This op-ed originally ran in our popular weekly newsletter, the Sprudge Letter. Subscribe today and never miss another spicy hot take.
Members of the world’s two largest coffee trade organizations—the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) and the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE)—have voted to combine their efforts, and on August 10th unification was announced by the SCAA. Some 10,000 coffee professionals around the world are directly impacted by the choice, which has wide-reaching implications for how specialty coffee culture is organized, taught, and represented to the wider world.
High-level parliamentary politics in the most inside of coffee’s inside-baseball chambers isn’t typically what we cover here on Sprudge. If you’re a casual Sprudge reader, you may not be aware there was a vote happening—we’ve covered it repeatedly this year in a series of articles that, when combined, attracted half the eyeballs of a dog cafe piece. Many of our readers are not aware in the first place that the coffee world has these large, global, member-driven trade organizations. This stuff is like a gravitational field: the closer you are to it, the bigger a deal it seems, but for the average coffee lover the vibe is an understandable ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
Liz Clayton, our NYC staff writer & associate editor, handled our first piece of unification content, based on her research around the topic at the 2016 SCAA Event in Atlanta. Clayton’s feature covered the SCAE vote stage; SCAE voters would go on to ratify the vote by a significant margin. Duties for a follow-up story focused on the US vote fell to me, and in the course of researching our very measured and not at all hot take-y reporting on the subject, I stumbled upon something much bigger. The SCAA voting process, for me, spoke to a troubling wider moment that coffee, and western society, are experiencing together right now.
The vote itself wasn’t really very interesting. The “yes” vote passed by a comfortable margin in America, the same as in Europe. Both groups have operated internationally for years, and what this merger really represents is a consolidation of power, shared resources, and the promise of increased educational and research opportunities for members. There’s a great deal of shared vision and even some member overlap between the groups. They’ve flirted for years and keep seeing each other at the same events—eventually they were gonna hook up.
What’s really interesting here is the subtext: the ways in which coffee serves as a canary in a vast variety of coal mines, from climate change to shifting urban landscapes to the growing generational divide, playing out in the coffeelands every bit as much as back here in America. It felt impossible to separate this relatively small moment in coffee—a membership vote in a trade organization that wants to change the scope of its activities—from the wider political milieu in which it played out.
I see it as one more example of something that has me concerned about an increasingly loud subsection of the Baby Boomer generation, who’ve made a variety of movements out of a core inability to exit the world stage rationally and respectfully. You see this in the generational divide in the returns from Brexit, in the political rise of Donald Trump here in the United States…and I found it in researching the SCAA “vote no” camp. The Concerned SCAA Presidents Committee, an ad hoc group of past presidents led by Donald Schoenholt (founding president of the SCAA), engaged in dangerous and disingenuous rhetoric that at times felt ripped from Trump talking points. Their views do not accurately depict or represent the specialty coffee culture Sprudge has watched bloom and blossom around the world since 2009.
Frequently evoking disturbing nativist rhetoric, Schoenholt and his supporters warned that a post-unification trade guild “will not be American in character, temperament, or name.” They asserted at various points that the SCAA is “as American as apple pie”—a claim that makes me wish they were paying closer attention to the popular work of past ReCo Symposium speakers. Their documents and positions distressingly evoked rape as a metaphor; their tactics on Facebook amounted to relentless bullying and grammatically atrocious trolling. “You don’t often get the chance to save the world,” they claimed, of a member-driven trade organization bylaws-adjustment public vote. “Here’s your chance.”
What their tactics obscured—and what the histrionics of Trump and Brexit obscure—is that their position actually has some cogent points. There’s a reason why roughly 50 percent of Americans at any given time vote Republican, and it’s not because they’re all racists or bigots—it’s that Trump and his ilk have buried the legit reasons many Americans have for voting Republican (even if you disagree) beneath a virulent blend of xenophobia, racism, and despotic opportunism.
There’s a reason why around 40 percent of voting SCAA members took a look at the options and chose “No.” Those reasons don’t go away after the vote is passed. There will need to be an effort for outreach and reconciliation made.
I spoke at length with Don Schoenholt in researching my article for Sprudge, and found none of the same nativist rhetoric or appeal to darker instincts in our conversation. Instead I found Schoenholt to be an ardent, passionate advocate for “the little guy—the small roasters” on whose support he helped found the Association in 1983. Intellectually curious, a student of history, verbose and personable and at times hilariously quotable—”If we could go back in time, you and me and Tinkerbell”—that’s Don Schoenholt. He’s also, frankly, pissed-off about how all of this went down—pissed that as a past president, indeed, a founding president, he and his fellow past presidents weren’t brought in earlier in the unification/merger process. He sees the entire thing as having happened in the proverbial smoke-filled room, and he’s worried that it threatens the very soul of the organization he helped found. And after our interview, I came away thinking that Schoenholt and Co. have made a couple of intellectually interesting points about the process.
But there is some other engine driving his rhetoric—his, and the rhetoric of the loud and at times aggressive “vote no” bloc. The most telling thing Schoenholt said in our hours of interviewing came in response to my asking if he had an alternate vision of how the unification effort should have gone down.
“You bring in past leadership,” he suggested, “you bring in lifetime achievement laureates—a truly international group—then you bring in the trade media, the guilds, and you start setting up an agenda.” It’s not a crazy statement on the face of it, but unpack it a little bit. The implication is something like, “What about me? Why is this happening in a smoke-filled room, and why am I being left out?”
I doubt the smoke-filled-room narrative; those SCAA board meetings back in the ’90s were probably a lot more smoky, all things considered. It’s true that much of this happened internally, at the high levels of the bureaucracy, before the SCAA and SCAE addressed their wider general membership with a platform. I’m not sure there’s any other logical way to go about it, but hindsight is 20/20. If they’re guilty of anything, it’s a failure to kiss past presidential ass as thoroughly and subserviently as those past presidents might have liked.
And so I asked SCAA Executive Director Ric Rhinehart about this line of logic, that the SCAA should have reached out to past leaders and guilds and trade media (lol) before moving forward on unification. He told me: “Imagine you’re getting married, and to do so you have to get your ex-girlfriends to come along, and ask permission from your ex-girlfriend’s father, and oh yeah, a guy you used to work for at your first job. And that’s who has the final say over your choices.”
There you have it: ex-girlfriends and Tinkerbell, no for the sake of no, Facebook trolling and bureaucratic in-fighting. A morass of old men and hurt feelings and a lot of political play-acting.
One gets the feeling, especially looking at the Facebook trolling and Trump-ish position papers, that there’s some missing component to the vitriol just beneath the surface—some deep wellspring of feeling that exists outside the logic of this particular argument. In the same way the Brexit vote was driven largely by xenophobia and racism, but couched as being about jobs, I wonder if there’s not an underlying driver behind the “vote no” sentiment. A lot of the loudest opponents, Schoenholt included, were not actually opposed to unification at all—they’re just mad as hell at the SCAA for a dozen different reasons, some of which pertain to this particular issue, others relating to a panoply of unresolved beefs stretching back decades in some cases. It feels untethered from reality—the illogical U Mad? anger of an ex-lover or disgruntled former co-worker—or, like Brexit, a way to vote for some deeper angst, consequences be damned.
The race for how coffee is viewed in the wider world is happening now all around us. Remember: all of this is fairly new. People giving a shit about coffee tasting good and having ethical practices is, in the grand scheme of things, still a brand new phenomenon, and it’s growing at a fantastic rate. Schoenholt—who again was an absolutely fascinating interview—described to me the earliest days of the SCAA, in which the wider trade of independent coffee-roasting businesses was dying, run roughshod by larger organizations that could “literally grind us out.” In our interview Schoenholt spent a lot of time talking about the old days—he seems split as to whether or not they were of the good-old or bad-old variety—but it’s clear that today’s reality of the SCAA as an $8 million-a-year entity would have been impossible to imagine back in the Reagan era. A lot of the growth since then was hard to predict; we talk about it all the time at Sprudge, that even in our own little microcosm of the past seven years we could have never guessed how big of a deal it would be, this culture around serving and enjoying coffee that doesn’t suck.
And so the race is on, and the SCAA/SCAE hybrid wants as big a stake as possible, and it’s up to the organization’s membership—whom its leaders serve—to decide if that voice is good and benevolent and worthy of amplification, or not. And those members have overwhelmingly voted “yes.” So here we are together now in the proverbial morning after, which is where things *really* get interesting.
But the real vote is not the one you chose to make or not make via the SCAA’s voting portal; the real vote is the one you make by joining, or not joining, these coffee organizations in the first place. Just like in the wider world, your pocketbook’s vote is the loudest. And from there, if you do join, you vote again by deciding how close to the gravitational pull you choose to orbit. Some people find meaning and definition to their careers and lives by engaging directly with this stuff, and chances are, if you’ve read this far, you might be one of them. What does belonging to a global trade organization really mean in the 21st century? What does shared membership in a wider scheme mean for individual small businesses in an increasingly competitive economic market? As universities, and nonprofits, and political entities rush in to capitalize on coffee’s explosive growth in the last few decades, where does that leave its original champions?
Life is a series of choices; be thankful for the capacity to make them, and do so with a heart full of love, not beef.
Jordan Michelman is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge Media Network.