a cup of relationships
Baristas are the last link in the coffee chain as they are responsible for the final presentation of the coffee to customers. They represent a lot of work and effort by many people in getting coffee to customers. It is an interesting job that has gathered more prestige in the past few years, much like mixologists and sommeliers. Its essential for baristas to be knowledgeable about the details of their coffee, like origin and the tasting notes. This allows customers to become educated about the coffee they drink, and realize why they are paying for a better product. This importance of this job is emphasized at the SCAA Regional barista competition that I attended in march. While I agree completely with the idea of knowledgeable baristas who can articulate and explain the specialness of the coffee they serve, I believe that it has gone too far in some realms; from awareness to objectification. Honesty and respect are two things that baristas must emphasize when working with coffee farmers and customers, creating a sustainable business foundation for specialty coffee.
This is exemplified when coffee farmers are used for marketing purposes versus working with coffee farmers to increase their profits. When I attended the regional barista competition in Chicago I was struck by the language and stories that centered around the coffee farmer. While there were some baristas who went so far as to work alongside the farmer to make sure that certain processes were used and credited them for the extra work that allowed them to compete well; there were many others who dropped farmer’s name like you would a celebrity acquaintance or one barista who compared the look of pride on one farmer’s face to the look of a father who is proud of his son’s baseball achievements. The problem with the simplicity of these interactions is that it allows farmer’s to be used as a fadish piece in specialty coffee marketing instead of recognizing the fact that we are business partners in a quest to improve profits and sustainability. Waxing poetic and using nostalgia or popular coffee farm names to sell coffee or up your street cred do not help farmers meet this goal. We must be honest about our interactions with farmers or lack of interactions. It is perfectly okay to not be best friends with the person who processed your coffee beans but you must recognize their work and ensure that fare wages are being exchanged. This is more important than a direct trade label or a sentimental story. Is it really sustainable for every barista to travel to origin and develop relationships with farmers? Probably not. Would it be really awesome to get the opportunity to see where coffee comes from and meet the people who work so hard to create coffee that we serve in our cafes? Definitely. But we must realize our place in the chain and not use farmer’s names and half cocked stories to inflate our position or sense of self. We are all a part of making Specialty coffee great and when we are honest and respect each other we are creating a better, more sustainable system to work within.