Updated: Apr 10, 2018
There is a perceived snobbery in Specialty Coffee. Many of us have entered a coffee shop and felt either a little out of our depth, the staff are rude or that we’re amongst a bunch of pretentious bum heads. Adverts like the one created by McDonald’s appeal to this sensibility, with the depiction of specialty coffee being elitist, over-priced and the preserve of pretentious bum heads. But this story is unhelpful and although there isn't smoke without fire (dry ice), attempts to ridicule specialty coffee for snobbery could close people out and lead to missed opportunities for those who would enjoy the positive community, environmental and self-learning aspects.
A matter of taste
In any walk of life snobbery exists. There are certainly coffee shops I’ve visited from London to Kunming and experienced exactly the kind of atmosphere that repels potential newcomers. There are also some who don't work in specialty coffee but drink it, never missing an opportunity to tell their friends how bad Starbucks, Costa or Lavazza is. They revel in telling people they should change their coffee habits to match theirs. This too is not only unhelpful, but illogical. Ultimately, coffee is subjective and what I might think is a deliciously fruity Kenyan, my brother might say it’s a weak vegetable piss. I could say “that’s because your taste buds aren’t developed”, but to what avail? Who am I to make such a claim? What if I have a shop and I turn away anyone who doesn't agree with me? I’ll likely go bust.
And so this happens anyway and there’s a push back. McDonald’s make their advert and lots of potential specialty coffee admirers laugh and now think it’s silly. Specialty coffee people think the advert smells of desperation as the specialty sector grabs greater market share. It may be a light-hearted joke but a distinction is made, and not a very accurate one.
So snobbery all round. Pointing the finger and laughing at something you’re yet to experience, like specialty coffee, is no less snobbish than the uppity barista who has no time for high street coffee drinkers. A bit of understanding is needed on both sides. The complexity of specialty coffee is certainly a barrier which promotes this kind of reaction and where a barista has grown familiar with this complexity, they become detached from how big the gulf is between commercial and gourmet for newcomers. The ritual involved in brewing and the different flavour profiles make them completely different drinks, particularly if the former is in a massive cup with milk and syrup. Grinding, the brewing equipment and flavour notes can all be quite daunting but patience overcomes these issues.
Familiarity also plays a part. At first I couldn’t understand why anyone would drink a sour espresso and generally thought it was a mistake. My early experience of coffee was completely shaped by instant and commercial coffee, ‘Italian’ blends and Starbucks’ incredible creation which has defined coffee for many of us (but not in Italy, Australia and New Zealand). So naturally, when speaking to someone about coffee origins and processes I was out of my depth. Perhaps this lack of understanding in one results in disregarding the other as a snob.
I remember one introductory tasting event I held in particular. Of the 20 or so people there, one person reacted how I imagined many more would. She tasted a washed Ethiopian Sidamo and blurted out, “If I wanted tea I would order it!” Her favourite coffee was one I put in as a control, a very dark roast which I would not choose for myself. While others were pleasantly surprised and spoke about what they could taste, she appeared to close down and reject the lighter roasts considered to be specialty grade. What this told me, and other tastings, was that in the right environment the majority of people want to broaden their experience of coffee.
And like the majority at these events, my own curiosity drew me in further and I quickly came to appreciate the acidity, brightness and flavours of non-commercial coffee. For some though, the lack of bitterness is a problem and many do not care about coffee as long as they taste the strength they are looking for, mistakenly identifying strength as bitterness. Even within the commercial market now, packaging is shifting away from using strength to refer to bitterness and switching to roast levels instead. Supermarkets are adapting to our increased knowledge of coffee.
A solution to snobbery
There’s probably no solution to snobbery in coffee, just as in life generally. However, I’ve found that most people working in specialty coffee enjoy sharing their experience of the drink. In many shops, like Prufrock in London, staff are attentive and providing they have the time, are willing to talk for as long as you are. Many top players make time for others too. Steve Leighton of Has Bean coffee gives everyone and anyone time at the end of events, no matter their level. My experience is also that most people want to discover more. It comes down to those within the industry having the patience for others and their choices. This will result in converting those who want to expand their appreciation, and hopefully reduce the perception of barriers and snobbery.