Friday, September 6, 2013

S.C.A.A., Starbucks and Real Specialty

A couple of days ago the Specialty Coffee Association of America (S.C.A.A.) announced a two year deal for Starbucks to act as host of its annual convention and trade shos (The announcement is here). As a fan of irony (especially when it's unintentional), I especially savored this quote from the press announcement:

“Since opening our first store in Seattle’s historic Pike Place Market in 1971, coffee has been at the core of everything we do “ said Craig Russell, senior vice president, Global Coffee for Starbucks.

This is delicious because coffee has in fact become so secondary to the company's focus and image that it is dropped any reference to it in it's logo:

The only comments I saw on this were on SCAA's Facebook page. A few had a sense of Starbucks' pivotal role in the existence of good coffee in the U.S., but most were along the lines of "how could you?" or "what does such an evil/bad/large company have to do with specialty coffee?"

My comment was this:

Those complaining lack not only a sense of the history of the industry but of SCAA. An organization that advocates for "specialty" coffee by definition needs to not only define "specialty" but exclude that which is not specialty from its membership and activities. Can you imagine a Craft Brewer's Association that allowed members who used cereal grains and chemical additives, or a Slow Food group that asked McDonald's to be their main sponsor and give the keynote. Me neither - but that's SCAA.

The opportunity to stand for something has existed for years and has been betrayed for the sake of commercial gain and perpetuating huge, pointless trade shows and a bloated administrative structure (this goes back to Ted Lingle, in particular). 20 years ago there were plenty of us saying the obvious: specialty means first-rate arabica coffee, sold within a week of roast (and consumed within 2) if whole bean; brewed the day it's ground if ground; at a minimum strength of 60-70 grams per liter, etc. and that a member in good standing of a Specialty Coffee Association would commit in writing to live up to such standards and other equally obvious ones as a condition of membership. "Enforcement" would be by disseminating the standards to the consumers who pay the bills.

Had that been done, Starbucks, Dunkin, the bozos selling flavorings, the idiocy of barista championships, syrup mongers, form fill and seal machines and all the rest would all have been exiled to NCA where they belong and an SCAA show would be the size and feel of a Roaster's Guild retreat and the admin would be 3 or 4 people living on barista-level salaries somewhere very far from Long Beach. AND an SCAA seal or certification would actually mean something.  Maybe it's time for a revolution. Long since....actually. Ironically Starbucks is probably one of the least offensive recent hosts. Hey at least they WERE great once...descending to mediocrity from a great height beats never having soared.

To be clear, I think things at SCAA have actually improved greatly since the nespotism and scandals of the Lingle era. Ric Rhinehart is a brilliant guy, there've been a number of great folks on the board, and Peter Giuliano running the Symposium is wonderful. 

Nevertheless, the systemic problems I touch on in my comment continue, and I think the time is riper than ever for some sort of alternative trade association to emerge. 

Since S.C.A.A., through its systematic lack of clarity about standards, dissemination of them to consumers and so on has rendered the word "specialty" meaningless, let's just talk vaguely for a moment about the "premium" part of the coffee business in the U.S. Starbucks is clearly the dominant player - so much so that they really lack any sort of meaningful competition. They are, in the words of former head of marketing George Reynolds, "McDonald's without a Burger King, without Subway, without even Taco Bell."

Then there's Dunkin and McDonald's, Green Mountain, the big box players like JBR, Peet's, Allegro/Whole Foods and so on. Any of these larger players have substantial in-house investments in process control, QA & QC, and at the upper end massive investments in R & D both at origin and on the manufacturing and retail side. Having worked for a couple of these companies, I can say with certainty that the only reasons for them to be involved with S.C.A.A. are to keep tabs on each other and the smaller players and for positioning/marketing. They're certainly not there to make it easy for the next generation/Third Wave folks to catch up. Really from a strictly business point of view, the trade reality is you're either Starbucks or a member of the "Coffee Also-Rans of America" - that's how lopsided the actual market share situation is, and that deserves to be kept in mind amidst all of the press fawning over the Blue Bottles and Stumptowns of the world.

Personally I think the time may well be ripe for a coffee analogue to the UK's famous Campaign for Real Ale - an organization that has clear and contagiously inspiring standards and that from the beginning realized that educating consumers rather than being an insular trade organization is the key to long-term relevance.


  1. Having lived in England during the 80's I say, "Here, Here." A real coffee campaign would be super. As a former member of the RGEC I call on the Guild to ferment (on purpose) the movement.

    Jeremy Raths
    The Roastery, Inc
    Minneapolis, MN

  2. Hi Jeremy -

    Thanks for chiming in. The Guild is just the right bunch of troublemakers to get something like this going.

  3. I have had a love/hate relationship with the SCAA since I started in the coffee biz (1993). The first event I ever went to, my key employee and I were completely ignored at a mixer designed to connect the "powers that be" with those of us new in the industry - and we were the only people there. The group of 10 or so individuals, whom if I mentioned their names, anyone even remotely related to coffee would know, completely ignored us while they chatted amongst themselves like a high school reunion. That experience was soured my view and was indicative of many experiences I've had since then.

    About 10 years ago I again started getting involved, donating my time to the SCAA in various ways. I felt no appreciation (only by those I directly worked/volunteered with, who were some of the hardest working, nicest people around) by the SCAA overall and never from the top. I stay involved for a few years, till I couldn't justify the expense of time and money, nor did I enjoy it any more. I stopped volunteering for a few years, and then one day told myself to shut up and help again. I did it again, and once more felt the same way, and now don't volunteer anymore and doubt I ever will again.

    I have been a dues paying member of the SCAA for 20 years (am rethinking that too). I pay because I believe they need to exist. That does not mean I approve of everything, or even much, of what they do or how they do it, but exist they must. I also do not mean to say that there are not some excellent people in the SCAA, people who work hard and who care.

    But, I only last year had the same type of situation with one of the "top dogs" as I had 20 years ago. I sent an email looking for information to help me for a panel I was invited to be on at the World Tea Expo - representing coffee at a tea event. I am not the owner of a large chain or one of the real visible companies, but I have paid dues for 20 years, have volunteered my time as a regional and national barista judge, volunteered my time as a product specialist, attending a number of SCAA Events, and had a booth at the Event a couple years ago. And the person I emailed knows me personally. And yet my emails went unanswered. I attended the World Tea Expo without getting any of the information I asked for from the SCAA and when I saw this person at the SCAA Event a month or two after that was met with an, "Oh yeah, sorry about that".

    I was also asked a few years ago to be a part of the retailer's committee. I declined. I had no trust that I wasn't gonna be simply asked to give, not listened to, and then patronized.

    It's too bad that the attitude is to a great degree still the same. Maybe someday the Specialty Coffee Association of America will start thinking of themselves as Servants to the Coffee Businesses of America rather than, well, just special.

    PS, when you get the new organization together, call me!!

  4. I think one great working model here is the Brewers Association. The big yellow fizzy beer companies are members and the association gains a benefit from their membership, but they also have clearly defined categories for Craft and otherwise. My one hang up is that their definitions are solely based on ownership and volume and have no clear standards for quality. I think that any real definition of craft/specialty has to include some standard for quality. I would love to work on helping to define what these standards and definitions are.

    I honestly think that there's something to gain from having these larger players at the table, but agree that some clear definitions of categories would be really helpful. The 3rd wave and others can't buy all of the coffee in the world, there's a lot of coffee that needs to be purchased in order for a specialty category to exist. The shipping mechanisms for coffee alone would not exist or would be cripplingly cost prohibitive without SOMEBODY moving large volumes of coffee across oceans. I don't really think that an us vs. them mentality is helpful for the bigger picture, but we can and should do a better job of identifying what our roles are and how that all works together. Ultimately we should all be working to help maintain fair and sustainable pricing for coffee across the board. I think it's a good thing to have the big guys know what the SCAA's strategic goals are, even if they're not going to push or participate in them, it's a good thing to have them in the room, and frankly at this point they are not pushing back against any of the SCAA's strategic goals and I don't see them pushing any kind of counter-productive agenda. They've been willing and positive participants in the dialogue. We honestly don't want them to be part of the conversation?

  5. Hi Christopher,

    First off, nice to hear from you - and I trust you know how deeply I admire your work in coffee!

    Your comments deserve an article, or at least a blog post, of their own, but briefly:

    Regarding your first paragraph: that's my point exactly: specialty is only meaningful if it includes clearly defined standards. And those of us who roast and cup coffee have a pretty darn clear idea of what a realistic range of standards is, based on - let's face it - what we ourselves would pay money to drink!

    Regarding the larger players, there is NOTHING that says a roaster can't be large AND excellent, and at the other end of the spectrum today's most well-known Third Wave roaster-retailers are certainly not doing a good job of quality control (e.g. most are packaging in a way that guarantees less-than-optimum freshness, even more don't invest in proper grinders, on and on).

    Let's just take one obvious part of the quality definition: whole bean roasted coffee freshness. We could list within a week of roasting a room temperature for sale, 2 weeks for consuption as the gold standard, and then have clearly defined standards for vaccuum packaging in valve bags (e.g. less than 2% residual oxygen when sealed, achieved via vacuum and/or nitrogen backflush, roast dated with an expiry date not more than 3 months from roast) and for Illy-style pressurized packaging (same initial O2 levels, perhaps a six month best by date). That pretty well covers all of the available ways of delivering freshly roasted coffee to the consumer.

    Maybe those aren't the exact standards, but the control sample for any such standard- setting is coffee right out of the roaster. In other words, it's excellence, not "consumer acceptance" that defines specialty. Now there is no reason in the world that Starbucks, Peets, Nestle, Green Mountain, etc. could not meet these standards if they chose, either for all of their production or for the part that they want to meaningfully designate as specialty. I would still be working for Starbucks had they chosen to invest in doing this. It's not all that hard, and compared to the money these firms squander on marketing, ecologicaly disastrous packaging and selling flavored crap it's a pittance.

    So...they are already part of the "conversation" - in fact they own the conversation with the consumer. BUT if they want to be part of an actual specialty coffee association they've got to play by the rules.

    SCAA meanwhile needs to do what it should have done decades ago: define standards for specialty, disseminate them to consumers, and require adherance to them as a condition of membership. This is so fundamental it shouldn't even need mentioning at this late date. Absent that the organization's "strategic goals" and agenda are really just opportunistic, reactive mucking about. Meanwhile the big players that I mentioned above are very disciplined and very sharply focused on delivering a profitable level of consistent, convenient mediocrity that serves neither the cause of excellence, that of a sustainable future for farmers, or that of the consumers who pay the bills.

  6. Kevin! You flatter me and i hope you know that the feeling is mutual, plus you always make me think and I love it.

    I am so glad that you brought up freshness as a quality metric in thus case. This is something that the Roasters Guild has already been really pushing forward. Last year the RG set in motion a shelf life, coffee staling research project that was executed and presented at the RG retreat by Emma Bladyka. The findings from this project were just published and are available at the SCAA online store, which I of course won't link to here.

    The purpose of the study was to determine the shelf life of various packaging, where staling was detectable by coffee professionals and at the same time the general public. It wasn't to say, hey you have to use this packaging, but more so that if you used say craft bags that this was the amount of time before there was a detectable difference in quality. A lot of the impetus of this project was not necessarily trying to say that specialty coffee IS this, but rather IS NOT this other.

    This study was a starting point, and RG hippies to continue digging deeper into thus issue with the intent if better clarifying some definitions and parameters for true specialty coffee.

    At the beginning of RG I remember that there was a lot of push for RG membership to have to sign a pledge that they would always print the roast date on their bags. I've always strongly felt that this is the true indication of specialty/craft, but I also feel that being aware of the impacts of certain packaging on freshness is also important.

  7. Hi Christopher -

    Yeah, I saw that study and hope to read it sometime.

    I think the way that Tom talks about coffee freshness on the Sweet Maria's web site is the way we should be talking to consumers about it. We are professionals are always talking about "oh, I like my Guatemalan a couple of days out of the roaster but the Yemen/Ethiopian/Sumatra needs a couple more days." To me that's why roasting locally and selling the coffee within a week is and will remain the gold standard for freshness. Or rather, for "ROASTER fresh(ness)." Clearly vacuum and pressurized packaging, meticulously used, can and do exponentially extend the shelf life of coffee but it is no longer roaster fresh. In the valve bags there is still CO2 and aroma escaping from the valve, and coffee in a pressurized can is, so to speak, stewing in its own juices and is still changing, though Illy and others would argue for the better.

    On the Third Wave side, I continue to see a lot of roast dated coffee sitting on the shelves of prominent retailers that is well on its way to being stale or well past that stage, at astronomical prices. I talked about this in my blog post on Stumptown. For the prices they are charging there is NO excuse. I have also seen plenty of Third Wavers (and I'm happy to name names) putting their coffee in a premade valve bag and just heat sealing it without drawing a vacuum or nitrogen backflush. That's even more reprehensible since it hoodwinks the customer into believing that the coffee has a shelf live comparable to coffee that is properaly packaged in the same bags.

    I hope Roaster's Guild will continue to push the envelope on this. As for SCAA, redemption might start with taking out some full page ads in Saveuer and the like with a photo of coffee frothing in a French Press, Aeropress or filter cone with verbiage along the lines of: "Does Your Coffee Do This? If Not, It's Stale - Get Your Money Back" followed by an explanation of authentic specialty coffee standards.

    No separation between the cupping room and retail = authentic specialty, to me.