Why Are We Pretentious About Coffee?
Owner & Head Roaster
Pretentious (v.): attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed.
Are We Impressive?
One day I walked into a coffee shop I had never been to before and stood in a long line with a buddy, waiting to order a pour over. I noticed their roaster had 7 cups lined up along the opposite side of the counter where the customer line was. I was pumped, as I had recently taken a Q Grader training course (I’ll explain that later). I watched him closely as he took the plates off the tops of the cups and sniffed their fragrance. Finally, I caught his attention and with a big smile said, “Cupping this week’s roast?” I was shocked when he looked at me in somewhat disgust, and said something to the effect of, “I’m trying to do a job here. Stop interrupting me!” I was set on my heels. While I was simply trying to be friendly and relate to the process with him, and because of the fact he was cupping in the open, I thought it was more of an invitation. I found out I was wrong. I just wanted to geek out and know about the coffees he was smelling, but he very rudely made me aware I was not welcome into his world.
While I thought this was an odd interaction, I figured he must be having a bad day or something. Finally we got to the counter to order. I began talking to the barista about when this shop opened, and if they roasted their own stuff, and about their different coffees. His answers were very short and were not accommodating the questions I asked at all. He acted like I was wasting his time and treated me like I didn’t know what I was talking about. He even made the suggestion for me, “So are you going to order?” By this point I was really frustrated and said, “Hey man, I’m not from here. I used to live in Kansas City, but you guys weren’t here when I did. This is my first time in this shop, so I am just interested in who you are.” I then dropped the bomb that put him on his heels. “I’m a specialty coffee roaster myself, and I am starting a roastery overseas in Nepal. ” His eyes got big and changed. Suddenly he had some respect, and he even apologized; but that wasn’t even what I was looking for. I was only looking for friendly conversation around good coffee, but what I got was cockiness.
Both of the guys that I had tried to speak with were at least 10 ten years younger than I was, and it is likely that they were super young in the coffee industry as well. But they acted like professionals who had been in coffee for their entire lives. My gray beard probably made them presume I didn’t like their type of coffee, so they were blowing me off. The things they did say sounded proud and in a way that assumed I wouldn’t understand. Needless to say, the coffee was mediocre. These guys were pretentious. They believed they embodied something divine and possessed greater knowledge and talent than I was privileged to. I laughed at how silly these guys acted and swore to never return.
To be fair, the two bad interactions with the employees likely affected the taste. And to be charitable, the girl who made my pour over was entirely different than the guys were. She let me smell the dry grounds, and talked to me about the coffee until it was done. She showed me that amidst the pretension, there are people in the coffee-verse that are still doing it out of a passion for the bean and because they love serving people.
But this event crystallized in my mind the experience that is all too common in modern coffee shops today. If you’ve experienced this, let me be the first to apologize. It’s time to set the record straight!
Shifting the Coffee Culture
The coffee industry has undergone a massive shift over the last 20 years. It has gone in a tandem trajectory with the craft beer industry. However, I have never walked into a bar and felt the bartender thought he was the Divine Overseer of all beers ever crafted. Bartenders are usually thrilled to give you tastes of everything they have to offer. Sometimes this might annoy them, but they don’t treat you as if you are some amateur without knowledge of the beer world. Oddly though, this has become the image of the coffee world to many.
I often hear people frustratingly say, “That place is so pretentious! Their baristas are rude. It’s like they don’t even want you in there!” This is to our shame. Some of us have flagshipped phrases like “Coffee is community” while making the community feel unwelcome in our shops. We have done this because we think we know something. But we need to be honest with ourselves:
“This spectrum of coffee is still relatively new to most people––including us!”
Most of us have only known what we currently know for a short time. Even now, as I crest 15 years of specialty coffee knowledge, it is a fraction compared to others. I daily learn new things. I continue with a heart to experiment, challenge previous notions and rules, and keep a baseline that most people know more than I do. So, I should be humble.
Our waxed mustaches, short cut-off pants, trendy aprons and other characteristics that usually mark a barista are not what baristas are. Baristas are those who serve people the best coffee possible with the best service they can possibly give. Baristas should admit to their short journeys in coffee and small knowledge they possess, and that the customer likely doesn’t have those things in common with them. They should be happy to share those things they know with a story and a smile. Instead, the unsuspecting customer is met with an arrogance of pretension. But, pretentiousness should not be a defining characteristic of the specialty coffee industry—kindness and humility should. It is honestly still quite an odd quality that I find rather undefinable in the industry. How did this happen? How did we get here? I frankly do not know but I strongly believe it must change.
We are still in the midst of this huge shift in the coffee world, and we should be willing to build the bridges that welcome others in instead of ostracizing them as fools for their love of dark-roasted coffee. This is missing the point because there are still millions of people who love coffee as much as we do; they just don’t know that specialty (craft) coffee exists! Why would we then treat them as if they should?!
A Culture Set for Change
This is a clarion call to the industry. It is for you and me. Stop being pretentious. It causes those who might potentially like our niche coffee to not want to have anything to do with it. What have you won in that case? I know for a fact that only one bad experience in a specialty shop can make a person, who was willing to give the “new cool place” a try, never return there again. The customer that could’ve been won over to an entirely new perspective in coffee, will gladly choose their cup of Folgers over pretentious interactions with young people. We must therefore check ourselves and our motivation.
When I opened Peregrine Coffee Roasters four years ago in a small town of 1,200 people, I knew the odds were stacked against me. All I heard for the first two years was, “You got a dark roast?” I always had one available, and with a smile I would make other suggestions to try and show them the spectrum. I sought to model what many others had modeled to me (which I will discuss in my next post). I gave A LOT away for free, and I spent a lot of time with customers just talking about coffee and stories. It had been a joy to make a free Ethiopian Natural pour over for an old timer, see his eyes light up and hear him exclaim, “Now that’s different!” It took time and patience. It took kindness and tarrying with a community of people who largely had never heard of this type of coffee. It took me working another job to keep the shop open. Then something happened.
People started coming in. I started hearing phrases like, “Folgers just won’t do anymore,” and “Coffee isn’t just coffee!” I started hearing people ask for specific regions, and say, “Last time you told me to try something, and I loved it.” With patience and kindness the culture began to change.
Our business today is thriving with small-town people who just didn’t know they liked “bougie” coffee yet. They still think it’s expensive. They still think I’m a little crazy. But, how incredible is it that this crazy guy won them over to expensive coffee? What an honor and privilege it has been. I don’t have a slogan that says “coffee is community”; I have lived this idea in a small town as an integral part of the community itself. I built this business on these principles and have strictly hired based on these same principles. It has made all the difference because I also frequently hear a wealth of praise for our staff. In this we take pride and continue to serve all who walk through our doors… without pretension.
To be candid, I know that I’m not the first to seek to address this issue. And for context, there are now many shops that embody humility over pretension. However, to be honest, I often feel they are harder to find than the latter. So, those of us who possess this mentality have to be strong and courageous to continue being the joyful baristas we are. In the current season, we also have to overpower the scrooges with Christmas cheer who wish to spoil our joy with their “bah-humbug” spirit.
Let love and humility be the feathers that lift the wings of the specialty coffee industry as we soar on the wind that many others before us stirred up.