Who Cares..? Attitudes Towards Quality.

As a serious barista who openly admits to being something of a coffeegeek, I’m used to encountering that look of baffled amusement or glazed boredom from people outside the coffee world if I accidentally try to convey my enthusiasm for the finer points of all things coffee in too much detail. I’m usually quite quick to shut up when I see that look, as the last thing I want is to put people off by boring them with the detail, even though I often have a nagging sense that I should have tried harder and more eloquently to champion coffee’s attributes!

But aside from the derision us baristi perhaps rightly receive when we harp on too obsessively about the sort of geeky details that shouldn’t be mentioned to anyone who doesn’t know or care what a scace is, what I find far more disheartening – what can shake my convictions to the core – are people’s basic attitudes towards quality in coffee, and the seemingly huge disparity between between the perceptions of people within the speciality scene, and those outside it.

Essentially, the issue is this: can people tell the difference between good coffee and bad coffee; do they care at all about the quality of their coffee …and is it worth our while as serious baristas and cafes to strive to perfect the art and make the very best coffee we can?

It seems to me that everyone inside the speciality coffee world is saying YES! People can tell, they do care, and it is worth it! Even though we all accept that coffee is held in fairly low regard by the general public, and we know there’s a lot of work to do in order to change people’s perceptions, we are spurred on by the unbending belief that enough people can tell the difference, that attitudes are slowly changing, and that people will eventually realise that smaller, skillfully made cups of deliciously flavorful coffee from small independent cafes are better than the vats of filth diluted with milk and laden with sugar and flavourings that are being doled out by the big coffee chains!

Sadly however, despite what you might believe by speaking to other baristi or reading their passionate blogs, the reality when you speak to most people outside the coffee world seems to be rather less enamoured and encouraging. I’ve lost count of the number of times that friends and loved ones have voiced serious and often very determined doubts about the virtues of great coffee, and whether the average customer would notice or care. For instance, only the the other day in a coffee shop I mentioned to my mother the importance of freshly ground coffee for the best flavour, and the difficulty of adhering to this if you serve a wide range of coffees for cafetiere. She very quickly became quite adamant that it didn’t matter much, and that people wouldn’t notice whether it was fresh-ground or a few weeks old. My wife, who generally patienly humours my coffee obsessed behaviour, and to whom I tell more about these things than anyone else outside the coffee world, is, if pressed, most belligerent on the point, believing that the general public (herself included in many cases!) can’t tell the difference and is not interested, and that my belief that the beauty of great coffee will be noticed and appreciated by people is misguided at best!

These are people whose opinions I respect; who have, to various extents, a general interest in and appreciation of good food and drink – who believe in the skill of great chefs, and who regularly cook, drink nice wine, and are who are prepared to pay for lovely food at good restaurants occasionally. But even so – and in conjunction with having a basic knowledge, appreciation and respect for what I do – they don’t believe that really serious, quality coffee will be rapturously received and recognised by the general buying public. Even staff at our cafe (not to mention most other cafes!) often share a similar, and even more disparaging and unconvinced (or totally uninterested!) attitude towards the Public’s palate, or towards coffee itself! (dear God! – what am I doing wrong?)

Maybe that’s because they’re right – maybe the distinction between good and bad coffee, or between mediocre and great coffee isn’t as marked as us baristi, cuppers, roasters, etc, like to think it is – especially for everyone that’s not as attuned to looking and tasting for the differences as we are. Also, I think it’s particularly likely that the distinction will be lost on people who don’t have a wider appreciation of food and drink generally; who don’t cook, or ever relish the experience of enjoying something that’s been well prepared with quality ingredients, be it something simple, or more complicated. But whilst food, drink and cookery has had something of a renaissance in the UK in recent years, and is now fairly widely appreciated, coffee, even as a smaller part of the total spectrum, is still very much a poorly regarded relative. I’m reminded at this point of Edmund Buston frankly stating that “people don’t give a s**t about coffee” when he visited The Plan last year. Even though most people actually like coffee, and in some cases can’t get through the day without it, they’re just not prepared to think at all highly of it.

One problem perhaps is that these differences between ‘good and bad’ are not always glaringly obvious, and depend on a whole host of factors. Sometimes it can be something quite striking like difference between burnt, boiled, cheesy milk, and sweet, luscious microfoam. Other differences though, can be much more subtle and difficult to recognise; the slight yet complex nuances between different bean types and qualities, the effects of varying degrees of freshness, or the sublime edge that the sixth sense of a really good barista’s technique brings to all the aspects of the drink. Whilst these subtler differences are precisely what allows coffee to be such a complex cuisine, they are also what can perhaps allow greatness to be easily overlooked, or conversely, poorness to be so readily accepted.  

Let’s face it – that’s why the big chains are so successful; they know that a majority of customers can be easily won over by quantity over quality, and by the syrups and flavourings that mask poorly prepared, lower-grade coffee. And they know that with flashy, expensive advertising and decor, they can even etch a thin facade of quality and authenticity, and seduce customers into believing their product is continentalspeciality, or something equally alluring. (Having said this, I think everyone in the espresso world has to begrudgingly thank the chains to some extent for developing the popularity and profile of the cuisine in the UK in recent years, despite the obvious issues us real enthusiasts might have with them)

So are we all just kidding ourselves? Do enough people care? Do they notice? Is the real speciality coffee scene maybe even just the biggest marketing ploy ever, driven by the big bean and machine companies simply to increase prices and sales? Can being a barista and barista trainer ever be a viable or respected profession? Are cafes that genuinely care about quality and flavour able to succeed? Should we take heed, admit defeat, and accept the reality that people aren’t going to come flocking for quality? …Should we wake up and smell the coffee? These are the questions that I guess any long-term barista poses to themselves in moments of disillusionment!

I afraid I have to concede that these concerns may well be all too true. However, as a serious barista, I have developed a love for great coffee and a genuine passion and dedication for what I do that is not dictated by money alone (even though I’m not so idealistic or naive as to be able to ignore the financial aspects!). I see coffee as a speciality cuisine in its own right, like wine, and I see the job of a real barista as a skilled culinary craft, akin in many ways to that of a chef, and I know that the skills and knowledge of a truly great barista take years to acquire. For me, every cappuccino or caffe latte I prepare is like a little dish that I put skill and pride into. I try not to be preachy or elitist about coffee, but can’t help trying to defend it, because, like any craftsman, I have a professional pride in what I do, and an unerring belief in the importance of quality in my trade as opposed to the cheap, mass-produced rubbish churned out by big business: like a farmer that believes free range tastes better, or a furniture maker that quakes at the thought of flat-pack MDF. This belief is born out of a love for the materials and the art, and out of a conviction that the quality and passion shows, and that at least some people will appreciate it, and maybe love it as much as I do.

I deliberately strive to maintain a balanced perspective on the matter. Of course, I acknowledge that the majority of people don’t care much about coffee. I know they may well not be able to tell the difference between a bad one and a good one, let alone between a good one and a great one (hey, I don’t even know if I can!). I know that for most people coffee is ‘just coffee’, and unlike some others in the speciality world, I don’t snootily try and force ‘fancy’ coffee on those who just want a ‘normal coffee’. But I do believe, like a growing number of passionate coffee people, that some – even a lot – of people do notice and appreciate really good coffee. And I think that even more people sort of notice-without-noticing when their expertly prepared cappuccino, etc, tastes better than what they have had elsewhere – even if they don’t know why. I base this belief not only on my own personal instinct, but on the number of people who compliment the coffees I make, who say “that was so nice – the quality really shows; most other places can’t make it like that …and I’ll be back!” – as a gentleman said to me just yesterday, completely unprompted.

That’s the sort of appreciation that spurs me on, and confirms the delight that I feel in preparing coffee (not that all my drinks are great – far from it – especially with our set up!). Admittedly, for every customer like that, there are dozens that seem blisslessly unaware of what they’re drinking, whether it’s good or bad. Many people can take it or leave it, which is fair enough, but I think attitudes and awareness are slowly changing, due to the efforts of a dedicated core in the coffee world, and I think enough people do notice and return as customers to cafes that serve the best, to make it a worthwhile and profitable endeavor. Just as food can be an everyday necessity, or a delicious delicacy, so coffee can be both, and I think a great coffee shop should try to provide both – realising that for many people coffee is just some caffeine to go with their lunch, but for others it can potentially be a real treat, and something to tell all their friends about! Using skilled barista techniques, and practices that focus on freshness and flavour can surely only be a good thing. It doesn’t need to cost a small business any more money, and neither it does it have to alienate customers who just want something simple and don’t care why it tastes better than the rest – it just requires passion, and a proper understanding of what coffee needs to shine. Lots of cafes spoil perfectly reasonable beans on potentially great machines just because they don’t have the knowledge or the dedication needed to train their staff properly, and perhaps because, like most places, they assume their customers won’t notice anyway. But a cafe serving freshly roasted good quality beans, freshly ground and skillfully prepared on good equipment, might just show people what they’re missing…

I don’t expect everyone to share my level of enthusiasm for coffee, or to be able to distinguish why one coffee is nicer than another – it’s not their job to – but it would at least be comforting if I felt more people could entertain the idea that freshness, quality and skill can make a difference, and also that coffee can be a speciality cuisine that draws parallels with great food made by skilled chefs – a cuisine that can potentially be appreciated by anyone, regardless of how much you know. Given the frequent and quite entrenched unwillingness of many people outside the barista scene to acknowledge this concept, maintaining your conviction and drive can be tough, especially given that the rewards of being in the trade are scant at best! But there’s certainly a sense within the coffee community that attitudes are changing – that a growing number of customers are appreciating the difference – and that more independent cafes that care about quality coffee as well as profit, are beginning to emerge and flourish, albiet few and far between, and as something of a niche market: Cafes that are genuinely passionate and knowledgeable about great coffee, as well as great food and drink generally; that train staff well, and that employ or are run by skilled baristas.

This emergence goes hand in hand with gradually shifting, evolving public tastes and demand, in a sort of mutually reliant process that slowly moves forward and grows. Let’s just say I certainly hope that an increasing number of people do notice the difference, and that the efforts of like-minded people in the trade will continue to steadily nurture a more positive reception for coffee within the wider audience, and lessen the gap between our perception, and everyone Else’s!

I hope this post reads more as an honest examination of the issue, and not a jaded tirade! I wanted to vocalise the uncertainties and contrasting perspectives that we must all have encountered but don’t normally like to pay too much attention to. I’m sure David S (we’re not worthy!) would have conveyed the topic in the much more endearing and inspiring manner that is his trademark style, but hopefully I’ve not made too much of a hash of it! I’ve been pondering this post for a couple of weeks now, and just prior to publishing I notice that James Hoffmann’s latest article happens to touch on a great number of similar points: Check it out.

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