By Christopher Schooley, Coffee Shrub
How do you talk about roasting with your customers? This is a question I’ve asked a number of coffee roasters over the years. Some roasters talk about profiles and development of flavors, some talk about the roasting machine and technology, and some simply don’t talk about it and focus more on talking about all of the particulars of the coffees themselves. While these are three fairly unique approaches, each with a different focus, they all speak directly to the components of a craft/specialty product: skills, tools, and raw materials.
There is another aspect to a craft or specialty product. In a number of round table discussions about what craft or specialty means that I’ve participated in or led, the concept of “authenticity” is one of the most common words that people mention. When someone buys a craft product, they’re looking for an authentic experience. In this regard, authenticity might not be as much a component of craft goods, but rather what identifies the goods as craft in the first place. Where does this authenticity come from? It’s something made by a skilled craftsperson who has the knowledge and experience to utilize their tools and raw materials to bring out their very best qualities.
The specialty coffee experience should always strive to be an authentic experience. The specialty coffee industry does a pretty good job these days of presenting information about our ingredients, and in many cases our tools speak for themselves. However, we struggle when it comes to talking about our skills with the consumer. Specialty coffee is a value-added commodity, it’s a craft, but it’s also this important aspect. At each step of the production chain value is added and it is important to talk about the value that the individual coffee roaster adds. To do this, we need to talk about our skills and what we are doing to the coffee during the roasting process to make it taste a certain way.
I won’t argue that information about the raw materials isn’t extremely important, but ultimately it’s information that a consumer really doesn’t know how to process. How much of this information is truly tasteable to the average consumer? The way a coffee was processed might be more overtly noticeable, but things like variety, altitude, or even growing region aren’t as immediately tasteable if you’re not a coffee professional who is well rehearsed in the practice of tasting coffee for these nuances. How you roasted the coffee to bring out the best characteristics of these elements can be tasted. The truly remarkable qualities in raw coffee are latent, not solely intrinsic.
So, how and when and where do we talk about roasting with our customers? What is the roaster’s relationship with the customer? Roasting tends to be a back-of-the-house position and the nature of the job requires a level of concentration that doesn’t lend itself to carrying on a conversation. I’ve roasted in an open retail setting in the past, and I always made a point of engaging anyone who was curious enough to ask what I was doing. The key was not to try to explain the entire roasting process to them, but to point to one thing that I was doing that was going to make a difference in the cup.
This speaks to one of the greatest challenges with which we are faced when talking about coffee, and educating consumers in general, which is that we’re always compelled to tell them everything right then and there as if this were our only chance. The fact is that giving someone a piece of information that they’ll be able to recognize in the cup is incredibly empowering, and encourages them to continue to come back for more. We don’t have to reveal all of the intricacies of the craft to be able to effectively talk about it. We just need to be able to speak to what they are going to taste. This is why having some clear language around roast level and roast development is so important, and why simply just talking about roast level can diminish what the true impact of the roast is.
The roaster also doesn’t have to be the only one who talks about it. I personally love the idea of the roaster having some sort of regular presence in the shop setting, but with production schedules this might not be entirely realistic on a regular basis. The role of the roaster is that they are the person who actualizes the intrinsic qualities of the coffee, but this is also the role of the barista and a role in which the barista is better equipped to convey this process to the consumer.
Working closely with the barista crew to know what the best qualities of a particular coffee are, why you made certain roasting decisions, and how those decisions will be best expressed through brewing is vital to giving them the tools they need to be able to speak about these elements to the consumer. In this regard, the role of the roaster is not just to unlock certain qualities, but to be a collaborator in that process. Taking this even further, the role of the roaster is to instill the culture of coffee roasting into all aspects of the business and to spread the enthusiasm for the craft of roasting throughout the company they run or work for. Their job is to make people excited about roasting in the same way that they’re excited to about all the things they learn about the coffee itself.
Enthusiasm, or rather passion, is a part of this concept of authenticity. This is another area where we can easily slip up. People want to feel not just that you’re good at what you do, but that you’re excited about what you do and about the product that you’re serving them. That excitement has to come from your personal enjoyment of the process and the product, not just your excitement in knowing about it. This is really the difference between confidence and pride. Confidence comes from within; you know what you’re doing and you care about it. Pride is a mask, and generally has more to do with trying to prove that you know what you’re doing and care about it. It’s of the utmost importance that we strive to convey confidence over pride. This idea of confidence over pride speaks to another component of authenticity humility. In so many of the same roundtable discussions that spoke about authenticity, humility was another one of the most common words to come up. Humility comes from confidence: confidence in your raw materials, confidence in your tools, and confidence in your skills to put it all together in order to create something truly, authentically special.
Christopher Schooley is a coffee roaster who works for Sweet Maria’s and Coffee Shrub and has served as the chair of the Roasters Guild Executive Council. He is also the coffee design and experience coordinator for the SCAA. Schooley believes that the surest path towards a deeper understanding of one’s craft is through the sharing of knowledge and open conversation, as well as challenging yourself to work outside of your immediate experience.