I love Cincinnati coffee culture. It’s an exciting time to be a coffee loving veteran or a newcomer in the Queen City. I believe we’re beginning to hit our stride, and this became obvious to me in this past week’s barista competition, “Taste is King” hosted at BLOC coffee. Though my performance was not to my liking (let’s just say I’m a little more talented in the engineering realm) what I experienced and observed during the competition encouraged me greatly, but was also personally convicting.
To begin, if you love coffee in Cincinnati or are just getting into it, life is going to be good. After I got knocked out in the first round, I stood close to the judges and sampled as many of the winning cups as I could. We were only brewing one coffee: Deeper Roots new Fall Tonic– but the diversity and quality that came from each barista’s cup was mind-blowing. The best part? Baristas from at least six different shops were competing, and they were fantastic. Most rounds the judges had to deliberate for 5-10 minutes just to decide who won because it was so close. What did this communicate to me? Cincinnati cares about quality. I have confidence that if I found those baristas in their shop and asked for a pour over they would serve me a competition quality (or better, since the pressure is absent) cup of coffee. This was really exciting to realize, but as I stood there watching the beans and kettles fly, I became convicted by my own failings to convey the passion and purpose of coffee to others.
I’ve been involved with coffee for about seven years. My first job was as a barista in a small town shop. To be honest, I was a terrible barista. Not on purpose, but because of ignorance and lack of training. When I started at UC and met Chris Bean, my whole coffee world exploded. He opened my eyes to specialty coffee, and I ate it up. Specialty coffee was a hundred times more exciting than the optimal strength for concrete (I was studying civil engineering), and I devoted myself to learning everything I could about the science of espresso extraction and milk. I practiced latte art religiously; I could pour a decent rosetta in a few weeks. Ultimately, my obsession began to overshadow why I even became a barista in the first place. I became a barista because of coffee’s ability to facilitate the connection of people that may not have been connected otherwise. Think about all the human interaction that occurs over a cup of coffee—dates, business meetings, community groups, Bible studies, and the list goes on. There’s a lot happening because of one little mug of hot liquid. Coffee is about people. As a barista, I pursue excellence in coffee preparation because I want you to get the best I have to offer, and I firmly believe this attitude is reflected among my fellow Cincinnati baristas, but I have failed to communicate the purpose behind the passion to the average coffee lover. So here it is:
We serve great coffee because we care about you, but we also serve great coffee because we want you to care about the coffee industry.
The coffee industry is immensely complex and there are dozens of books on it, but the key point I want to make is that there are few other industries where a consumer is so close to the producer. A major problem facing the coffee farmer right now is a farmer’s inability to provide food for their families after coffee harvest. A great summary of this is presented in this video. This is really where the rubber meets the road for coffee roasters, baristas, and consumers. As a barista, I have known about this issue, but I’ve never engaged a customer on it and told them why buying from a specialty coffee roaster in Cincinnati can actually help make a difference. This is the conviction that hit me at the competition. I’m studying the sustainability of the coffee industry at the graduate level for crying out loud and I’ve never even discussed with a customer its inability to sustain a farmer’s basic needs and how the specialty coffee industry is trying its hardest to combat starvation. This is one of the reasons we should care about coffee in Cincinnati and with this in mind, I offer these suggestions:
Baristas—We’re the face of specialty coffee. Each time a customer walks through the door, we have the opportunity to give encouragement and care through an exceptional drink, but don’t just stop there. If the opportunity arises, explain why you love coffee and what it symbolizes. I have yet to meet a barista in Cincinnati that does it just for money, so let’s make sure our customers know that.
Coffee Lovers (customers)—If it wasn’t for you, who knows what us coffee people would be doing (I have a few guesses and they’re probably not constructive pursuits) and we are so thankful for your support. Continue to support your local shop and roaster. Carabello Coffee, Coffee Emporium, Deeper Roots, and La Terza all pursue ethical sourcing of coffee and direct trade relationships. What does this mean? They care about all the people involved in the coffee supply chain, and we hope that you will too. Also, I don’t think we’d mind if you spread the word about great coffee.
Roasters—You guys are awesome. Thanks for putting out top quality coffee that I (and many others) enjoy everyday. I’m not a roaster, but I hope you continue to communicate your company’s passion for excellent coffee, but also the principles that propel your company to pursue this excellence.
All of us in Cincinnati have an equal part in continuing to grow our coffee culture, but more importantly, we all share in furthering what I believe is coffee’s greatest purpose: uniting people.