The Discovery Engine: The Power at the Source of the SCAA Symposium

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by Peter Giuliano, SCAA director of Symposium

Six years ago, a collection of coffee leaders sat around a dinner table, talking. The discussion was about the future of coffee: how would we navigate the challenges of the coming decades? How would we prepare ourselves to understand and grasp the vast opportunities presented to us by advances in coffee science, economic analysis, and new ideas in coffee? How could we understand the effects of climate change on the coffee trade? How could we grapple with the shifting sands of coffee politics and economics? Could we create a place where coffee researchers could come to share their work, and where coffee professionals could come to understand and absorb it? And, perhaps most of all, how could we give the next generation of coffee leaders access to the information needed to push coffee forward?

We then looked out across the world of coffee and we saw the leaders. We saw business owners, baristas, roasters, scientists, policy leaders, and sustainability experts. We saw dynamic coffee individuals who had given of themselves to the coffee industry, but were thirsty for information and inspiration. And then we made a sort of discovery, and it hit us like a thunderbolt.

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To explain, I might use myself as an example. In the mid-nineties, I discovered the larger specialty coffee community when I attended my first SCAA Event. Up until that point, I had been working at a cafe in San Diego, enthusiastic about coffee and its possibilities, but limited in my interactions to my coworkers and customers. When I came to the SCAA Event, however, I discovered a vibrant community of coffee professionals; I tasted transcendent espresso for the first time, I learned about cupping as a universal skill, and I met baristas who saw their work as a vocation. I was awestruck and inspired; I had never imagined that there was such a thing as a community of coffee professionals. I returned to my work with energy and increased passion, and with a mountain of new ideas taken from my new interactions. I had made a discovery — and this discovery heralded a new stage in my coffee career.

Immediately, I got involved in the community. I sought out opportunities to learn and I took every class that SCAA offered. I reached out to my elders in coffee, asking them about the nuances of coffee tasting, roasting, and trading. I immersed myself as a student of coffee. A desire to learn and to understand naturally follows a discovery, doesn’t it? It did for me. I threw myself into it with everything I had.

And what flows from learning but teaching? And what better way to push one’s own knowledge forward than to teach others? I began to seek out opportunities to teach the coffee classes that I loved, and to share the skills and information I had absorbed with my comrades in coffee study. For the next few years, I realized my dream of becoming a coffee teacher.

After teaching for a while, I heard the call that many coffee professionals had heard before me. The specialty coffee industry could not move forward without people who were willing to get involved, and to lead. Was I ready to answer that call? Before I knew what was happening, I was joining my comrades in building the Roasters Guild, as well as planning its first retreat — a paradigm-busting conclave of roasters eager to learn, to teach each other, and to push themselves forward. I helped lead the Guild for five years, and then joined the SCAA Board of Directors, where I continued to teach and learn from my colleagues. I was inspired by these women and men of coffee, these passionate individuals who were leading, and learning, and teaching alongside me. But soon, I found myself searching for more.

I was yearning for that moment of discovery I had experienced a decade before. I needed to feel that spark of inspiration again. I had experienced glimpses of such sparks — when I collaborated on agricultural research in Rwanda, for example, or when I met an expert on Indonesian coffee processing at a roadside restaurant in Aceh. I began to crave those moments of discovery, as rare and random as they seemed to be. Soon, I realized that my colleagues in coffee — the people I respected most — were doing the very same thing: searching for the spark of discovery that could trigger their curiosity, and provide the energy for learning, and teaching, and leading all over again.

And at that moment, I realized it was a cycle. Discovery leads to learning, which leads to teaching, which leads to leadership. And finally, to fuel leadership, the spark of discovery is again required. The “Discovery Cycle,” as I now think of it, is the engine that fuels leadership and innovation, and propels us forward.

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So we built a forum for the express purpose of providing this spark of discovery to people in the coffee trade. We called it Symposium, and to it came all stripes of coffee people: baristas, coffee buyers, business owners, executives, coffee scientists, coffee farmers, exporters, importers, and roasters. For the past five years, we’ve invited the most amazing, mind-expanding, and inspiring people in coffee to share their work with us. And, along with the spark of discovery comes valuable information that can be found nowhere else: research, statistics, and case studies that provide the knowledge that, when coupled with inspiration, makes for an unstoppable force in the coffee business.

Indeed, this is exactly what has happened. The most tangible result of bringing all of these remarkable minds in the coffee industry together has been providing a platform for the origination of ideas and watching them come to fruition. Collaborative industry projects such as the foundation of the scientific institution World Coffee Research, as well as the Coffeelands Food Security Coalition, were conceived of at Symposium. Innumerable business alliances and professional connections have been made at Symposium, as well as new connections with groups outside of coffee like the chocolate, spirits, and sustainable food trades. Symposium has become the premier venue for the presentation of coffee research, including the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s 3-year-long consumer research project.

Once again, this April, 425 people will gather together to drive the specialty coffee industry forward. We will hear talks about science and sustainability, leadership and economics, business and aesthetics. We will connect with each other, building the crucial network we need to strengthen our industry. And we will, together, choose to inspire ourselves to accept that spark of discovery, and to push specialty coffee forward into the future.

peterPeter Giuliano has been working in the trade of specialty coffee for 25 years, beginning as a barista and working as a trainer, retailer, cupper, roaster, coffee buyer, and business owner.  SCAA has been a constant inspiration for him during this time, and he now serves as director of Symposium for SCAA, committed to helping cultivate and develop new ideas and leadership in coffee.

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