Then the Rebels Moved into the Palace and Lost their Voice


SCAA was founded by rebels who had almost nothing to offer in exchange for membership dues beyond a promise to sing the anthem of the revolution from what heights they could attain by floating atop the shared and unified voices of a small group of radicals who believed coffee was more than a commodity, that quality mattered, and that consumers could tell the difference and would pay for it. As befits anyone accepting the moniker of “Founding Generation” inside a revolution, they could not afford to stop and ask what was in it for them.

I think it is almost impossible for those who came later to understand what they did, the tide they swam against and the amount of time, talent, and treasure that went into those early years, especially before the hiring of professional staff. I’ve been through the archives. Early SCAA presidents were also executive director, secretary, membership sales, and product development. Nothing was in it for them, not at the time. But they understood the work of preparing the ground for the future, investing in things hoped for but not seen.

Their hope, the hope of those who decided to bet against the prevailing opinion and tide and strike a new path turned out not to be in vain. These few gave birth to an association representing a relatively small sector in the overall coffee industry that nevertheless halted a 30-year decline in overall consumption. Today, while there are coffees and consumers of coffee spread all along the coffee quality continuum, nobody argues that coffee is anything other than a highly differentiated product. Your niche, wherever you find it in specialty coffee, can be traced back to coffee folk who didn’t know what change would bring, they just knew that the bigger their voice, the more likely an audience.

Right now, while the world is full of voices and votes seeking to create walls and barriers between people, I’ve been thinking about the SCAA conference in San Francisco in 2000. The theme of the conference was sustainability, and though it seems hard to imagine now, there were those who didn’t think an entire coffee conference could be devoted to sustainability. The keynote speaker was environmentalist and activist Paul Hawken. Hawken told those gathered that the specialty coffee industry was a pioneer in the realm of sustainability, an example to other industries, and that we should be proud of forging new ground. We still had some rebel in our boots then.

It is time to summon up that rebel, the radical spirit. Following a revolution there is always the risk that the rebels may move into the palace and grow comfortable and begin to fear change just because it is change, like those they fought against long ago. The movement becomes a monument. But right now, as voices all over the world scream about “us and them,” the specialty coffee industry can again rebel and be an example. Who knows better than we, those who travel the planet both buying coffee and brewing coffee, that there is no them. It is all us.

Despite the impressive growth of the specialty coffee industry over the last two decades, we are still the minority in volume and voice and the priorities of some in the majority are not always aligned with ours, which is, as our tradition dictates, to focus on those who will come after us. We don’t want to dominate the conversation we just want to be included… every single time if you don’t mind. Like the founding generation of SCAA, we know that a bigger voice means a bigger audience and a bigger audience means more influence on the future.

The growth of specialty coffee has brought new talent and bright minds into the industry, those who are the reincarnation of the founding generation, and their lot will not be to bring change the neighborhood or the city or the region or even their coast. The world is their stage if we prepare the stage for them.yes

For me, one bigger voice is all the reason I have ever needed to believe in unification between SCAE and SCAA. The very first article I ever wrote about coffee was about the newly formed SCAE in 1998. Because I was new to the industry and had no experience to pull from, I rambled a little aimlessly about Trotsky and Café Central in Vienna. But then I settled down to business and wrote:

Little, if any, evidence of such turf wars was apparent in London on June 5th. Keeping pace with the politicians and their move toward unity, over seventy members of the European specialty coffee community gathered for the founding of the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE). Commenting on the founding of the association, Alf Kramer of the Speciality Coffee Association of Norway, an SCAA member, and the SCAE’s first President said, “As coffee enthusiasts, we will be better heard as a strong association than as individuals.”

The founders of SCAA had, each of them, already seen what “I can do,” and they decided it was time to see what “we can do.” Every board member and association president since has taken time away from their businesses and careers because they already knew what “I can do,” and they wanted to see what “we can do.” The members of SCAE voted for a unified association because they want to know what “we can do.” Now it is our turn. I vote that we shake off the rebel rust.

July 2016