Coffee Common: Proselytizing Simple Truths Through Collaboration

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Specialty coffee leaders from across the world collaborated on a TED showcase. [Brian W. Jones]

Because coffee has such a long history in culture, we’ve been ingrained with certain expectations and traditions. We all have our habits of caffeine intake, at least those of us who seem to need it. The earliest parts of change in how we drink coffee as a modern society came about in the ’60s with Alfred Peet and Peet’s coffee. Then Starbucks globalized it, capitalizing on its convenience and relevance to our urbanized culture. Coffee is the third most consumed beverage on the planet (after water and tea), yet most people drink it in a way that does little to reflect the delicate process through which it reaches the cup.

There are hundreds of roasters in North America and around the world that try their best to show the changes that are occurring in the coffee world. A small number of these roasters have adopted what I call the “Kermit-Lynch-ification” of coffee, from a product that is still widely distributed using existing trade and broker networks to a direct trade model. Direct trade has a number of advantages (more on that in a separate article), but the change seemed logical. Kermit Lynch might have revolutionized the way we drink wine when he traveled through the less-known regions of France to directly import and sell wines that he saw fit for the regular wine drinker (and buyer). He educated consumers through a monthly mailer that talked about the characteristics of each wine and how the natural terroir contributed to its flavor and aromas.

Back to coffee. Many roasters have adopted this model, bringing coffee directly from small cooperatives and farms from some of the best coffee-growing regions around the world. They’ve developed relationships with farmers and promise to present their product to discerning coffee drinkers. Yet for some reason, the larger part of the coffee-drinking consumer base hasn’t seen a reason to care from their established habits. And why should they? Companies like Starbucks keep convincing us that convenience is better than artistry or flavor.

Here’s where collaboration gets interesting. A few weeks ago I heard about Coffee Common, a truly collaborate effort by a number of the world’s best roasters. Just the U.S. alone is represented by Stumptown, Ritual, Intelligentsia, Counter Culture, Mad Cap and Terroir (George Howell). Throw in Square Mile and Has Bean – two premier UK roasters – and you have a who’s who of the coffee world. It would’ve been good to see some other players such as Four Barrel and Norway’s Tim Wendelboe, but one might notice the omission of Blue Bottle.

Coffee Common presents itself as a “community to proselytize the simple truths around coffee…That great coffee is a brilliant collaboration between a coffee farmer, a coffee roaster, a barista, and a consumer.” It goes on to say, “We look forward to pouring you a cup of the most complex and extraordinary beverage in the world.” A few things about their manifesto: first I really appreciate how they use the word “proselytize,” as if they were preaching a gospel. It says a lot about their vision – they are convinced that this expression of coffee is the truest and the best way to experience it. I may not disagree with them, especially since I’ve experienced coffee by a number of these roasters. Secondly, though I think the latter statement might be grand for such a humble beverage, I agree that the historical and future relevance of coffee in our modern society does make it an extraordinary beverage (perhaps more so than wine, spirits, or tea).

This collaboration is unique in a number of ways. First off, these roasters might be perceived as competitors. It doesn’t seem right that competitors would share thoughts, methods, and ideas. But they see what’s at stake here – a chance to influence the movers and shakers in the world. If Coffee Common can reach out to the Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen (using Malcolm Gladwell’s terms from The Tipping Point), then perhaps their gospel of coffee can begin to permeate every fabric of culture. TED brings people who want to learn from the most influential people in a spectrum of industries – it seems natural that a collection of forward thinking coffee companies would play a part.

Coffee Common has already commenced at this year’s TED 2011 conference in Long Beach. I’m hoping to get a first hand view of what they’re doing. From the blog, I can see that the focus is on education, with cleanly designed booklets available for conference participants. There’s also a clear focus on single-origin coffees brewed using a Hario V60 pourover method.

I’m excited to see how this year’s Coffee Common is going to affect the coffee world in the long run. What will the payoff be for these roasters, and for the rest of the specialty coffee industry? Will the collaboration of various roasters result in a better overall product? I certainly hope so.


Matthew Kang

Find more of Matthew's writing on his blog, Mattatouille. Find him behind the Scoops Westside counter.

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