Ahh, glorious MANE, a three-day pleasure trip of education, bonhomie, and world-class speaking engagements. Your Sprudge.com editors were in full attendance, running around like loony toons getting ready to host and produce not one, but two well-received panel discussions, one of which featured more of our evolving live performance late-night TV schtick. Here's our staff writer Alex Bersnon, with a welcome recap of the weekend's rapture.
I, Alex Bernson, recently had the supreme pleasure of accompanying my Sprudge.com dark overlords to the the 2012 MANE conference in Providence, Rhode Island (actually Pawtucket), hosted by the kind people at New Harvest Coffee Roasters. It would be difficult for me to overstate the superlatives of this event – it really is one of the best, most unique, fiercely independent and educational coffee events I have ever attended, and I'm not the only person who feels that way. In its fifth year, MANE has elevated to some serious world-class status, especially for the quality of the presentations, the demos, and the educational interactions between attendees and experts.
This was my first time at MANE, and I was really blown away. There's no way I could recap it all, so I've decided to just share five impressions that struck me from the trip.
1. Coffee people are a bunch of interesting weirdos.
One of the absolute highlights of the weekend for me was watching Jordan Michelman get his James Lipton on as he interviewed a number of coffee luminaries live in a late-night talk show-style panel called “How Did I Get Here?” Mr. Michelman's five guests each had fascinating stories of how they wound up in coffee, with some interesting commonalities—like James Hoffman and Scott Guglielmino both starting off “selling fancy coffee makers to rich people”—and some amazing deviations like John Moore (Dallis Coffee) making the “responsible decision” by choosing coffee over a life of touring with The Inferno Friendship Society, “a 13 piece punk band where everyone was sleeping with each other.” It's rare to see people be so giving of themselves, and their personal stories, in front of a live audience like that. This panel killed it.
2. There are, in fact, women in coffee.
If you've been to a lot of specialty coffee industry events, especially higher-level conference-type ones, you may be under the impression that men greatly outnumber women in specialty coffee. At MANE that was not the case! I know this might be kinda shocking to you, but I swear, the attendee split at MANE was like 60/40 women to men, and the weekend was full of women giving awesome presentations and appearing on panels. Women! Everywhere! At a specialty coffee event thingy! Whodathunk?
Highlights included: Sprudge's “How Did I Get Here” interviews with Colleen Anunu (Director of Coffee for Gimme! Coffee) and Katie Carguilo (USBC Champ, Counter Culture Coffee CSR); the aforementioned Ms. Carguilo's Processing and Fermentation class; Teresa Von Fuchs‘ (Director of Coffee for Irving Farm) Chemex lab session; and Anne Nylander‘s (Membership Coordinator, SCAA) insights and opinions as a part of Sprudge's “Retail Therapy” panel. It's worth mentioning that the brains and dedication and organizational skills that make MANE happen in the first place belong to Gerra Harrigan (Director of Business Development at New Harvest Coffee Roasters), who did a stunning amount of work putting this event together. MANE = very inclusive, regardless of gender or orientation or politics. Other coffee events could learn from this example.
3. Erhmagerd, clerms!
I know I am not the first person to bring this up, but seriously, New England has some pretty banging shellfish game. From the white clam pizza at Frank Pepe‘s to mussels at Redstripe, “Stuffies” at Gregg's and utter clam-sanity at The Place (“Put Your Rump on a Stump!”), pretttttty much all we did all weekend was eat bivalves.
4. Water is amazing and I should backflush my machine with soap way more often.
MANE definitely owes some of its unique charm and success to how well-pitched and useful the content is for people on the front lines of making coffee. This was particularly true of the classes taught by Scott Guglielmino, Product Manager at La Marzocco (who deserve huge props for their support as machine sponsors of the event). Mr. Guglielmino's “The Year of An Espresso Machine” class covered the regular maintenance you need to do to keep your espresso machine running smoothly, but even more usefully, it included a chance to pick Scott's brain on anything machine-related. In his talk, he mentioned that people really need to be backflushing with chemicals more often, ideally after every $500-$1000 in sales. His explanation was quite convincing, and he also gave a sufficiently convincing explanation of why it's okay to backflush one group with chemicals while still using the other one. Something about NSF certification and pressure and tubes and stuff — you should probably ask him (@scottflex), not me.
You should also ask him about water. Mr. Guglielmino gave a fascinating in-depth presentation on water, including great information on how it changes seasonally, what it does to flavor, and what the various strategies are to condition it. Seriously fascinating stuff — I took like three pages of notes. Scott plans to give his water talk many more times in the next year at various events, and I highly suggest you go.
5. We've got a lot more answers now, which lets us focus on a lot more interesting questions.
Attending this conference was full of “woah” moments where I was reminded again and again of just how far the specialty coffee industry has progressed in the last 10 years.
Brant Curtis gave an interesting presentation on the development of the Curtis brewing equipment, Generation 4 of which comes with touch-screen controls. During both this presentation and the Retail Therapy panel I joined him on, Brant made the point that in the whole manual vs batch brewer debate, it's important to remember that batch brewing has come a long way in the five-odd years since manual brewing first became the rage. At the same time, the Chemex lab and other presentations speak to how much we now understand about making manual devices sing. With these advances, when deciding what options to offer in our cafes, we can now focus on considering wastage, ROI, the value of hand-crafting and “performativity of service” and other such questions, instead of puzzling only over cup quality.
Both of Scott Guglielmino's presentations contained so many interesting and authoritative answers to what were previously unclear questions. Leaving his water talk, I felt armed with enough well-supported, carefully considered information to go through each necessary step in making the water in my cafe the best it could be. Needless to say, solving your water issues, or simply verifying that your situation is fine, lets you so much more confidently and successfully focus on making your coffee preparations perfect.
One of the big issues on Sprudge's Retail Therapy panel was the idea that handling volume and making delicious coffee are both problems that we've largely figured out best practices for—though we still need to focus on execution, especially when combining the two challenges. This is exciting because it means we can take our nose out of the trenches a bit and work on more macro questions, such as the current hubbub in the industry over how we need to evolve our service models to better enable a ~$7 coffee price-point.
Most exciting for me is the idea that now that we have figured out enough of the nitty-gritty details of making a delicious cup of coffee, we can bring our focus back to the holistic experience of the cafe. Going forward we need to be asking ourselves how we can create retail experiences that let customers experience the full 30-minute pleasure trip of coffee. Exciting stuff.
To close, I just want to reiterate how special and cool MANE is as an event – a lot of people came away feeling like that, myself, and my Sprudgey editors included. Through its commitment to inclusiveness, good times, and accessible information with enough depth to challenge even the seasoned coffee pro, the MANE conference is doing tremendous grass-roots work to help bring our industry into its next phase. Do you think coffee has grown a lot in the last ten years? Just wait.