by Mike Ebert, Firedancer Coffee Consultants
Last month, somewhere in Seattle…..
April 26, 2014, 5 p.m.: I am at the Seattle Convention Center where this year’s Roasters Guild Membership Meeting is taking place, listening to great report-outs from members of the Executive Council, seeing the new members getting sworn in (ok, not “sworn”—but that would be a nice touch) and, best of all, watching my good friend Mark Inman taking the reins as chair of the Council. Seeing the Guild in such great hands got me thinking about how far the RG has come in the past 15 years.
I remember hearing the term “Roasters Guild” as early as ‘97 or ‘98, listed as part of an upcoming SCAA Event. If I recall, it was called “Roasters’ Roundtable,” and was led by Don Schoenholt.
I had heard a rumor that some of the founding fathers of SCAA were appalled at what the Event had become in the mid-90s—full of artificial flavors and coffee jewelry. They wanted to secede from the SCAA. As the story goes, Don Holly came up with the idea of a guild, a sub-group of SCAA, focused on “just roasters,” and people who drank their beer from a glass. I think this last part was the most important—but I digress. It was Don H. who felt we could all still be a happy family.
I recall going to the first few meetings, which really consisted of roasters sitting around, dreaming of what we would all like to see in a Roasters’ Guild. Overall, there was a thirst for knowledge about coffee roasting, and it wasn’t really available at the time. Live roasting classes were just beginning to be offered, and most were rife with problems—setting up gas-fired roasting machines was not met with open arms at most expo centers, let’s just say.
Flash-forward to the spring of 2000, and the annual Event in San Francisco. By this time, the annual “Roasters’ Round Table” had become the annual Roasters Guild meeting. It was one of the first things on my calendar for that year’s convention. Don Schoenholt again led, and according to my memory, the room was packed. We debated, discussed and ultimately came up with a few items we wanted to finally get started on: a weekend retreat, classes and standards, a handbook, and possibly smaller, local groups. I left the room excited, thinking that maybe this RG idea was actually going to take off.
Opening my mouth…gulp!
Time went by quickly, and before I knew it, it was fall. The year was almost gone, and I hadn’t heard anything further about the Roasters Guild. I sent an email to Don Holly, who was then second-in-command at SCAA. He explained that no one had stepped up to get it going, and that staff was already hard-pressed to finish their current projects and tasks.
We spent the next several months emailing. My input was that it was felt that the RG should be strictly for people who actually roast on a daily basis, keeping green importers, sales and marketing people, and the like out. However, at this point of my own career, I hardly saw anything more that a sample roaster, and even that usually fell to someone else. I had five roasters reporting to me, as well as a three-person lab who did most of the sample roasting. Bottom line was, I didn’t feel as if I qualified. However, I couldn’t see any of my roasters attempting to help get it started. They were great people, don’t get me wrong, but most had only been roasting for a few years at most and lacked the political heft required.
The beginnings of an actual guild….
Almost six months passed before Don Holly and I reconnected a few weeks before the Event in Miami. He said that Don Schoenholt did not want to lead this year’s RG meeting, and asked if I would have any interest in leading it. I gulped, and said “Sure, why not.” Perhaps I could help get it started, and than hand it off to people who actually spent their days roasting. I did start to freak out as we got closer; I had never spoken in front of that many people before…
Time to get to work….
It was at this point that I met the person who would in time become a good friend, an ally and most importantly, the staff person who gave the Guild the most support—it probably would not exist if not for her: Stacy Woods (now Stringfellow). We met up for lunch in New York during the annual summer Fancy Food show (I remember hearing stories that this was where the founding members of SCAA had initially met). She had no idea what she was getting into, and (not to put words into her mouth)—just might not have been happy about getting more work, especially from a group of newbie volunteers. Our initial discussions focused on putting together a retreat, which was largely a staff-created and managed event; basically, a mini-SCAA conference.
Just weeks before the first Retreat, things at my company got crazy, and I was told I could not attend. It was left to Peter to emcee the first night’s welcome ceremonies. He probably hasn’t forgiven me to this day, but I’d rather think I discovered this future leader of the SCAA (I have a great pair of rose-colored glasses). Either way, the Retreat went very well, and we were off to the races. But now it was time to figure out a longer-term strategy.
Our first meeting…
We were all stoked about reconvening at the joint Board meetings that September. As someone who had been attending this event for years as a volunteer, I was ready to work on something substantial. But alas, the meeting had to be cancelled because of the events that took place on September 11, 2001. Deep down, I feared this might break the back of the RG before it started. However, after things calmed down a bit, I suggested a meeting in Chicago, and everyone agreed.
November came quickly, and before I knew it, I was at the hotel, having a beer and waiting for some old friends and a few new ones to arrive. That first group consisted of Shawn Hamilton, Paul Thornton, Peter Giuliano, Boyd Guildner, Spencer Turer, Bert Von Roemer, myself and Stacy. We met for dinner and just had general conversations about the RG, what it should be, etc.
The next morning, bright and early, we started the first-ever RG meeting. I began with an overview of what we had been and what we could be. One of the first very over-confident moves we made was to decide that we were not just a “committee,” we were an Executive Council. Even more quickly, I was made chair of this new group, with Peter Giuliano as VP and Shawn Hamilton as Secretary/Treasurer. Suddenly, I realized there would be no getting out “painlessly.”
Who we wanted to be….
Probably the biggest decision we made that weekend was regarding membership. I recall this taking most of the morning, perhaps into the afternoon. Thankfully, the group quickly agreed that someone like myself (and indeed, most in the room), i.e., someone who didn’t roast every day, but supervised roasters, would be allowed in (very self-serving on our parts). The major debate was regarding importers, or as we fondly called them, “greenies.” It was a spirited and lively discussion, but ultimately we agreed to let greenies in, with caveats: they had to sample-roast regularly, their companies had to be SCAA members, and active sales pitches at RG functions would be frowned upon. This was another key decision: the RG would not be a company membership, but an individual one. I don’t think we realized quite how key that decision would be until years later.
After that, we set our sights on what we would offer membership. A Retreat, or weekend event of some sort was easily agreed upon; ideally, not a mini-SCAA Event next time. We also wanted to create intensive training, which later evolved into accreditation and eventually, certification.
The SCAA Board didn’t quite know what to do with us. We grew to a few hundred members right out of the gate, but we only charged $100 for membership. In the Board’s eyes, we were asking for (well, ok—demanding) activities, classes, a newsletter, an RG handbook a retreat, free beer….you get the picture. One of my distinct memories, which now makes me laugh very hard at myself, is of Shawn and I having the audacity to demand an automatic Board seat. We didn’t truly expect a “yes,” we really just wanted to be heard. While we didn’t get the Board seat, we found out we had strong supporters (Mark Inman, for one), and were given the green light to do what needed to be done, within reason.
Our OWN retreat…..
Our next main task was creating a retreat that had our own stamp on it. In a brainstorm session with Ted Lingle, we came upon the idea of a team event: a roasters’ challenge (it was basically Ted’s idea, but we took, and will continue to take, full credit). Basically, we would break up all the attendees into teams of 10 based on experience. They would be presented with 10 coffees and would have to create their “perfect blend.” All this would be mixed in with cupping classes, roasting classes, and the like; plus team time on sample roasters, and finally, production roasters. Needless to say, we created quite the challenge for ourselves—how would we get all those roasters up and running? Who would teach the classes that didn’t exist yet? Who was going to buy the beer?
Retreat time came. It was Thursday night, we had everything set up, and even though we were almost sold out, we still didn’t know if the Retreat would be a success. By the end of the night, the enthusiasm was overwhelming, excitement was brewing, and the next two days went off perfectly. Well, almost—turns out the resort we were at had booked an outdoor wedding. Come Saturday afternoon, right as the wedding party was getting ready to walk down the outdoor “aisle,” we realized that our amazing smoke and chaff collection system was blowing right out over the wedding party. My stomach did flip-flops; teams were right in the middle of roasting their final blends. To my surprise however, hotel staff supported us: we had booked first, and they had warned the wedding party beforehand. By Sunday morning, we realized we had achieved what we had wanted, and the Roasters Guild began to thrive.
Back to the present….
Flash-forward back to Seattle this past April. Seeing Mark, one of our earliest supporters, take the reins was quite a sight to see. But so was the sight of all the faces, all the fellow roasters who had contributed thousands of hours to create the Guild and what it now represents. We have a suite of classes and lectures that comprise our Level One and Two Certificate Program, which are not only taught here in the U.S., but around the world. The retreats have become “the” place for roasters to connect, to learn, and to further the craft of roasting; but most importantly, with all the success, it still has the same vibe as year one: roasters collaborating and learning together. Most importantly, our community has become respected and professional. We have shown the coffee world that great coffee is more than buying great green and brewing it perfectly; we are the middle, the solid foundation of it all.
However, this does not mean the work is finished, or that there is no need to volunteer anymore. The coffee roasting community’s needs are constantly changing. In order to continue being relevant to specialty coffee roasters the world over, we need leaders to step up who are willing to dive in and make a difference. It won’t be easy, but I encourage all to ask questions, offer ideas, and push back when you don’t think that needs are being met. Get involved—from personal experience, I can promise you it’s worth every moment!
Mike Ebert is the founder of Firedancer Coffee Consultants, which he created to help specialty coffee companies achieve success in all facets of the specialty coffee supply chain. Mike is a past president of the SCAA, founding chair of the Roaster’s Guild, and current president of Coffee Kids, whose mission is to improve the lives of coffee-farming families worldwide.