Olam sponsored, SCA Barista Guild Coffee Community Event

If you’re looking to better understand or more fully appreciate the random chaos and coincidence of the natural world, you need not look any further than your morning cup of coffee. From barista to mogul, if you ask anyone in the coffee industry what brought them to their current career, the answer is resounding: it was completely “by accident.” Meandering through the main event room at the Barista Guild’s July BLOOM event in San Francisco, there were over a hundred people who can roast, steam, brew, travel, and trade with a passion rivaling that of other industries and each of them is murmuring something about serendipity. It’s a word that feels as ubiquitous as spilled milk on a condiment station. In a sea of plaid, paisley, and prints it doesn’t take long to realize that none of us meant to be here. Even more apparent, none of us intends on leaving.

From an existential perspective, it’s coincidence in chaos. To some it’s providence.

Considering all this chance and luck, somehow the coffee world has attracted the most passionate and dedicated group of individuals into its midst. Every story that begins with “I met a cute barista at a coffee shop” leads down a harrowing journey to becoming a local business owner, traveling the globe through mountains and valleys, or leading the charge in processing innovation. It’s not a job that any of us imagined during elementary school When-I-Grow-Up activities. But I challenge you to find a lawyer or pilot who can exceed the dedication of the baristas and roasters in this room. In fact, those lawyers and pilots happen to be in the room themselves geeking out about CrimsonCup’s natural Ethiopian or Modbar’s innovative design potential. The spectrum of participants is astounding. Sipping from mugs provided to each attendee in an effort to reduce waste, there are goliaths of industry and upcoming coffee freelancers toasting to the same thing.

The Counter

Undoubtedly, it’s tough to engineer those accidental moments of coffee clarity, but it is possible to make sure the industry is accessible to newcomers and fresh perspectives. This was the take-away from the panel discussion “Fast, Cheap, Good: Choose Two.” The talk was geared toward ensuring that coffee drinkers have an avenue to becoming coffee enthusiasts or even coffee professionals without hitting the road blocks of complex brewing methods and expensive equipment.

Questions began with Molly Irwin of Fellow Products. She offered design-oriented solutions in products that allow easy home brewing for customers ready to try their hand at specialty but not ready to fully commit. Kent Sheridan, founder of Voila Coffee, stressed the need for innovative thought behind his goal to perfect instant specialty coffee. He cited the success of his crowd-funding endeavor to prove that there is a market of eager coffee-drinkers who just need a path to the product. In response to a borderline controversial topic, Tonx Konecny threw down some no-nonsense advice concerning the $1 coffee offered at Oakland original Locol about meeting the customer where they are and outlining the success of the almost zero-waste coffee process his restaurants use. Umeko Motoyoshi of Sudden Coffee stressed with conviction that this process cannot be forced, but instead must be approached with kindness and a level of empathy that connects connoisseur with customer. It was a grounding statement – and one she repeated emphatically – that demanded we set a friendly stage for consumers to find not just random acts of kindness in community cafés, but also to allow space for the next coffee entrepreneur to feel welcome and hooked in his or her own serendipity. Still, no matter how accidental getting here is, there are tangible, heartening reasons to stay.

The Trading Post

For all the happenstance experienced by baristas and roasters, there is a storied past spanning generations for dedicated farmers across the world. Guest lecturer and founder of Port of Mokha, Mokhtar Alkhanshali, shared his Indiana Jones style adventure through Yemen with a gleam in his eye and a bright enthusiasm in every sentence. He explained how knowing our roots – pun almost certainly intended – is the key to discovering sustainability in the coffee community. Sharing details about the astonishing varietal options in coffee fields dotting the cliff sides of Haraaz, he made his case with an agricultural, economic, and social lens that connected everyone to the story in one way or another. The more he spoke, the more desperately the audience began to clamber at the sample cups making the rounds through the rows of plastic chairs. The way he talks, you almost forget the country was under siege and intensely dangerous in the not-too-distant past and even the present. Instead, you hear the rich history, the plethora of flavors, the hard-working people on the ground.

In an intensely personal moment, Wrecking Ball Coffee’s Nick Cho asked what it’s like to be the bridge between two worlds – the physical embodiment of crop-to-cup connections. This isn’t about farming or taste, it isn’t even really about coffee. It’s about the people on either side of the world working their hardest to find common ground – pun a little less intended – and the people who bridge the in-between. Alkhanshali barely hesitated as he asserted it is not only his privilege, but also his responsibility as a Yemeni American to bridge that gap. Beyond the passion and stellar flavor profiles, he was born into a role that is not only unique but intrinsically necessary. In responding to a question he didn’t expect, he stumbled effortlessly into his main point: the future is built from our roots.

The Field

Alkhanshali’s heartfelt conclusion connecting service and agriculture was complemented by a talk with California winemaker and business owner Martha Stoumen, “From Grape to Glass: Exploring Natural Wine.” Stoumen discussed the uphill battle of the “Natural Wine Movement” that seeks to avoid additives of commercial wine and celebrate the uniqueness of natural flavor. She said that all you need to make wine can be found in the grape – like a winemaking toolkit in the soil. As she described the farming to processing to branding to selling process, she did not need to blatantly draw the lines to coffee for the audience. The battle for respect in the journey from commercial to quality is one that rings many bells for the specialty industry. An industry that for decades has been asked to state its case in value when it seems so obvious to us all that the proof is in the jute bag.

Stoumen shifted the focus from product to process with an audience that certainly knew how to relate. Her stated obstacles with climate challenges and consistency were not new to us and offered a startlingly familiar viewpoint from the perspective of a domestic producer. The parallels between the two industries allowed a peek into the intentionality behind our two distinct crops. In a generation of coffee professionals pushing for partnership and ethics in new ways, Stoumen’s priorities and struggles were met with understanding and interest. The process takes time, effort, and a financial investment not to be scoffed at. It demands patience and grueling work year after year to perfect a grape – or a cherry – while also allowing for the natural uniqueness of the crop itself to shine through from the soil to the counter. Seen through an agriculture lens, this lends a stark contrast to the accidental careers described above. However, beyond that it neatly connects serendipity to intention – a blend of chance and assiduousness that makes this industry what it is today, and pushes it to what it could be tomorrow.

There has been a decades long discussion attempting to define this industry and its product. At crystallizing events like the Barista Guild’s BLOOM, where talking points inspire meaningful engagement, there’s no question. It’s the people and the relationships they cultivate for a product they care about. Or alternatively, the product they cultivate for the relationships they care about. The line blurs in a way that speaks volumes about the industry as a whole. If you’re looking to better understand or more fully appreciate the fortuitous strength of hard-work and designed beauty in the natural world, you need not look any further than your morning cup of coffee.