How to Change Coffee's Future

Big, radical ideas and thinkers will be needed to remake the coffee industry. Begin with these resources.

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Right now, most of the stories we tell about coffee center affluent, white consumers. What would it mean for coffee if the Black and Brown people who have long been the industry’s backbone are empowered to decide its future?

On the latest episode of the podcast, my “coffee-adjacent” friend Brian Gaffney—who I met nearly a decade ago while working at a coffee shop in Brooklyn—and I spent half the time reminiscing about our shared coffee experiences, and half discussing strategies that could redefine the way we source, purchase, and consume coffee in the future.

Brian is a font of actionable ideas, which begin with interrogating specialty coffee’s narrative—and which pull from his background in branding and marketing:

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…

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.

Brian’s thinking has also been influenced by critical theory frameworks, including Afrofuturism, which he defined using a quote from Florence Okoye: “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.”

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.

Brian recently helped host a webinar on Afrofuturism in coffee as part of the Coffee Coalition for Racial Equity (CCRE), moderated by Korie Pickett, with panelists Dr. Philip Butler, John Onwuchekwa of Portrait Coffee, and Bartholomew Jones and Renata Henderson of CxffeeBlack. In the webinar, the participants discussed how Afrofuturism is “a speculative, reverse chronological concept that allows us to envision alternative futures that are not encumbered by the past. Then, working backwards, from opportunity to reality, we can identify the practices and policies needed to bring that future to light.”

In the webinar, Brian used the example of the moon landing: In 1962, President John F. Kennedy outlined a plan to go to the moon, which, as Brian pointed out, no one knew how to do at the time. The plan was vague but ambitious, and seven years later, the dream was realized. In coffee, this way of thinking—ambitious ideas and backwards planning—could be used to achieve radical change.

Specifically, Brian called attention to the idea of coffee as a technology rather than a product. What happens when we think of coffee’s innate potential rather than its end destination?

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…

Some folks are already applying this way of thinking, as Brian notes. I’ll go back to Batholomew and Renata of Cxffeeblack, who use their platform to reclaim coffee’s Black history and pave a future for people of color in the industry. Brian also mentioned Vera Espíndola, who wrote a paper on increasing coffee consumption in producing countries, noting that “what is clear, looking at supply and demand, is that in the foreseeable future, a significant long-term rise in coffee prices is unlikely, despite temporary surges.”

While folks in coffee-consuming countries talk endlessly about increasing the price of coffee—which is not a bad thing to hope for—Vera’s paper argues for a solution that centers those affected. Coffee is a $200 billion industry, and that revenue relies on the work of farmers—who then export their valuable product, and see virtually none of the profit. “For producers to reduce risk, additional opportunities to create and capture more value are key. Therefore, it is vital to commit to strategies that enable producers to create (more) value and allow them to obtain a higher and better share of the consumer price. Cultivating domestic consumption actively should be part of the strategy of a producing country and its market,” she writes.

Folks like Brian, Dr. Philip Butler, Renata and Bartholomew, and Vera have lots to say about the potential future of coffee, imagining what’s possible and working backward. Brian also had his own suggestions, a few handy resources that’ll help illuminate some of the bigger points we discussed:

Caravela Coffee’s Impact Report 2020. I believe that the KPIs (key performance indicators) that they are capturing, measuring, and sharing can help to inform the conversation (and content) across the value chain. 

Kark Wienhold’s recently published Cheap Coffee. I’m only about a third of the way through it, but this is going to be an important resource. 

I hope you really spend time with Brian’s episode and follow every thread, every bold idea, and begin to think radically about how we can change the future of coffee for the better.

Before you go…

Since there are so many resources in this piece, I’ll keep this section short, but I’m learning more about democratic lotteries for a future story I’m writing. I was turned onto this idea by Mansi Chokshi, who was a guest on the show a few weeks ago, and she mentioned an episode of the Revisionist History podcast that inspired her to think critically about how we can use democratic lotteries in coffee.

Revisionist History isn’t a podcast I normally listen to, but this particular episode made me consider how we code for “merit” and decide on the best leaders. It’s mind-boggling how bad we are at making those decisions.

Also, I MOVED! I left Chicago a few days ago, and will be relocating to Madison, Wisconsin in July. For the time being, we’re in between places, so you might see snaps of me on Instagram traversing the Northern Midwest over the next few weeks!

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