by because of an inaccessible passport stamp. But where to hold simultaneous worlds? Which trade shows will host and sponsor them all? There is no way to make everyone happy. Organizations choose who they make happy, and of course we are upset when it is not us, when the organizations we align with and believe in favor parties with more money or more influential politics.

After leaving the NYC Department of Education, I decided to be less resentful towards institutions for being inherently exclusionary. Nothing that is large enough to include everyone is flexible enough to fit everyone. Big, data-driven organizations serve a purpose and do a job in providing benchmarks and offering a very clear, marked path for one way of doing things. But they are not the only way. Howling is necessary to keep organizations accountable for their words and actions, but when something has inflated enough to be guilty of saying and doing ridiculous things, then it is usually a sign that it can no longer hear the uproar, a sign that it is time to go back to the many and varied people, particularly to those who have been shut out from the organization all along (such as those from countries where visa-granting is rare) and make something new, make something as revolutionary as the SCAA was when it was first dreamed up.

At last night’s NYC town hall meeting, attendees asked each other whether they would renounce competition and judging seats, whether they would boycott competition events, and whether to forfeit SCA membership. There are many ways to respond to organizational failures through collective and individual actions. Because SCA’s recently publicized problems are multiple and systemic, there is not a single, simple action that will solve them all. Various actions that can be effective, if undertaken with intent.

I applaud competitors who will continue to compete and use the world competition platform to vocalize members’ concerns about SCA’s organizational structure, from board member nomination process to demand for volunteer site review teams. I applaud competitors who drop out of global competitions and vocalize their stance that if an organization acts obtusely they cannot and will not be a part of it. I applaud those who are forming committees to regularly inform SCA board members and decision makers of the pulse of the organization’s ever-expanding and ever-diversifying member base.

My chosen course of action, peripherally relevant as a member of the coffee professional community engaging with the organization and not as a potential participant in organization-created competitions, is similar to what it usually is; active skepticism of and low-key rebellion against organizations that are too clumsy to behave responsibly. I will tolerate the institution and live with it as part of the professional landscape, report fairly on it in trade press, and deal with it as necessary in the course of business. I will not cheerlead for it and I will not focus my energy into passing the tests it devises. Instead, I will continue to spend my time interacting with people and their special coffee businesses out in the wide world, writing about interesting outlier things happening beyond the radar of the organization, and talking to myself in this web log internet void to figure out what I really think.

There are many laudable courses of action to respond to organizations when they begin to act foolishly; my hope is always that the howling will subside before the intention of our actions is muddled and that our expectations are clearly articulated when the organization finally acknowledges that its members have something very reasonable to say.


Thank you to Liz Dean for moderating, Joe Coffee for the space, Rec.Coffee (TNT NYC) for openly inviting, and everyone involved in organizing and attending last night’s town hall meeting and enabling productive dialogue.  

Not an official barista competition, 2012. Santa Maria de Dota, Costa Rica

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