Polarization

Lord knows I love where the specialty coffee industry is going: all of the experimentation with brew styles, a new focus on seasonality, etc, etc, etc. It’s all a plus and I hope that it is going to raise coffee out of it’s current, predominantly fast-food frame of reference. But, really, I hope beyond all hope that the public debate over where all of this is going doesn’t devolve into the kind of polarizing, “either you are for us or against us” type of rhetoric that, for instance, predominated the political discourse – and still continues today – in the George W Bush era of U.S. politics. I fear it is heading that direction.

Hints of this veering toward polarization are the most recent posts on Doug Zell’s (owner of Intelligentsia) blog (onetwo). They represent a challenge, to be sure, but I think Mr. Zell manages to keep the level of discourse on a respectful level. I fear, though, that Mr. Zell’s pieces have gone some way toward creating a permissive environment, i.e. I fear the tenor of the conversation has been raised while the level of discourse shows signs of being lowered. To wit, this piece on god shot.

Here is my comment on said post (not, as of this writing, yet approved by god shot’s author see the end of this post):

This is a perfect example of the sort of attitude that I feel is counter-productive to the industry, the kind of polarizing public posturing that became so popular during the Bush years. It’s the sort of attitude that creates an “us vs. them”/”if you’re not for me, you’re against me” sort of mentality that I would have hoped had been scrubbed clean from our collective consciousness by now.

Do I enjoy an SO espresso? Hell, yes. Do I enjoy and appreciate the sort of thinking that goes into the creation of a seasonal espresso blend a la Black Cat? Again, hell, yes. Do I think that this sort of approach to the industry is good for the industry? Absolutely.

But do I think that those who choose to continue to offer an espresso blend that presents a consistent flavor profile to their customers should be “called out” or should, by implication, be called cowards, slothful or negligent? Absolutely, positively not.

This is your blog, your forum, your place to post whatever you desire and I, in no way, have any real say in the content of this blog. But I will use this space to say that this sort of polarizing opinion is, in the end, going to be as damaging to the industry and its desire to widen its customer base, as you imply that sticking to a consistent flavor profile in espresso blends will be.

Look where it got us in national politics.

Implicit in the god shot piece is an assumption that every roaster that offers an espresso blend which presents a consistent flavor profile to the public is put together in the same way. This is not an assumption that the author of god shot is equipped to make and I feel it does a disservice to those roasters who, while seeking out consistency, still keep their focus on quality.

As I read the “Death to Generic Espresso Blends (and generic thinking)” piece – and this, for me, is the personal tragedy – I kept on wondering weather this was the blog I thought that it was. “Was this”, I kept thinking, “the same blog, that contributed to the specialty coffee conversation, the excellent ‘State of SF Coffee’ series?”. I loved those pieces (part 1, part 2 & part 3). I thought they were balanced, informative and fair. “This couldn’t be the same blog”, I thought. I was wrong. I know god shot can be better because I’ve seen it.

What I have most admired in what I have noticed in the the current players in the specialty coffee industry is the amount of openness and willingness to share information. It’s been a breath of fresh air and it has presented an inclusive and generous face to counter what I see as the closed and provincial corporate culture that exists between the players in what many call the “second wave” coffee purveyors. As a perfect example of this provincial behavior, one need only investigate the entire Clover situation. Starbucks took a technology –  a technology that while certainly expensive, promised a level of customization and exploration of each and every coffee’s numerous flavor profile possibilities that at the time was unprecedented – and bought the technology only to horde it away and keep it all to itself. I hear now that Starbucks may be introducing drip stations in many of their stores. RIP the Clover? What a waste.

The god shot post at issue here is fractious and harsh. This sort of discourse only fractures what I see as one of the greatest strengths of the curent crop of participants in the specilaty coffee industry: the interwoven and collegiate atmosphere that pervades it and provides strength in the face of the “second wave” corporate goliaths.

I hope that the discourse on where the coffee industry is going can continue with, if it is so desired, the tenor high but the discourse just as high if not higher.

UPDATE: My comment has, indeed, been posted, as has been the author’s response.

UPDATE #2: Just in case my response to the author’s comment is not posted, I’d just like to reiterate that my problems with the god shot post in question have nothing to do with the content – much of which I am in total agreement with – but rather the tenor of the post.

I feel that it was a near ad hominem attack on the character of any and all roasters that don’t hew to the exact line laid out by the author. It is unfair to many of the people of this industry who are devoted to their craft and “call then out” simply because they choose to prefer espresso blend consistency over simply seasonality. Calling roasters who do not prefer to do things the way the author proposes “lazy” and “afraid” or suggesting that they are purposely deceiving their customers is not a constructive way to achieve change in the industry. I am surprised that many people I admire in this industry have not come out against the tone, regardless of the content.

I am not intending to ask anyone to “shut up” but merely, hopefully to have a positive effect on the tenor of the discussion about where an industry I love is going. There are many examples of the approach to change that I espouse here, including the blogs of James Hoffman and the blog at tonx.org. It’s not as if it is uncharted territory to concentrate on the practices of the industry while, at the same time not demonizing individuals, weather mentioned directly, by name or not.

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4 thoughts on “Polarization

  1. I have to say, I'm glad you wrote this. I as well, have liked some of the postings by the God Shot, but this one was a bit disturbing. Somewhat misinformed and the tone was absolutely immature. Choosing not to post my name, but I would like to say this, your blend is about taste, bottom line. Let whomever designs the blend, be the judge, the proof is in the cup.

  2. I came across the god shot blog for the first time when I read the post you are writing about. I found the whole thing pretty contrived to be honest. Whilst I agree that a good seasonal blend is a great idea I think that some of his comments were elitest and miopic. There are some amazing blends out there and to say they are all poor is just short-sighted!It appears that some bloggers or whatever we want to call ourselves are too into their own hype and everything that doesn't fall in-line with them is wrong which I find quite saddening.Lee Wardlebarista uk blog

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