Sweet Maria's Home Coffee Roasting

Tom's Brief and Biased 2009 SCAA Report

Specialty Coffee Association of America Conference: Atlanta, Georgia April 17-19, 2009

Thompson, Naomi from Diedrich Roasters, Chris Schooley

Teaching some roasting, and people actually seem interested!

The "automatic" Diedrich - with remote gas and air control.
I really enjoyed using it, actually! David from the UK at the

Cupping the roasts at the roasting lab.

Winners! from the cup tasting competition.

Dear Atlanta,

While I enjoy your "Little 5 Points" neighborhood, your downtown is incredibly boring and generic, as are most downtowns these days. I was so happy that the National Robotic Championships for high schools teams was on at the same time, because I am basically a 44 year old nerd at heart, and it was nice to see a whole new generation of slouchy, awkward kids who take all their cultural queues from their 8th grade science teacher, japanese anime and harry potter. Right on! Regretabley, I will not be coming back soon.

Awfully sorry it didn't work out between us,



So I went to the SCAA conference. I met a lot of friends in the coffee trade, saw people I wanted to see, and a few I didn't want to see. I geeked out in the roasting lab, was awed by variable pressure heads on the Slayer and Marzocco espresso machines, and was left stumped by ... well, too many lame coffee products to even start to list. The big question is, was it worth it. And I really don't know. I can guarantee that for many exhibitors trying to hock their products and services, it was not worth a plugged nickel.

Some aisles on the trade show floor looked like Dodge City at high noon; all that was missing was the dusty desert breeze blowing a few tumbleweeds down the row. For those unlucky ones, they might want to remember to bring a deck of cards next year, or a Gameboy perhaps. A few booths seemed to be busy. Counter Culture seemed willful of taking complete possession of the show, and their booth featured cupping and custom shots, and other relevant stuff in all directions. The usual packaging folks where there with their massive Form Fill Seal machines making empty little puff pouches falling into useless heaps on the floor, a fine analogy for the dissonant nature of the sellers and their markets in general.

The kicker is the the fact that the biggest boner of the show, the mypressi portable espresso maker, another imposter "espresso" device that uses the oh-so-green technology of throw-away CO-2 cartridges to force water through coffee, won the SCAA award for Best New Product 2009/2010. How much disaffection can one feel for a trade association which awards a device that undercuts the very definition of the beverage? WHo was fooled by the fact that they shape the mypressi like a coffee handle from espresso machine. Does that make it taste like espresso? Does a hotdog taste more like a hotdog because it is served from a car shaped like a hot dog? (Sorry, that analogy was an insult to the weinermobile; I don't mean to sully the name of such a great icon).

One of the large changes that impacted the conference was the "Symposium" that was held for two days before the official opening. It was billed as a way to buy yourself in to the "coffee elite," to mingle with the bigshots and trailblazers. Oh, and it costs $1000, 2+ more days of your time, 2* more nights of NOT cheap hotel room. Those add up to a lot. It would be a huge sacrifice to go. I know SM is not your basic coffee roasting company, but in scale we are very similar. In years past I actually had to SHUT DOWN sweet maria's to go to the SCAA. Lots of small roasters, some who are incredibly innovative are in that boat still. Others are more like current-day Sweet Marias. We have a manager at the warehouse (Josh), we have competent office people to process the orders (Derek, Erika, Mike), and since Maria would NEVER want to go to the conference (she would find it fatiguing and endlessly boring as well ... remember, Maria isn't as ambulatory as the most of us), she stays back with Ben and holds things together. Anyway, we stay open we I leave. But there are quite a few things that stop when I leave ... like all cupping, blend and espresso development, review writing, web site content, for the most part. We;re not like the bigger roasters in Portland, Chicago, that have dedicated green buyers/travelers, dedicated web authors, and dedicated QC cuppers to keep everything rolling along. So travel time that is not spent on the farms, in the coffee mills, traveling with an exporter, or at a coffee competition is tough to justify. And hey, $1000 isn't chump change. So the Symposium has a lot against it from the perspective of the little guy, and in my book the small roaster is the heart, soul and guts of coffee.

So if the Syposium was just a shmoozy business networking add-on, it would be easy to dismiss. The fact is, a good 50% of the Symposium content was actually quite worthwhile: the presentation on the Ethiopia ECX exchange that has everyone tied up in knots, with almost no coffee being exported right now... the hugely respectable Tony Marsh and his presentation on Sumatra cultivar testing ... those two stick out in my mind.

The Syposium was created because the quality of the Education Sessions (panels and presentations given in the morning hours of the regular conference) had seemed weak for years. They are often given by people who have some vested interest, a product or service related to the presentation, in a sense becoming an extended infomercial. The idea is attract true academics and others by paying a small honorarium to come to this small Syposium beforehand, to offer truly enriching presentations with the benefit of their new perspectives. And I want to add that the regular conference attendance became a lot cheaper, down to like $100 from $300 plus change before.
But what is that $100 worth these days. What is the 3 days of regular conference worth? If it has simply been abandoned to averageness, to a futile acceptance of lower quality sessions for all the non-elites without the time and money to super-infuse their diet of coffee information with a Symposium jolt, we're left to just consume flavorless highly commercialized stew of pap.

Formerly we had the NCA National Coffee Association, for the big guys, usually at a golf resort in Florida or something, purely a self-congratulatory love fest for the suits. SCAA was created in opposition to that, when the term Specialty might have meant a lot more. That word has been cheapened greatly over the years as the organization whores itself out in search of revenue streams. There has also been a very positive trend in the last 5 years or so with the creation of Roasters Guild, cupping and roaster training, and general interest in green coffee quality, not just new innovations in foamy coffee cup sleeves, lucite coffee dispensers, pump pots, more syrup flavors, frozen coffee and granita machines.

But where are we headed now? Who is symposium for? Who can afford it? Why cheapen everyone else's ticket, including mine, by extracting good content and secreting it away for an audience of time- and money-rich elites? Why didn't anyone ask us, all of us, who pay dues to SCAA? What is the hope now to actually INVEST in the education sessions available to all members at the show.
And why would anyone be pissed? Well, how would you feel if you got on a flight, and found yourself in the back row with nothing but Ron Popeil and Garden Wiesel infomercials to watch for four hours, and first class customers where watching the latest releases, or a Fritz Lang classic,. or your favorite HBO show or whatever. You would accept it, because that's how it goes when their is tiered service. They get better food up there, better service, better content. But I thought the coffee trade was something better. I thought it was a place where innovation came from the small guys, where they were respected, and they mattered ...because it was supposed to be SPECIALTY coffee, lots of choices, lots of ideas, a multitude of us little guys who have different ideas about what we do, offering our local areas rich options in coffee types, drinks, styles, what-have-you.

So what should I do now? Go to Symposium and screw the regular show? Vice versa? Or just shake my head and bail on the whole thing.
Worse of all, the unpalatable choice of cities (Anaheim is next) is pretty convenient to Oakland, and shouldn't I just go? Will Symposium improve into something much better, too good to scoff at? Should it be rejected on principle. Is any of this worth the time and thought when, IMHO, any trip to origin is of more value than conference +symposium combined. After all, I have the Internet to use as a way to gain information and exchange ideas. What value is trying to absorb rich, dense or technical coffee information in a social setting. I can study on my own.

I don't know the answers and am ambivalent myself. Certainly the conference needs to be reformed. As a separate event and a different time of the year, Symposium might end up being much more enlightening than the SCAA. Maybe the price can come down, and it will be more accessible and affordable than the big tent scaa show. Maybe it will be the better alternative. But I see that nobody is asking questions about which way we are headed. And to be honest I don't want to be the one to fix it, change it, take a role, or volunteer more than I do. My job is to innovate at Sweet Maria's and, as you can see with the work that goes into reviews and such, there is not a lot of energy for me to do much more. But I am left with a lot of thoughts on the subject, and wanted to write them down. Dismiss me as a malcontent, fine. I guess I can't help it. That's all.

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