What’s the Difference?

This past Friday I was tasting two exceptionally delicious coffees. The Kenya Karinga and the La Perla de Oaxaca made for a great comparison. Cup wise they taste quite differently while still both being on the same roast spectrum. They both come from cooperatives but both cooperatives are managed in fairly different ways. The tasting went great. They both brewed well with the v60 (with only a slight grind adjustment after the first brew). The business was brisk. There were quite a few bags of coffee that were sold. Some inquiries into the art of brewing (with two brew demonstrations for the curious) were made.

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About two thirds of the way through the tasting though, someone approached with a new sort of question. Said taster approached and looked to be in the sort of hurry that asks for the barer introduction, ‘I’ve got two coffees today. They were both roasted in Chicago by Intelligentsia, who’s one of the three roasters we work with. This coffee was grown in Kenya and this coffee was grown in Mexico.’ With my body language and my inviting smile I tried to convey their deliciousness. With my words I was brief. Their response: ‘What’s the difference?’ Now, I’m pretty adept at reading people. It was obvious to me that this person was, on the surface, just asking me what the difference was between the two coffees. But that’s not really what he wanted to know. If you want to read a little more into it, one could say said taster was asking what makes these coffees different. I’m one of those people that keeps digging, though. I stood there for a second before it hit me. He was asking, ‘Why should I be here. What about this (and you!) makes it worth my time?’

Which is a great question. I assume most people that attend our tastings every other week are interested in coffee. Why else approach? Some people come up to me and kinda search for a sign or some clue without making eye contact. When I offer them some coffee they’ll say something like, ‘I’m not really into coffee,’ or ‘No, I’ve already had my cup for the day.’ But this guy. This taster laid down a challenge. “What’s the difference?” There was an aggression to his voice. I know that not everyone is interested in specialty coffee. I mean, of course not everyone is interested in specialty coffee! Not everyone is interested in the social justice aspect of specialty coffee. If they can find it cheaper somewhere else, that’s what matters. Not everyone is interested in nerding out about finding the right extraction rate and fiddling with the grind to get it just right. Not everyone wants to hear about the last measurements we took with a refractometer. And not everyone wants a new tasting experience. They like their convenience and don’t want to muddle it up.

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Not all of this was running through my head at the time. I didn’t just stare at this man (who, remember, seemed to be in a hurry) for a solid ten minutes. Only in reflection did my mind start to wonder what he really meant by the question of, “What’s the difference?” In the moment I used my instincts to answer.

So, “What’s the difference?”

“It’s about the relationships.”

I figure if he wanted to ask I was going to give him the answer. Specialty coffee could very well be called relationship coffee. It’s about the relationships between the consumer and the server. It’s about the relationships between the roaster and the grower. And the grower and the cooperative or the mill. It’s about the relationship between the coffee and the soil and the prices of the coffee and the lives of the growers. It’s about the relationship between our taste buds and something delicious (it’s always time to get delicious!). Specialty coffee is about all these relationships and more. That’s what makes it different.