Like so many with ties to the Seattle coffee community, we were devastated by last week’s passing of Brian Fairbrother, longtime employee and invaluable contributor to the Vivace Espresso legacy.

(Photo courtesy of this beautiful photoslide via The Seattle Times)

It’s hard for us to talk about, because though we knew Brian, we didn’t know him well. Permit us then, if you will, to open up our website to someone who did. Alex Bernson is one of Brian’s former colleagues at Vivace, now living and working in New York City. We asked him if he might share a few words, and he did so beautifully.

Like a great many people, I am filled with a profound sense of loss by the passing of Brian Fairbrother. Brian deeply inspired me as a barista, a manager, and a human being. I heard about Brian’s passing from old Vivace co-workers, from friends in Seattle, friends in the industry, from my parents who had heard it from their coworkers, and from countless different places all over the internet.  He truly was the consummate barista—the center of a broad and intimately enmeshed community built upon the few minutes of cheer and the delicious beverages he shared so joyously with so many people.

Shortly after it happened, I was talking with Sprudge about the effect Brian had on me. When they first asked me to write something for them, I was very hesitant. There are so many other people who knew him better than I did, so many people for whom his passing is a tragedy I can barely comprehend. Brian started serving coffee when I was quite literally still in diapers. When I started working at Vivace in 2006, I was an impressionable teen just out of high school, taking the first step in my coffee career. By that point, Brian was already a Seattle icon, not just for the coffee community, but for the thousands of customers and friends for whom his warm smile, wry humor and beautiful coffee were an essential part of the fabric of their lives.

I ultimately agreed to write this piece for Sprudge because I  think that Brian taught me what in a multitude of different ways he taught us all: what it means to live a life committed to true quality, not just as a barista, but as an engaged member of society. Brian Fairbrother demonstrated that as people, and especially as service professionals, we do the most good when we commit ourselves wholly to our own individual beliefs in quality and stand up for that commitment. Brian understood that no matter how hard we try, we can never make every single person happy. He had the courage to accept that and focus on best bringing his own particular vision of joy to the people who were willing to receive it.

This philosophy is at the heart of Espresso Vivace’s approach to service, and I would argue, the foundation of much of the broader specialty coffee movement’s approach to service. I want to be clear, whether in private or as one of the most recognizable public faces of Vivace, Brian demonstrated a deep compassion for every single person I saw him interact with, and he always tried to reach out to them and brighten their lives. But he was never willing to compromise his own beliefs in order to satisfy someone’s demands.

Brian spent the past twenty-plus years captaining a cafe that served no drip coffee or blended drinks, in the very heart of Starbucks land. Every single week I watched him warmly, yet firmly, explain to customers why we did not serve 12oz cappuccinos, or “let the shot run” americanos, or why an espresso really shouldn’t be taken to go. He was supremely confident in the coffee he made, and rightly so. Brian, David, and the rest of the Vivace family have spent decades figuring out what their version of perfect is, and they have tens of thousands of deeply loyal fans for whom a Vivace cappuccino is the pinnacle of coffee experience and an irreplaceable part of their day. Some people don’t feel that way about Vivace, but why on earth would Brian, or anyone else at Vivace, want to diminish the joy of thousands to try and satisfy the odd dissenters? No, much better to focus on being the best possible version of what so many already loved.

Brian’s commitment to quality went far beyond coffee. His comfortable confidence in who he was and what he had to offer shone through in every aspect of his life. As a young gay man, I was able to find some of that confidence through him. Watching the way he won over the hearts of customers with his frank humor and warmth, the unwavering support he showed for all of his employees and the way they chose to live their lives, and the proud openness with which he lived his own queer, urban pagan life, inspired me to try and live my life up to the same standard. Brian occasionally acquiesced and made an extra-hot non-fat 12oz cappuccino for a particularly insistent customer, but he never, ever, hid who he was or let anyone disrespect him or his staff.

Brian’s shining light helped so many others’ burn brighter. I feel deeply blessed that I was able to share in that light for a time. True quality is a constant struggle, but when I find myself giving half-hearted service, lacking compassion for my co-workers, or wanting to hide some part of who I am, I think back to Brian’s example and re-dedicate myself to giving all that I can.

We can’t make everyone happy all the time, and we shouldn’t try. Our only duty in life is to do our best work and to live up to our truest selves so that we can best share in and return the love of the people who love who we are and what we do. That is the essence of giving quality service, and being a quality person. The fact that Brian is no longer around to demonstrate that fundamental truth is a terrible tragedy.

-Alex Bernson, Sept. 14th, 2011

Alex Berson can be reached @alexbernson on Twitter.