Erin Meister: Symposium In Requiem

 
By 25 April 2012
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A final look at Symposium 2012, from our special correspondent Erin Meister.

 

Like a proverbial preteen caught snooping through the parental dresser drawers, I felt a vague kind of almost nervous out-of-placeness throughout my experience at Symposium 2012. Don’t get me wrong, I had a wonderful time, I learned, I tweeted, and I basked in the glow of an assembly of coffee pioneers, geniuses, and powerbrokers. Perhaps that latter point is why I felt a bit on the outside looking in: Or, at the very least, a little lonely.

Because of either subject matter or expense (or both), the standard programming at Symposium appeals to and attracts a pretty specific crowd. Namely, the Big Decision Makers in Specialty Coffee. Role call: Coffee roasters, cafe owners, brand managers, green-bean importers, producers, and a myriad of folks whose titles comprise strings of capital letters (CEOs, LLCs, BFDs).

This is, of course, a good thing. It’s important and advantageous to use the natural gathering point of SCAA as a way to bring together power brokers and discuss industry-wide strategy. Our industry makes the most of this time once a year to put some valuable heads together in the same room, where they can troubleshoot our collective issues. This year’s program reminded me of a TED conference, right down to the Coffee Common-esque multiroaster, multibarista coffee service during breaks. And not just for the coffee, but for the undeniable fact that Symposium 2012 took place behind a kind of velvet rope. (Velvet jute bag?)

Just like at TED, Big Issues were certainly discussed, and with great, impassioned, and inspiring fervor: How do we make specialty coffee more sustainable? How do we launch a counterstrike against increasingly-ubiquitous K-cups, and the pervasive allure of their perceived convenience? What is to be done about vanishing coffee lands, about diminished yields, about food crisis at origin?

But when the speakers exhausted themselves and the crowd was dismissed for recess, whom did we all ask for information about the actual coffees being served? The baristas in the lobby, outside the lecture hall.

A lot of arm-waving goes into these conversations, and it’s pivotal that we as an industry get riled up enough about them to do something to effectively push back. But who among those in the auditorium, behind the closed doors, is going to spread that message among coffee consumers? The importers? The roasters?

The barista is the parish priest to the industry archbishops gathered at Symposium. It is the barista who’s in the pulpit of the cafe every day, preaching the good and dirty word of specialty coffee to any and everybody who will listen. And it is unfortunately, in my mind, the barista who is unintentionally kept at bay at events like this, relegated instead to spectating at the coffee-making competitions and on the trade-show floor. Not that baristas don’t love showmanship and free samples, but I feel as though there’s tremendous value to be added to future Symposiums by including those voices – and those perspectives – in the main room.

There is an argument to be made for active barista inclusiveness at Symposium, so what would it take to make it happen? Would some kind of scholarship program, like this year’s geared toward incentivizing producers work to encourage accessibility to baristas? What about a discount rate for larger companies sending 3 or more baristas to the event? A discount for part-time volunteer service? A Hunger Games-esque national lottery, where prized free tickets to Symposium 2013 are given away to eligible SCAA member shops? Or would a panel discussion that includes a greater diversity of voices do the trick?

(Also, while I’m got the conch: Perhaps we could recruit more women from within the industry to participate next year? Most of the female voices on that stage – with the notable and incredibly valuable exception of SCAA deputy executive director Tracy Ging – were culled from the worlds of cheese, third-party strategy consulting, food advocacy, and journalism. Surely if women like Asnakech Thomas, Ethiopia’s sole female coffee miller & exporter, are impressive enough to talk about, talking with them would have even greater impact?)

That said, this is meant to be a gentle criticism of Symposium, and one that is born from recognition of its values. I bring up my desire for increased barista inclusion because I think it’s a shame to see the thought-provoking and valuable dialogues of Symposium restricted by a kind of intellectual fire wall, when they could be igniting across every branch of our industry. A great sermon is hard to embody and empower when it’s delivered in a vacuum.

Archbishops, gather your parish priests. Give them your great message, and send them out into the world armed with the knowledge, passion, and caffeine it takes to start making a difference to consumers. Consider the many memes of Symposium 2012: the difficulties faced by those who grow wonder at origin; a renewed and revitalized focus on service; and the need for enduring partnerships to exist between coffee producers and buyers. For these issues and more, you’ll find those kids in the hall serving coffee to be among the most powerful, faithful advocates. Can I get an Amen?

Sprudge.com contributor Erin Meister also writes for The Nervous Cook and Serious Eats, and is a customer relations representative for Counter Culture Coffee. This concludes her week-long #symp2012 coverage.

More from Meister on Symp2012:

Day 1, Part One
Day 1, Part Two
Day 2, Part One
Day 2, Part Two

 
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