Note: I wrote this blog post before Christmas 2020 and never got around to publishing it at the time.
In recent weeks, I’ve read about the first and second waves of coffee; the waves of “bad coffee” and speciality coffee in chain stores, respectively. We are now in the so-called Third Wave where smaller roasters with a focus on quality and traceability are king. In an effort to learn more about the Third Wave, I turned to God in a Cup, a thought-provoking book about the speciality coffee industry published in 2008.
Written by Michaele Weissman, God in a Cup looks at the ins-and-outs of the speciality coffee industry. At the start of the book, Weissman introduces the reader to “the coffee guys,” influential players in the coffee scene who work at Stumptown, Intelligentsia, and Counter Culture Coffee. These three companies, even today, are renowned throughout the speciality coffee community. I learned that, for these people, coffee is much more than just a drink. It would have to be for them to devote so much of their lives to coffee.
Each of the coffee guys have their own stories. Duane, the founder of Stumptown, based in Portland, believes in overseeing all of the coffee that he produces or is involved with producing. He signed a lease for a cafe in San Francisco but decided against the move because it was too far away. For Peter, a part-owner of Counter Culture Coffee, coffee was the place in the world where he thought he would fit in best. These people all knew that coffee was not a glamorous industry: they came at a point when speciality coffee was finding its feet, way before the latte art-infused culture we have today where hipster baristas became cool.
Weissman moves the focus in the next chapter to the Cup of Excellence competition. In this chapter, I get to see these players in action. I learn how involved they all are in the events where speciality coffee is bought and sold. Sure, there are quite a few functions they can attend, but there is no doubt that hard work is a necessary part of their job. The people tasked with buying coffee must keep their ear to the ground at all times.
The book talks a lot about the award-winning Geisha coffee in May 2007 and from prior years produced by Hacienda La Esmaralda, which have become known throughout the coffee industry. Until reading this book, I did not know what the fuss was about. It turns out these coffees do deserve a premium price. Cuppers consistently ranked some Geishas over 90. One cupper scored a Geisha over 100. Weissman talks about the rules of Cup of Excellence competitions in a way that makes me feel like I am preparing to attend one myself. I do not feel overwhelmed. My curiosity for how the competition works grows.
Later in the book, Weissman goes to origin. She talks about her travels and the stories she has heard from the coffee guys who this book follows. Again, the value of hard work was reinforced. The people who go to origin to buy coffees face tough odds. Farmers follow tradition and taking on speciality coffee is a big risk. If an investment in speciality does not go well, all the work a farmer has invested in quality picking will not pay off. Farmers in many regions believe in tradition; following new practices where one must only pick the ripest beans are foreign to them.
This is a theme throughout the book: the farmers and the buyers have different cultures. The coffee guys this book follows arguably have access to the best coffees because they have gotten to know the cultures in the countries in which they work. There are always challenges but these people know what they are doing. They know they need to show people what to do, not just tell them. They know that long-term relationships are the only way to get farmers to improve their coffee.
Sourcing coffee is a risky business. In Yemen, guns are as accessible as food in many areas, and yet people source coffee from Yemen. I read in the prologue that one visit to a country was cut short due to a conflict which shut down the capital. Coffee buyers face this every day when they travel to origin. Throughout the book, people remarked that being fearless was a necessary part of the job but it’s hard to know when you go too far.
In the second half of the book, Weissman goes back to the American market where she explores the other side of coffee: roasting and consumption.
I learn that Stumptown has not expanded nationally or internationally because of the principles of the founder. He wants to stay local and focus on quality. In Los Angeles, Intelligentsia goes to open a cafe. I learned that they have extensive barista training courses and boot camps so that they can train baristas in the skills they need to know to serve the best coffee.
God in a Cup reminds me of how many challenges baristas face. The coffee industry is unique in that it seems like everyone complains that another person in the supply chain wins but for some reason everyone faces an issue. Baristas are paid very little other than by companies like Stumptown who, going against the grain, offer extensive benefits and treat their baristas like rock stars. Farmers are paid little. Roasters need to pay a lot to travel to origin and source coffee; sometimes the coffee they order does not come in time and is sitting to a point where it starts to lose its unique characteristics.
All of the speciality companies this book follows have a commitment to their staff. To this day, being a barista is seen as something you do before something else. This book shows that the speciality coffee industry needs people who devote their lives to coffee. But there are no guarantees that you will earn a great living unless you end up at a company like Stumptown or Intelligentsia, or own your own shop that develops a good reputation for quality.
There is a whole other side to coffee I had not yet thought about until reading this book: wholesale. Counter Culture, another company this book follows, focuses mainly on wholesale. They work with restaurants and cafes to make sure they meet certain quality standards. Stumptown goes so far as to refuse working with people who cannot meet very high standards; this is standard practice. Counter Culture has a growing retail arm but they still do a lot of business with restaurants. I learned that they roast coffees for profiles that restaurants and wholesale customers request.
From farm to cup, the coffee industry faces many issues. Farmers, even those who sell speciality coffee, still struggle to earn the money they need to make a decent living. Co-operatives sometimes skim money that is supposed to go to the farmers. The Cup of Excellence highlights great coffees but the money from it only goes so far.
The future is hopeful, however. US AID cupping programs have helped farmers learn what their coffee tastes like and to link farming practices with quality. Burundi clearly demonstrated an interest in building a speciality coffee industry. Some of the coffee guys visited Burundi to advise on practices. They saw a modern processing facility which they thought was not capable of processing speciality coffee because it was designed for bulk commodity processing. But they saw potential and wanted to help.
Baristas need to be paid more money; they practice what is an art. There are too many issues to list. This book made me aware of so many I had never considered. There are language barriers at origin.
I felt like I was travelling around the world while reading this book. Weissman reports on the speciality coffee industry through telling stories from her perspective and those of the coffee guys. I felt like I was at the Cup of Excellence competition while reading this book. I felt like I was in the Ethiopian countryside as the coffee guys were travelling to origin. I felt like I was in Panama as Weissman goes to find out more about Geisha and its origin.
If you want to learn how speciality coffee is sourced, God in a Cup is an excellent book to pick up. I developed an awareness of not only how important speciality coffee is to ensure farmers get paid well but also of the issues speciality coffee roasters face when sourcing coffee. There is so much logistics involved in one cup of coffee; it’s exciting to read about how this industry works.