Now that we’ve caught your attention with the sensationalist title, we’ve had a thought that has been milling around in our heads for quite a while. All this talk about a supposed Third Wave in quality coffee (it truly is that hard for us to restrain our contempt for that term) seems to have coincided with another odd phenomenon: that of the barista becoming not only the predominant face of the entire coffee industry, but also a sort of rising expectation that the barista should be the coffee industry.
When it comes to the coffee delivery chain, there are a lot more people employed in the barista service end than anywhere else. And the barista is certainly the front face of the industry that consumers most interact with (at least when they are having espresso-based drinks). But while they are far from the only role in the coffee delivery chain, you certainly wouldn’t know it based on the proliferation of magazines, social networks, blogs, competitions, and coverage in traditional media.
And while all good baristas should aim for a bean-to-cup knowledge of what makes a great espresso beverage, many baristas and espresso enthusiasts alike seem to be encouraging a model where top baristas are expected to manage every aspect from bean-to-cup — the benefits of specialization in modern society be damned.
The barista as the face of the industry
So what makes us think that the barista has become the focal point for the entire coffee industry — in a way that is out of proportion with reality (and need)? Although the majority of the decent coffee served in this country involves some form of a barista, a barista is not necessarily required.
Furthermore, today avid coffee consumers cannot escape the barista-heavy bias when it comes to discussions of good coffee. There are an absurd number of redundant social networking sites for baristas — from Barista Exchange (founded by the nice guy whose prose ultimately made us cancel our Barista Magazine subscription) to Barista Connection to the offhand Common Grind: Tales from the Driptray … to redundant presences of these same entities on social networking sites such as Facebook.
What next? Social networks for all those bikini-clad baristas in the Northwest? A kind of Suicide Girls meets Starbucks Gossip? Someone better start up a business plan.
But if we were to dismiss the number of these barista-focused blogs and networks (at the expense of other roles in the coffee industry) on the basis of the sheer number of baristas, coffee consumers clearly outnumber baristas many times over. Looking at the few social networks and Web sites dedicated to coffee consumers, they’re mostly pretty lame. (See: Coffeenatic.)
The regular mainstream media drumbeat of barista championships, latte art contests, etc., also seems to drown out any mentions of Cup of Excellence bean growers or even roasters to a large extent. And any acknowledgment given to buyers, blenders, and like is virtually non-existent. Can we really be faulted for having this impression of barista bias? (Or call it “Barismo“, if you wish.)
The barista as The Industry
We are actually a bit shocked at how few baristas we know are also home roasters. Yet it’s becoming more common to read stories of baristas who are training to become everything from certified Q graders to roasters. In part, this reflects the role of barista as a popular entry-level position to the coffee industry — even if it is by no means the only one.
But when you combine these trends with the nascent (and latent) obsession over, and coverage of, Fair Trade, you’d think that the quality coffee industry consisted entirely of impoverished growers, minimum-wage baristas who manage everything from bean-to-cup, and an array of useless middlemen and (dare we suggest?) evildoers in between. As a result, it undermines the value that everyone from buyers, graders, shippers, and, to a lesser degree, some roasters provide in the chain.
In today’s landscape, where is the role for future Ernesto Illys if they are not baristas?
Our point isn’t to squelch the voice of the many ambitious baristas who have the commendable goals of quality coffee in mind. But we question whether should they be the only voice. It’s time for the rest of the industry to speak up — and be recognized for the value they provide in the coffee chain.
The role of consumers
And on a slightly different note, because consumers of quality coffee need representation of their own kind, we believe we need a spokesperson. Forget Cicely Tyson sipping to the music of ELO for the NCA’s Coffee Achievers campaign — we’re voting for a new Espresso Achievers campaign featuring Iggy Pop and his heroin-addled body singing “Gimme Danger”.
Iggy is our kind of spokesperson. Today the Daily Mirror (UK) reported on how he conquered his addictions through a love for red wine and … strong espresso: Iggy talks about addiction. We can see the slogans now: “A strong espresso: it’s better than heroin.” Sign us up!
Video: Iggy sez: Gimme a doppio.
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