The specialty coffee industry has a strangely ambivalent, love/hate relationship with the mainstream. On the one hand, it thrives on an independent spirit rooted in independent businesses, an artisinal “craftsman” approach, an often bristling indifference to its customers, and it eschews much of anything that smells like the status quo (the stereotypes about things like sleeve tattoos and body piercings are hardly an anomaly).
And yet specialty coffee is also desperate for public approval, acceptance and validation, with many in the industry applauding virtually any public mention of decent coffee in the general media, coveting a rightful place in the pantheon of food television’s popular glow, and even going so far as to be willingly (and eagerly) exploited by TED. (And don’t get us started on the resulting Coffee Common star chamber charade.) This makes specialty coffee a bit like the high school social misfit that both publicly heaps scorn on the school’s popular cliques while secretly wishing to be a part of them.For the purposes of this post, we focus on the latter part: public visibility and legitimacy. And although the public mainstream today has had more than a few regular media exposures to the world of specialty coffee, the most effective and compelling by far has been Todd Carmichael’s recent Travel Channel TV program, Dangerous Grounds.
But Todd Carmichael is a *bleeeeep!*
Among some in the industry, this may seem heretical — if not unjustified. Highly respected, legendary professionals in the field such as Tom Owen (of home roasting Sweet Maria’s fame) have even created video parodies the show’s very concept — i.e., travel to coffee’s origins as a sort of danger sport — over a year ago and well before the show was even created. Others still see polar explorer and SCAA outsider Todd Carmichael, and his La Colombe Torrefaction coffee operations, as decidedly “pre-Third Wave” — akin to a shorthand for “don’t trust your coffee to anyone over 30″. (Five years ago Nick Cho, portafilter.net host and then of D.C. Murky Coffee fame, once publicly announced terminating his readership here for, among other things, a favorable post we made on La Colombe.)
However, over the years, specialty coffee has repeatedly proven itself incapable of speaking to layman consumers without trying to strong-arm them into first becoming like-minded professionals. This is a fundamental reason why Dangerous Grounds works: it hasn’t forgotten that good storytelling, even if embellished a bit, is at the heart of any legitimate mainstream media success.
Contrast an hour-long episode of Todd’s travels, trials, and tribulations with what the specialty coffee industry would otherwise celebrate as great video: sensory, stylized video montages/wannabe-TV-commercials that seem entirely designed to appeal to fellow coffee professionals. To the layman, these videos are unoriginal exercises in coffee navel-gazing — as utterly monotonous as the ubiquitous “hand-on-mouse” shots that dominated every 1990s TV show about the World Wide Web. You know it works when people who aren’t into coffee find the program entertaining, because the inconvenient truth is that video about coffee, like video about wine, is inherently boring.
Of Oliver Strand and Erin Meister
Which isn’t to say that video is the only way to bring the message of specialty coffee to the masses. Regular New York Times columnist Oliver Strand achieved a kind of patron saint status among the specialty coffee industry because a) his words were distributed in the nation’s preeminent newspaper, and b) he spoke cohesively about subjects the industry is frequently too tongue-tied to speak for itself. A rare case of a layman who reports on the specialty coffee world, industry blogs, coffee Web sites, and tweets alike eulogized the recent news of the demise of “Ristretto”, his occasional coffee column in the New York Times.
That said, despite good writing, Strand’s articles virtually never broke any new ground, proposed any original thought, nor provided an opinion. Of course you could say that a journalist’s core mission is to reveal the truth, regardless of opinion. But his stories typically consisted of news or trends that had been well-covered elsewhere on the Internet, often failing at the “new” part of the word “news”. As a result, and as coffee laymen ourselves, we almost never learned anything new from Ristretto. This unfortunately made Ristretto function a little more like specialty coffee’s society pages, where industry insiders wondered whether their name might feature or not in the latest edition.
A bit more of an industry insider, Erin Meister has worked in customer support for Counter Culture Coffee and has developed some of her own barista chops. She has posted coffee articles in a variety of publications, but she’s received most of her attention and accolades for her regular column at the Serious Eats Web site.
The first problem is in the Web site’s name: Eats. How can we take Serious Eats seriously about coffee when its very name excludes the subject matter? That’s like reading Men’s Health for tips on menopause. (Are you listening, Good Food Awards?)
But far more troubling is an editorial slant that seems focused on evergreen content designed for SEO rankings, with insipid article titles like “Our 5 Favorite TV Coffee Shops“, “5 Coffee Tattoos We Love“, and “5 Reasons to Hate Starbucks“. Although we’re sure Ms. Meister has no say in the copy-editing matter, it follows the old ladies’ home journal formula of the words “secrets” and “perfect” plus a numeral combined with warmed-over content that’s been posted on the Web 120,000 times prior. There’s also something creepy about reading articles written more for computerized Web crawlers than for actual humans.
Love it or hate it, this is specialty coffee’s most important public faceBy contrast, when it comes to Dangerous Grounds we do actually learn something new. Even just the legacy of Haitian coffee alone. Maybe survival tips in the jungles of Borneo aren’t very practical, but they are far from retreads — and the storytelling makes for good television. We’ll collaborate with you any time, Todd.
Curiously enough, all three personalities have had to confront the specialty coffee industry’s excesses of preciousness in recent times: Meister with barista attitudes (one of her best pieces of the past year), Strand berating industry pros for not even providing basic contact information in a speech at this year’s Nordic Barista Cup, and Carmichael’s rants against hipster coffee. That gives us strange comfort in knowing we’re not alone in trying to escape the dysfunction.
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