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I first met Brian Gaffney while working at an unobtrusive coffee shop in Brooklyn called Daily Press. This wasn’t the kind of place you’d go out of your way to visit—it was located right on a busy street in the southeast corner of Bed-Stuy—and mostly, it attracted folks who lived locally.
Instead, the fact that it was a neighborhood spot made Daily Press what it was. Almost every customer was a regular, someone who at least one of the baristas had built a relationship with. I remember Brian distinctly—he was friendly with everyone. He worked out of the shop pretty often, and was always curious about the types of coffee we were pouring.
Although Brian doesn’t work in the coffee industry as we traditionally think of it—he even describes his relationship to the industry as being “coffee-adjacent”—he’s continued to pursue his interest, writing about coffee for publications like Standart and serving on the board of the Coffee Coalition for Racial Equity (CCRE).
In this conversation, we revisit our nine-year-long friendship and discuss how to find ways to connect with customers. I continue to come back to this phrase that I think James Hoffmann, owner of Square Mile Coffee and former podcast guest, said once—one you’ll hear in this episode—that coffee is bad at telling its own story. Brian’s background is in marketing and brand strategy, so we talk about what it means for coffee people to take ownership of their own narratives.
But we’re not just talking about coffee shop owners when we say “coffee people.” When it comes to coffee’s narratives, Black and Brown people are all too often left out of the equation, even though their labor, both historically and today, continues to be the backbone of our entire industry—and yet the stories and ways we talk about coffee center affluent, white consumers. Brian and I discuss what a coffee industry led by Black and Brown people could look like, and how centering the perspective of the laborers in coffee has the potential to completely rewrite the industry’s future—and reverse the descent into sameness we seem to be experiencing now. Here’s Brian.
Ashley: We have known each other for almost a decade, which is wild.
Brian: I know—I'm so used to seeing you hanging out on Franklin Avenue, right near Atlantic Avenue. And that was the spot where we met and where we used to hang out. So even though we're now states and time zones apart, it's great to see you.
Ashley: I know, it's so great to see you, and it's so great to see you continuing to be part of the coffee industry and to be so active.
So I want to backtrack a little bit—I'd like to start at the very beginning with folks. I was wondering if you could tell me about some of your first memories of coffee.
Brian: Absolutely. My very first memory of coffee is sitting in my paternal grandmother's kitchen—Edna Gaffney was her name—and I'm certain that it was a brand of instant coffee. I'm certain that it came with sweetened condensed milk and I'm certain that it was served in those pink melamine cups.
And I remember that it was—which I didn't realize then—it was of course more milk than it was coffee, but that's my very first experience with coffee. And the one that is greatly imprinted on me.
After that, I remember being a professional in New York after moving here from Atlanta and doing some of the Starbucks runs, as one does, in between meetings at work. But the real genesis, the beginning of my love affair with specialty coffee started in my neighborhood in Clinton Hill, in Brooklyn. There's a little French bistro place called Choice Market and the barista there was Rafael.
I would always go in and get coffee and I'd add cream and sugar before I tasted the coffee. So I'd add it and then I would taste it after I added everything in. One day, Rafael said to me, “Brian, you always come in and add milk and sugar before you taste the coffee. So do you do that with your food? Do you add salt and pepper before you taste it?”
I said, “No Rafael.”
He said, “Okay, so don't do that with the coffee, just taste it. And then if you don't like it, add the milk and sugar.” I took him up on it, and that was really the beginning of my experience in specialty.
Ashley: It's funny hearing that story condensed into one anecdote versus what I would imagine was weeks, months of coming in every day and building trust and building a relationship. I think that it could seem a little jarring to be like, “Oh, that guy called you right out.” He was like, “You don't season your food before you try it. Why would you do that with your coffee?”
But when you think about how the relationship between you and Rafael was built, it's kind of the classic story of how we build trust with customers, which is really cool. It was that moment of trust that really brought you in.
Brian: You're absolutely right. There were months of me stopping in, grabbing coffee, him sending a madeleine or madeleines home for me to bring to the kids in the evening, where we did build the trust.
We got to, “Hello, how are you?” We got past just knowing each other on a first-name basis, him knowing my beverage before he approached me with that question. And you're absolutely right. It became the relationship, and because of the trust that we built in the relationship, that's what really gave him and granted him the permission to ask that question of me and for me to hear it without taking offense.
Ashley: Do you remember that first sip of coffee without cream or sugar?
Brian: I absolutely do. I absolutely do. It was bittersweet. And as a matter of fact, not only that, but I remember they were serving Intelligentsia at the time, and it was Intelligentsia’s El Diablo dark roast, and I just sipped it.
And the first thing I remember: It was hot, and that's when he also warned me to say, “Let it cool first.” The other thing that, which makes perfect sense, he reminded me is that part of adding the milk and the sugar also cools the temperature of the coffee. When you don't add anything, you need to wait a little bit longer. I hung on for a little bit because I wanted to taste it while I was there with him. I tasted it and it was bittersweet, but it was bitter in a rich way.
I'm also a huge dark chocolate lover—70+% cacao. It smarted a little bit, it had presence and it was naturally sweet. That was, I remember the first time he asked me about that—this natural sweetness in coffee to the point now—and now we're 14, 15 years from that first experience—I do note the natural sweetness of coffee. And so if you add something to it, it's not even that it tastes bad. It just doesn't taste like the natural sweetness of coffee.
Ashley: Oh, that's so interesting. I love that observation.
How do we know each other?
Brian: We know each other from Brooklyn. You know, it's funny, my roommate from college was from Brooklyn and he referred to Brooklyn as a planet.
We met at a point in my life where I was finishing up grad school. I was studying for a graduate degree in branding from the School of Visual Arts and Daily Press was a coffee shop [that] interestingly enough, also served Intelligentsia at that time.
Even then I was looking for what roasters [a shop carried] because I was developing a relationship with the roasters, and that's what led me to Daily Press. And you were there. So I was coming in, I was writing papers for school, ultimately getting to the point of working on my thesis project, and Daily Press became my third place. Yes, I came for great coffee, but I came for great company and I came to hang out and that's where you and I got to know each other up to and including the first cupping that you held there—that was also my first cupping, and my wife's first cupping. And that was really cool.
Ashley: I totally forgot that you were at that. I totally forgot that I even had that cupping!
But I remember being so excited to host an event like that. I think maybe you and your wife are the only two customers that were there because we held it at a weird time. It was nighttime. I think it was right as the store was closing, but it was all the baristas, and I think one of my roasting friends, this guy named Todd, and then you and your wife, so it felt like such an intimate and small gathering of people. It was really lovely.
Brian: That's such a perfect word. It was lovely. It was small and it was intimate and it felt safe. So I could explore—I didn't have to be intimidated because again, you think about cupping and you think about a lot of the stated protocols, the way you're supposed to slurp, right? The kinds of observations, the kinds of nomenclature that you're supposed to use to describe tasting notes, but there wasn't any of that pretense there.
It felt like a really cool place and time to taste a bunch of different coffees and see what they were, see what you like, see what you didn't and why and talk about it. I think because of the way that you hosted that first one—again, part of building that relationship—because I think even then I'd been coming for a few months before you hosted that first one. So it felt like a good place to come and a good experience to have.
And it was! We had a ball and I've been cupping coffee pretty consistently since then.
Ashley: It's incredible to see you continuing this journey into coffee because I think very rarely we get to see the reward of building trust with customers. Part of that is because we're not great at telling coffee’s story, which is something I definitely want to talk about, especially with your experience in branding and marketing.
But I want to talk about Daily Press a little bit more because I was wondering what made that—besides maybe the relationship that you were building with customers or with baristas—what made that your place?
Brian: Yeah, it's a great question.
What made it my place is the proximity to home. I could walk to Daily Press, so it was easy to get there. It was the fact that I knew the coffee because at that point Choice Market was no longer brewing Intelligentsia—they'd moved to a different brand and you all were brewing it. So I knew the coffee, got to know the place, then I got to know the space.
I remember being there relatively recently after it opened, meeting the owners, hearing what they wanted to do with the beverages. And then I remember the chocolate chip cookies. I think these chocolate chip cookies, the dough was being flown in from Philly and they were the most amazing chocolate chip cookies. If you got them right out of the oven, they were just warm, they'd melt in your hand on your way to your mouth.
That with a really beautifully brewed cup of coffee, that was perfect. I could stay in my neighborhood, have a fantastic experience, feel safe, and it'd be really easy, comfortable, and relaxed. And then just make my way back home.
Ashley: It's funny, those cookies, as you mentioned them, I'm both delighted because they were that delicious, but also having flashbacks of having to order these massive amounts of cookies and find spaces for them to be frozen because you're right—we had to get them in from Philadelphia. Someone had to go to Philadelphia to get them and have to come back with just hundreds of frozen cookies. And eventually, we stopped the charade. We're like, “We can't do this anymore.”
Have you ever had the chocolate chip cookies at Culture Espresso?
Brian: No, no, I’m putting that on my list.
Ashley: Oh, OK. You have to go to Culture on 38th and 6th Avenue. I used to work there in 2014 and we baked cookies fresh. As we’d take them out, people would just start lining up for cookies. For a while, we were basically a cookie place that sometimes serves coffee.
Before we got on the air, you were talking about how Daily Press was your place and that you haven't really made another place since then, which I think is really interesting—how much of the things we find comfortable and the things that we build attachments to are almost just lost to time. Like it just never happens again. It [doesn’t naturally happen] to just build another home or another space.
I was wondering why that is? Why maybe you haven't found another place? Or what about other coffee shops that you've gone to that just hasn't been … like, “This isn't my place,” or, “This isn't the place that I want to sit at for hours and talk to customers and talk to baristas,” you know?
Brian: Sure. I think a couple of things happen. One of them is that I started working in the city. At that time when I was finishing grad school, I was actually working in Brooklyn.
In July of 2012, I started working in the city. Part of my entire life orientation shifted from going from Brooklyn into Manhattan as opposed to being in Brooklyn. As a result, my ability to hit the coffee shop during the week went away. But at the same time, quite frankly, and again, I think I was there for a while and then you ended up changing and going from one coast to the next and I really am a relationship-based person.
I don't necessarily have tons of relationships. I think that I do small numbers of relationships really, really well. And so it's kind of—Ashley left, life has shifted. And at that point, I was learning so much. Part of what happened is my coffee relationship ended up following my spirits relationship a little bit in that when I found something that I liked in the spirits industry, instead of necessarily going to a bar, I would just buy it and have it at home.
So that way, the economics on it are far better. And then I can also explore, so the same way I can kind of explore coffee, I can do it with spirits. Since quarantine, I've been doing that quite a bit with mescal—mescal is kind of the spirit that I've been exploring a lot.
I ended up getting kicked off of the kitchen counter at home from buying equipment. I went from my Cuisinart 12-cup coffee maker with the grinder to buying my first Capresso grinder, buying my French press, buying my Chemex, buying a pour-over set … I remember I was part of Fellow’s first Kickstarter for the Stagg kettle.
Having watched what you did, watched what Rafael did, and being able to take some of those practices and try them at home, I also learned I'm very much a drip coffee person as opposed to an espresso-based person. I'm able to try these different methods, try different coffees. And for me, the experimentation is trying different coffees from different roasters, from different varietals, from different countries of origin … to explore and play gave me the ability to do that at home, based on the knowledge I learned, and enabled me to make home the place.
My office is in Midtown Manhattan. When I'm in the city, I would go to the Blue Bottle by Bryant Park. I go by Black Fox that opened on 45th, and I would go by Taylor Street. So these became the places where I would stop by and maybe say a quick hello and have a cup of coffee, but I wouldn't sit and linger the way that I used to when I would come to Daily Press.
Ashley: I think it's pretty rare for a customer to be as engaged as you are. I was wondering what about coffee drew you in? How did you decide that this was the thing that you wanted to explore more? Because as I mentioned, it's really hard to get customers to care as much as you do. Seeing that you're still here and you're even more engaged is so rewarding and empowering. I was wondering what kept you interested?
Brian: I'll be honest, I've had the benefit of baristas who didn't make me feel like they were the smartest person in the room and that I was dumb for not knowing as much as they did. I've had the gift of, as baristas learned, there was a sharing. With you in the cupping, you were sharing what you knew, what you learned as opposed to, “Hey, this is what I know, and this is what you don't.”
When I'm greeted with excitement and enthusiasm and the opportunity to explore, that can become contagious. As you would prepare a beverage to talk about the coffee, the conversation didn't stop with you. The same thing with Rafael, it wasn't about what he necessarily did with the beverage, but he was facilitating this experience that I was having with the coffee. So it enabled me to be more curious, to learn more, to learn about the origins, where they're coming from, to learn about the different kinds of roasts that exist.
Ryan Suh from Blue Bottle at Bryant Park, sorry, not Bryant Park. This was earlier than that … at Rockefeller Center when—it would be so cool—I'd go in the mornings to grab that morning cup of coffee. Because I typically have a morning cup and an afternoon cup and Ryan would be good. He'd share with me, “Hey Brian, this is coming in, we were doing some sample roasting on this coffee. This is something I want you to check out.” So he would let me know, “This is something new and different that you might be interested in.”
[We had these interactions] because it was relationship-based, right? It's about people, it's not about the beverage or the cup. It's about curiosity and the sharing of information and learning together. For me, that just became part of the motivation, and I wanted to continue that learning and that exploration journey on my own. And now, because of the benefit of social media, et cetera, it's really easy to go down as many rabbit holes as you'd like to learn what's available from whom, and what you might like to try.
Ashley: I mean, it's not just experimentation though that you've engaged with. You've written about coffee, you're on the board for the Coffee Coalition for Racial Equity. You are perhaps even more engaged than some baristas. How did you see your role in coffee as you continue to learn and you continue to engage and you started accessing these new networks?
Brian: There's an analogy that I sometimes use where I feel like coffee producers are like artists, singers, songwriters, and baristas are like DJs, and the best DJs turn you on to people that you like. As I started exploring more and more about coffee—if you think about wine, if you think about the farm-to-table movement in food—I just didn't see enough [in coffee] about the producers themselves.
On top of that, when you start to think about the fact that in the majority of coffee-producing countries, we're talking about Black and Brown people, and they just seem to be invisible, right? When you step into the coffee shop and you don't necessarily see that, “Okay, this is coming from Latin America, it's coming from certain parts of Asia, it's coming from Africa.” You don't see that.
I really became curious then about the history of coffee, which immediately takes you into structures of colonialism, slavery, and the use of enslaved labor to produce coffee, particularly when you start talking about Brazil, et cetera … realizing that there was not simply a culinary connection, but there was a historical and a cultural connection that I could have to coffee.
I talk about—and I can't remember what year it was published—but there was the book, Stuff White People Like, and I think the number one thing in that book was that it talked about an overpriced cup of coffee. I realized, “How is it that there's this product that's gone from Ethiopia to Yemen to the rest of the world that has been produced by hands of color, and yet many people of color don't even connect or associate with it?”
That was another motivator for me to the point where now, even as much as there are certain roasters that I really do like a lot and I buy from consistently, I also look a lot at producers. I actually buy [based on] producers and producers guide me to different roasters.
That's part of the article that I wrote for Standart, which was to show that “here you have this family in Huila, Colombia producing this particular varietal.” And it's me over the course of a year, following this particular varietal to different routes to about 10, 11 different roasters around the world. Just to show that, yes, consumers and customers do care that much, right? We are interested in those stories. We do want those stories to be told, but not in an imposing, demanding way. It’s an opportunity to see [the relationship between barista and coffee] that as the DJ is spinning this record, that he or she is sharing with us. When they first discovered this artist and how it made them feel, their excitement about it, that makes you want to listen to it. That's the way that coffee has become for me.
Ashley: I find that answer to be so fascinating because I think that … coffee's so roaster-centric, right? We follow roasters—even in the beginning, you were following roasters. You were like, “I'm going to go to this place because they have Intelligentsia,” because that's how we sell coffee. We sell coffee as this branded item for roasters, but then we also pad on this layer of, “Oh, but look at the good work we do with producers, pat us on the back, we're doing a nice job.”
But then going backward on that and saying, “Wait, let me actually talk to the producers who made this coffee and see who are the people that they like to sell to. And who's actually telling their story authentically,” is so interesting. We should be better at telling that story, but the fact that you had to go do that yourself to figure out who to buy from is wild to me.
So as a person with a marketing and a brand strategy background, diagnose the coffee industry—right now, just diagnose it all!
But what are some of the things that you think we could be doing better as an industry? And I know that that's a very open-ended question, so maybe we can break that down a little bit into some parts. As you look at our industry, as we look at us as storytellers trying to bring these stories of producers to light, where are we failing?
Brian: If I can ask you to stick with a music analogy for a little bit, I think specialty in particular spends some time singing to the choir. I think the industry spends a lot of time talking to itself. I don't mean to suggest that those things aren't important, because they are—however, if the goal is to grow the consumer base and get more people interested in it, then that journey looks very different than the journey of what we think is important.
As an example, do I really care as a consumer what points a coffee scores? I understand that that's an important buying criterion, but as the person standing across the counter, unless I'm of a certain level of engagement—whether it's an 84, 85, 87, 90—I mean, it's interesting, maybe if you buy wine and you're familiar with the wine points scoring, maybe?
Again, I'll go back to the first time at the Blue Bottle in Rockefeller Center, it was the first time I ever had a Kenyan coffee and Ryan brewed it for me. And he said, before I tasted it, he said, “Brian, smell it.”
He said, “What do you smell?” And I tried to describe it. He said, “If I say tomato soup, do you get that?” And he said it, and I smelled it again, I was like, “Ryan, I never would have said that, but you're absolutely right. I can smell it.” I tasted it and it didn't carry through to the flavor, you don't taste tomato soup, but the idea that he introduced me to the coffee via this note, and it was a shared experience that he and I had, I think it's that kind of thing.
It's genuinely connecting with consumers, not trying to sell me on what you want me to know about coffee, what you think I should know about coffee, but it's inviting me into the experience so that I can just appreciate it and enjoy it, right? It's not so much that consumers need to appreciate specialty coffee, but help us to enjoy it.
Help us to start a dialogue with the coffee, and then that dialogue with the coffee is what will help to increase the dialogue that we have when we're in the cafe. So finding and inviting consumers to participate in the conversation, helping us to be more curious is I think part of what is missing.
As I think about it again, that analogy of the music industry, the way that works in my head is I almost think of the roasters as labels, right? There was a time when Atlantic had a very specific sound, Motown had a specific sound, Arista had a specific sound—but we're now at a point where labels kind of facilitate that. But even in music, just as record labels are wrestling with what they're doing, I think coffee roasters are as well.
I think some are doing it really, really well. I think one of the brands that I started buying from is George Howell—[they] put the farmer front and center where they belong, and from the packaging you get that vibe … I've been buying George Howell’s Mamuto, the Kenyan coffee that he roasts from the Mathagu family. That was really the first coffee I ever had where I cared to learn more about the story of the producer.
And then, quite frankly, George Howell introduced me to another Colombian producer—Mauricio Shattah in Tomila, and the farm, Finca La Negrita, and I started buying his coffees. It got to the point where literally, Ashley, I learned about Mauricio Shattah and wanted to find more of his coffees.
I had a chance to talk to George Howell at a coffee event in New York. He shared with me that he sourced his coffees from Caravela. And then I ended up reaching out to Alejandro Cadena, the CEO of Caravela, and now Alejandro has become a friend and mentor for me. We've developed a relationship where he's helped me to understand, he's helped to feed that curiosity. He's helped me to understand as a consumer what this process is, what it takes to get coffee from trees into our cups.
As the coffee industry does that—facilitates that relationship with the producer, be the value add, be able to be a platform for this, and not be the end-all, be-all—I think you'll generate far greater, far more loyal and curious consumers that will be far better for the business and for the industry than we are today.
Ashley: It seems like for you, it was literally just the extension of knowledge that kept building these connections, which I'm trying to imagine visually … It's almost like connecting the dots, which seems a little bit simplistic to use that analogy, but it literally is like—George gave you a nugget of knowledge and then you build that connection between the two of you, and then it keeps going and it keeps extending outward. It seems like your coffee story is really about this building of connections in a way.
Brian: It absolutely is. It’s about when you're holding that cup in your hand, and then you realize, “Okay, great, it's a cup of coffee,” but if you, just for a moment, think about it—all the hands through whom that coffee has passed through is fascinating.
Now again, at this point, the consumer who is interested in this is not necessarily going to be looking at coffee as a pure caffeine delivery vehicle, right? The idea that this is a specialty beverage, that this is something that progressed through a lot of time, a lot of space, and a lot of hands to get to you. That is the piece that's important to me.
A.J. Jacobs wrote about it in Thanks A Thousand, where he talked about trying to thank all of the people involved in his coffee. Simran Sethi talks about it in Bread, Wine, Chocolate, where she talks about coffee and there's a moment of appreciation where she says a quiet prayer of acknowledgment for all of the people who were involved in that.
So all of a sudden, as you're sitting there with a cup of coffee, if you have the opportunity to do so, in that quiet moment, and you realize the depth and the richness of that coffee is not just about the flavor, but it's about the journey that bean went to get right from the seeds of the cherry to my grinder.
Ashley: I think maybe in 2016, I watched a competitor at the United States Barista Championship talk about how many hands touched a coffee, from being picked on a farm to physically being in her hands. And she said it was over a hundred. That was the first time I had ever heard someone put a number to how many people touch hands. And she wasn't exact, she just said she thought it was about a hundred based on the very crude math that she did for the specific coffee.
I thought, “Man, we are bad at telling our own stories if this is the first time I'm hearing this.” I think something that you said earlier in an answer was that you have this book, Stuff White People Like, and they complain about overpriced coffee, and yet we're not paying producers enough for coffee. At the same time, we’re also isolating Black and Brown people who are generally the people behind coffee, but we're isolating them at the consumer level from actually enjoying that final product.
I was wondering, as someone with a background like yours in branding and market strategy, how did our story become so messed up, I guess? We live in this dichotomy of like, “We're this overpriced thing, but we're not paying farmers enough, but we're isolating certain people.” We’ve done such a disservice telling our story. I wonder for you, how do you see that unfolding?
Brian: I think Ashley, for me, part of it is informing myself to really better understand the story. And then sharing that with people with whom I share a cup of coffee, or I have the pleasure of brewing a cup of coffee for.
I think one of the challenges and the realities is that coffee's a cash crop, and because it was used by and farmed and harvested by exploited labor. We've never properly valued it. I mean, to your point, let's just say that it's half as many hands, so instead of a hundred, it's 50—coffee passes through 50 sets of hands—and we don't want to pay more than $2 or $3 for it? To me, it's only when you begin to appreciate the fact that, “Oh, wow, there is this value chain. Coffee isn't this thing that I simply buy in a metal tin off of the shelf in the supermarket, or even in a bag, right?”
If, no matter what store I'm in, if I buy it in a bag and for [some folks], it’s just, “It went from wherever. Some people put it in a bag and now it's ready for me.” And so it's difficult to value it. I had a great conversation with Jon Allen from Onyx Coffee one day. Jon's point—and I'll never forget this—other than coffee, where can you have the absolute best of anything in the world? The best coffee possible, you're still probably not going to pay more than, absolutely no more than $20 for the absolute best coffee in the world. If that's the case, right, how do we get consumers to appreciate that?
This is going to require better storytelling, and better storytelling is everything—from what is the origin story of the coffee, right? We love that. Consumers love origin stories. We love it in superheroes. We love it in our favorite characters in any episode.
But at the same time, it's also giving us the information of, “How do I properly prepare it?” It is being able to provide that information about how to properly brew it, how to properly store that coffee. How can I, as a consumer, get the most out of it? And show me how to do that, if I want to go all-in on gear and do it as manually and as artisanally as possible. But also, if I’ve just got whatever coffee maker, how do I get the best cup of coffee out of that—help me have the best experience.
I think for the industry, a lot of time and energy is spent on cafe design. So you get kind of this visual aesthetic, and I think less time is spent on experience design—everything from how do you interact to find coffees on the website, right? When you go to a website, how do I know whether I want a natural processed or a washed coffee? How do I know what anaerobic processing is versus this other thing?
The wayfinding experience from the website to the cafe to after-purchase—and I'm having a brew at home—because that's the other complexity in coffee, that when people suggest that it's like craft beer or it's like wine, but the real difference in there is that you open the beer, you open the bottle of wine, and you let it breathe. Coffee, if you take it home, you still have to brew it and get that right. Otherwise, all of the value in the setup and the buildup that came before that can be lost.
By considering that experience in the life of your consumer, so that your consumer feels like, “I feel capable of trying [this coffee] and if I mess it up, there's a place to go for help.”
In a recent webinar that the CCRE had on Afrofuturism, one of our panelists, Philip Butler, who is a theological scholar and also an Afrofuturistic thinker and tech scholar, but one of the questions that he asked towards the end is, “What if we looked at coffee as a technology?”
Now we think about Black Panther, you think about what vibranium was there, but if we start to think about coffee as a technology, instead of as a commodity, instead of necessarily trying to pay as little for it as possible, trying to have as efficient a supply chain or value chain as possible, [this would mean] that we would figure out how to make it foundational—and how do we build upon it? How do we explore it?
So looking at it as a technology completely enables us to re-envision and re-imagine how we enable and invite people to engage with coffee, than just this commodity product that can be made generic. Really rethinking coffee itself, rethinking the rituals, rethinking the spaces where we prepare it and consume it, rethinking the vessels themselves…
Now I'm a big fan of the Lino Mug from Not Neutral because of the fact that the handle and the rim of the mug are at the same level and metaphorically, that means for me, that because you use the handle to lift it, that represents the labor or, in my mind, the producing countries. The rim, the bowl, represents the consuming countries. Most times the handle sits below the rim, right? The labor is subservient to the consuming countries. That was what triggered for me that aesthetically, because they're at the same level, there's equity in that cup of coffee, in the experience of that mug, that I don't experience with other mugs.
So, quite literally, all of the coffee mugs in my house are Lino Mugs. When the CCRE created its first piece of merchandise we chose the Lino Mug for that very reason—the visualization of equity.
Ashley: I have never thought about that. That is an amazing analogy. I need to sit with that for a minute.
I also feel like you and I can have a whole conversation about the inefficiency of coffee because I could talk about that forever. This is a really interesting point that I wrote down—I wrote down all the stuff that you wrote about technology because I want to touch upon that maybe a little bit later, but I also want to talk about your work with the CCRE and specifically, as you just mentioned, the idea of Afrofuturism in the specialty coffee industry.
I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about the the webinar that you just hosted on this topic and the implications Afrofuturism could have on the future of coffee.
Brian: What helped to anchor the idea of Afrofuturism to me as a framework to help us think about the future of coffee was a quote that comes from Florence Okoye, and that it reads as such: “Afrofuturism dares to suggest that not only will Black people exist in the future, but that we will be makers and shapers of it too.”
That's important because, particularly for Black and Brown people in coffee, with the exception of being the labor, we don't see ourselves in coffee. We don't see ourselves in the physical environment of the cafe. We don't see ourselves in many other parts of the value chain, particularly once coffee lands on the consuming side. So we're a bit invisible and we get lost in it. So if we begin to think about the future of coffee, I think quite frankly, Black and Brown people have the work of understanding, “What role do we want to assume to create that visibility that historically has not been there except on one side of it?”
Back to Okoye’s point, it is this idea of being a maker and shaper of it. So one of the questions that we talked about, for example, is what would a cafe look like if it was sitting in the capital city of Wakanda, and how would that be different from a cafe if it was sitting in Williamsburg in Brooklyn? They should look different, and it's everything from the kinds of beverages served, the visual aesthetic, the function of the barista, the way the countertop exists, and what kinds of barriers would exist between the barista and the patron.
All of those things have room to be re-imagined because if we limit specialty coffee to what it is today, it stops growing, and more and more people continue to be excluded from it.
When we think about re-envisioning and re-imagining coffee, some of it's happening in the consuming countries, but there are also growing trends in the producing countries. Vera Espíndola wrote a wonderful paper that I just read about seeing increasing consumption trends in Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia.
We have to rethink all of these pieces. It's not simply a matter of taking specialty as it exists today and copying and pasting into other communities or other countries. It’s reimagining the space where people of color are part of the experience and that aesthetic is part of the experience. It's not simply taking what the U.S. has decided it is or what Korea has decided it is, or any other country, but it really is figuring out in what context does coffee exists for us?
How can we enjoy it? Do you bring the jebena back? So we think about the traditional vessels serving coffee in Ethiopia that we don't see in cafes—why not bring those kinds of artifacts into the experience so that you do create these cultural linkages to coffee's origin?
Afrofuturism, and this idea of re-imagining it, is the framework that enables you to do that. It's the scaffolding to say, “What were the rituals? How was it roasted? How was it prepared?”
Something as simple as, when I have coffee in the afternoon, or I have someone over, I'll serve coffee with popcorn. I serve it with popcorn because in Ethiopia that's often the way that it's presented, but I don't think I've ever been into a third-wave shop in the U.S. where I've ever received coffee and popcorn. Not saying that no one's doing it—I just haven't had that experience. But this is what enables us to recreate and rewrite the narrative that centers us in the experience. So that we're not just at the margins.
Ashley: It seems like coffee in general suffers from this descent into a monoculture where we're all doing the same things. We're all designing our cafes the same way. We are all buying the same coffees. We are all talking about anaerobic fermentation.
At the last United States Barista Competition, I believe four out of six of the top six competitors used the same coffee—and not to say that those individuals are at fault for picking those same coffees, but it spoke to the bigger cultural problem of what are we valuing? As we descend further and further into a monoculture, who are we leaving out, and are we building any tools to make the coffee industry better if we're all descending into sameness?
Brian: Here's the interesting thing for me that—and this is one of the things that coffee shares with any industry—I remember growing up, you could easily tell just by looking at a car what was a Toyota versus a Honda versus something else.
Now we're at a point you're not quite sure what cars are, even as you look at it, you go upmarket with some of the luxury brands that they've all started to look the same. This is one of the areas where I think, again, many industries suffer. It is this rush to the bottom. It is this, “Well, if I can become the thing that most people like, then I'll be okay.”
This is one of the areas where I think, and again, I think we see some roasters doing a really good job with this, but it is going to be about what is my particular point of view in coffee? What coffees am I sourcing? What relationships am I building? Who is my customer base? Because why are we assuming that the same customer in Brooklyn is going to be the same customer in Omaha who's going to be the same customer in Phoenix and then in San Francisco?
Understanding that enables people to take more calculated risks—by no means am I saying, “Well, listen, don't buy the award-winning coffees that are award-winning.” I'm saying, “But are you offering flights? Are you enabling people to be able to experience the different varietals from a particular country? What are you offering other than saying, “Hey, I've got this award-winning coffee.” [What about, for example], “This is the experience that I want to share with you,” or, “This coffee matches with this particular food.”
It's bringing out these other pieces where it lets us go back to being curious about the coffees. Let's go back to being curious about the stories of the producers and what the best of these coffees are and how we can present that.
At the same time, I recognize it's going to be disruptive to the economics, right? I recognize cafe margins are really, really slim. And there are lots of things to consider. Labor on all sides of the value chain are considerations. But I think if you just start a cafe, looking at a template of, “This is about what coffees will cost me. This is about what labor should cost me…” what you lose the ability to say is, “As a cafe, who am I?” That kind of self-reflection and using that to inform everything from your menu to who you're hiring to how you present, I think really gives us the opportunity that whatever the future of coffee will be, will become far more compelling and interesting than it is today.
Ashley: Is there anything else that you want people to know about you or your perspective on coffee?
I think that—we didn't use this word specifically—but your insights are so interesting, both because of your background in branding and marketing, but also because you're technically not in the coffee industry. You're kind of outside of it, even though you are very involved and you've written about it, but a lot of your perspective and the perspective that you've shared, you've presented as the outsider.
I wonder what can people gain from listening to more people like you and what are things that you would want people to hear widely from outsiders and from customers?
Brian: I appreciate the question, Ashley, and I think some of it is in my social media handle, which is @coffee_adjacent, because I really do consider myself someone who sits on the margin. Thankfully, because of the relationships [I have], I've been able to learn a lot, I've been able to develop access. But it is the outsider's perspective [I have].
Every business should have someone or someones on the team who can be that outsider, who can maintain a fresh perspective to see—what are we offering? What should we be offering, what shouldn't we be offering, looking at data to figure out, “Hey, what sells really well? What doesn't? What do we want to try?”
I understand that margins are slim in this type of work, but where can we afford to fail? Where can we afford some inefficiency in a responsible way, because quite frankly, some of the standardization and the collapse to monoculture is due to trying to improve efficiencies, right? Because if I know if I just buy the award-winning coffees and I know I'm going to be able to sell those … but where can inefficiencies create opportunities to explore and to try? So someone should be that outsider.
Shop owners: You've got to think about the experience that you are enabling your baristas to have with your consumers. If you really want to build loyal consumers, the way that loyalty is built in other industries, you have to allow for points of interaction. Those points of interaction are going to be virtual, and they're going to be physical, but you have to figure out how to enable that so you can maximize that relationship between these two human beings as they come together over a beverage that was produced by human hands and passed through [human hands].
So you've got to figure out as you're running the business how to maximize that, and that has to be done intentionally. You cannot leave that interaction between the barista and the customer to chance, just like you don't leave your coffee menu to chance. So be intentional about it.
Simply be curious and ask—to the coffee industry, be curious about your consumers, ask us. Everything is about telling us what you think we need to know. I know I made this point a little bit earlier, but I think it warrants emphasizing. The more you can learn about us, the more you can give. Figure out how you can be the solution to those questions or those problems that we're experiencing. You can create new solutions, you can create new products and new services.
You can find different ways to present your coffees so that the cafe becomes a physical experience. That can be that platform that can connect the producers, the importers, and the exporters. Everyone in that value chain gets connected. And there's a story that's being told. And that story feels authentic without being exploitative.
The customer can then understand that $5 cup of coffee, that $6 cup of coffee. I understand why it costs that even if I decide that I don't have it within my budget to spend $5 or $6 for that cup of coffee, but I understand why. And quite frankly, I didn't understand why even at $5 or $6, because of coffee's history, that even that is probably undervalued. I mean, if we priced coffee at the minimum wage in the U.S., a cup of coffee would probably be a true luxury for most of us, if we had to pay everybody that living wage.
So I would wrap it up by saying: be intentional about all of your experiences, from physical to virtual. Be curious with your consumers and ask them questions and give them permission to tell you what they need and then empower and enable your baristas to really be the best DJs they can, to put that playlist together, to introduce new artists to the consumers. That's going to create an enjoyable and fun experience.
We need to be serious about coffee, and it is important, but for consumers to really step up the way we need to, to support the industry, we're going to have to enjoy it. And so don't lose that. Don't lose that romance. Don't lose that intimacy that we talked about at that cupping experience initially, because that's the thing that's gonna keep us coming back. That's going to keep us doing everything from traveling to origin to writing the articles to getting involved to volunteering at the festivals.
All of the things that I have done are because I've had the benefit of great baristas who have created these relationships for me, that I've looked beyond.
Ashley: Brian, thank you so much for joining me. This has been such a fun conversation, and I'm already thinking, “What am I going to talk about with Brian next?” I have some ideas.
Brian: It's been a blast. Ashley, thank you for having me again. It's not the same as being across the counter or hanging out in the cafe with you, but I appreciate the invitation and I absolutely look forward to sharing a cup of coffee with you at some point in the not too distant future.
This interview was lightly edited for clarity. Photo courtesy of Clay Williams.
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