Coffee culture had a fairly narrow meaning to me. When I was a young adult, I’d spend my evenings in cafes scattered about my hometown of Philadelphia, drinking large amounts of the brew while discussing art, books and world affairs with other caffeinated youths. Someone would bring an acoustic guitar and the evening would turn into a night of music. Thus, we united culture with coffee, and we didn’t know we’d created coffee culture in our city.
But that coffee culture had little to do with coffee education…or coffee at all. It was a place to socialize, absorb the latest ideas from my group of friends, listen to some cool music. The coffee part of it was more of an accident. This was on the East coast of the United States years before Starbucks gave people the idea they were coffee gourmets. The coffee we drank was nothing special – diner coffee, really, and it didn’t even taste much like coffee. It was just something warm to have in the mug in our hands.
After I left the United States for South America, the explosion hit. Suddenly people back home knew what an espresso was, and had even tasted one. Coffee shops started talking about where their beans were from, at first boasting about their Colombian Supremo beans, then branching out to more exotic spots.
In time, remote or little-known became associated with better. Colombian was basic. They wanted exotic, because that’s where the truly good stuff had to be. Even the coffee aisle in the neighborhood supermarket got packed with whole bean coffee from around the world. You don’t have a grinder at home? You can grind at the store.
Coffee education is born
And coffee culture slid into coffee education. Knowledge is power. So you didn’t just say you were drinking coffee from Colombia. Now you needed to know what farm the coffee was from, in what region, how the farmer had fermented the beans, at what altitude he’d grown them, how he dried them, and what he had for lunch.
Then you needed to know how those beans had been roasted, and how many days ago. You also needed a barista – with a mustache and tattoo, of course – to brew those beans for you following exact measurements and times while following movements that seem to be choreographed.
Of course, you’ll do this while sitting in a cafe with exposed brick walls and industrial-type lighting over your head, and you’ll set your coffee cup on rough wood tables that look like the carpenter didn’t have time to finish them. And don’t forget, you need to discuss the difficult lives of coffee farmers in far-off lands, with an appropriate look of sadness on your face.
Now that is coffee culture.
Because in the end, all of those details become a fad. It’s about doing what we see others doing. We wind up accepting the coffee shop design that got a seal of approval in California, Seattle or some hip Scandinavian city.
What should coffee culture really be about?
That’s an easy question to answer.
Coffee culture should start with a question.
What do you like? Drink that.
Where do you feel comfortable hanging out? Go there.
Don’t worry about what the experts say. Because their tastes have been shaped by tasting experiences you haven’t had, and what is fascinating to them may very well be disappointing to you. Coffee Culture should be your culture, your customs, what you want to experience each day.
So is coffee education relevant?
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn about coffee farmers or the processes they use to produce fantastic coffee. It doesn’t mean we should avoid baristas with beards (some of my favorite baristas have them).
But we shouldn’t be forced into it. We should seek that knowledge in a way that truly improves our coffee habits. So if knowing that a certain farmer used a honey process for their beans helps you to choose a coffee you will like more, go for it. Learn about it, embrace the knowledge. If knowing that a light roasted, high-altitude coffee will satisfy your urge for an edgy, surprising coffee, that knowledge fuels a more satisfying afternoon brew. Perfect. Knowledge that increases satisfaction achieves a purpose. Coffee culture enriches life.
As Colombia wakes up to the purpose of specialty coffee (to increase satisfaction) and its benefits for the industry (more sales at higher prices ), you will no doubt see many more shops with exposed brick, baristas with tattoos, funky brewing methods, and a daunting coffee menu.
And that’s not all bad. Because in those shops you’ll also feel a sense of urgency that has a solid reason behind it. They not only want you to fully understand why you like a certain coffee more than another. They want everyone in the coffee growing and processing chain to benefit from your purchase. They’re not just building coffee culture; they’re building better lives and a better present and future for many families that have few options economically.
Your coffee goal
I personally believe firmly in the role of specialty coffee to create a better future for Colombia. And personally, I love the geeky coffee knowledge, the talk about regions and varieties and tasting notes. I love to find a barista who not only shares my fascination for coffee knowledge but who also feeds it, who teaches me more.
But I understand it when people tell me they feel overwhelmed, frustrated, or downright scared by all the information. They don’t want to read a coffee bag with endless information about the farm, they just want to have a hot mug in their hands. And that’s perfectly fine.
So don’t be intimidated by what others know about coffee. Don’t be scared to ask. Keep your goal clear in mind; you want to find a coffee you like to drink. The baristas will help you, and you can use their coffee culture to improve yours.
Because drinking coffee should be about true coffee culture – what influences and shapes your daily life – and not what feeds into a fad that is soon forgotten.
To prove that we do love coffee education, join us for a Colombian Specialty Coffee Shop Tour! You’ll meet the coffee experts (with just a few mustaches and tattoos), you’ll taste award-winning coffees, you’ll learn how to cup like a pro, and your heart will be warmed with stories about coffee in Colombia. Just click here to find out more.