Back in October, the journalist Oliver Strand delivered a keynote speech at “Let’s Talk Coffee,” a yearly conference put on by the specialty coffee importing company Sustainable Harvest. The conference took place in Salinitas, El Salvador, and focused on connecting all points in the supply chain – producers, importers, students, roasters, and NGOs.
Strand writes about coffee and food for the New York Times, Bon Appetit and Vogue, among other outlets. His speech drew on the world of wine, posing some crucial questions about how coffee companies interact with their customers and each other. Why, he asked, do different roasters present such divergent information on their packaging? What are the most noteworthy characteristics of a given coffee? And, perhaps most importantly, how do the stories we tell square against those that our customers actually want to hear?
Following the address, we caught up with Strand for a chat about his presentation, his forthcoming book, and the world of specialty coffee.
Blue Bottle: In your address, you mentioned specialty coffee being a sort of “spear tip” of the larger coffee world. Can you elaborate on this?
Oliver Strand: I’m interested in the people who change things. Often, it’s a sloppy process, or it’s contentious. People make a lot of mistakes as they innovate, and I’m interested in these people. I’m interested in the ones who make changes and innovate. There’s a certain anxiety within coffee where certain companies – especially larger, legacy companies – believe that too much attention is being thrown on companies that are newer, smaller, or might be inconsistent and are also a very tiny part of the market.
The cutting edge is always a tiny part of the market. That’s true in art; it’s true in music. Lou Reed just passed away. A lot of stories came out on Lou Reed. He’s influenced the music industry tremendously, and he hasn’t had half the sales of Taylor Swift; he hasn’t had half the sales of a number of people. Dean Martin I’m sure has outsold Lou Reed, and not to take anything away from Dean Martin, but Lou Reed kind of changed rock and roll for a lot of people. He changed it a couple of times.
I’m interested in Lou Reed.
So Tim Wendelboe, who figures prominently in your forthcoming book, is the Lou Reed of coffee?
Tim Wendelboe is the something. And there are a number of people who are like him. I think that Tim’s story is very interesting. He’s made a conscious decision to remain small because it keeps him nimble. He can remain small because he doesn’t need to make a lot of money. I’m sure that will change. He’s relatively young. At some point, you have to take care of your apartment and kid and your family. Then, if you’re successful in business, God knows you should be able to buy a house in the country. You shouldn’t have to starve for your art all the time. But right now, he’s making decisions that are based on what is interesting to him, as opposed to what will make him the most money. That keeps him intriguing in my mind.
You mentioned in your speech that if deliciousness is paramount to specialty coffee, our packaging should only be conveying information about taste. But what if consumers are equally concerned with things like certification info, or producers’ stories?
You’re going to buy coffee because you want coffee, and then you’re going to choose which coffee you want based on a number of other factors. I’m not going to suddenly buy wine – like, I didn’t want a bottle of wine but then I saw a Zinfandel and I’m like “Oh my God! I really have to have Zinfandel right now!” I want wine, so I’m going to go choose a wine based on those characteristics.
I think tasting notes are highly personal and I don’t always find them in the coffee. At times I do and at times I don’t. At times I think it’s a little bit of hocus-pocus. I also personally hate being told what to taste. I like it when they say ‘this is really nutty’ or ‘this has high acidity’ because it gives me an idea of what its going to be like but when I’m told ‘this is going to taste like milk chocolate’ or ‘this is going to taste like milk chocolate with almonds and I don’t find that then-
Then you’re like, ‘Crap! I bought this because it said milk chocolate with almonds!’
Then it’s like, ‘Is it their fault, is it my fault? Is it the preparation?’ Like “x” is supposed to be in there, and it’s not in there. The reason why I know what those coffees will taste like is that I’ve become, I guess, fluent – well-versed – in the identity of roasters, and that’s largely how I buy coffee. You know, I’m interested in a roaster, and then I buy what seems to be the best offering from that roaster. In that way, the way I buy coffee is a little bit like how I shop at the green market.
In New York, my office is on Union Square. I go downstairs and I don’t say “you know what? I really want strawberries. Who has strawberries?” I go down, and if I’m a week late for strawberries, I know it because no one has them. So then I buy blueberries because they last longer. So I get what’s good and maybe that how you buy your coffee. Like, is it a seasonal thing? I don’t know.
Coffee is definitely a seasonal thing, though it gets kind of complicated once you factor exporting and countries with multiple harvests every year.
Well, it is seasonal. Then you have George Howell saying, ‘Yes, but if you take certain steps, you can actually go and extend that.’ Then you know you have Tim Wendelboe, who’s working on how it’s dried. He says ‘Oh, this can really affect it in the same way.’ So, the definition of seasonality, that’s likely to change.
But in terms of ‘I want to go buy a coffee, so what do I look for?’: I look at the roaster and I look at what’s good. And I don’t know how it’s going to taste. I just know that it’s probably going to taste along these lines because I know what coffees from Ceremony taste like, what Blue Bottle tastes like, what Madcap tastes like.
One distinction you between coffee and wine you addressed is this fact that wine is ready straight out of the bottle. Coffee quality, on the other hand, requires extra work and expertise on the customer’s end.
So I’m working on this book, and I’ve read every other book on coffee that I can find. There’s a wave of books that came out between five and ten years ago. When you write a book, it takes from one to five years. So they’re six years old, they’re fifteen years old. All of them say, at some point, that the best way to make coffee is a French press. It’s a fact, written in stone. It’s a conclusion for every one of them. Howard Schultz, he says that. They all say the same thing. Because that was absolutely valid for 1998, 2000, 2003, up till 2005. And it seems so dated right now. In kind of a fantastic way. Kind of like saying, “There is only one shoe: Doc Martens.”
So when people talk about how to make it, I think that’s interesting. I keep in mind that whatever methods we’re talking about now are temporary. And this is going to change tremendously.
So your book’s primarily an examination of current trends? How much historical context are you giving it? There are plenty of books out there about the history of coffee.
It’s not about the history of coffee. There’s going to be context as necessary, because I think history is interesting. But there’s going to be context for everything.
I spent a fair amount of time in Scandinavia – in Oslo and Copenhagen. One of the interesting things I find about Copenhagen is that their relationship with waste and energy is very different from most other people I’ve met. Denmark and Norway as well, get energy from burning trash. A lot in Germany. Incredibly clean burning power plants that burn garbage. They also have some of the highest recycling rates in the world. So there’s actually a problem in both Norway and Denmark where they actually have to import trash to burn it for power. I forget what it is in Denmark – something like 5 percent of the waste in Denmark goes into landfills, and the rest is either recycled or burnt. In the United States, it’s well over 55 or 60 percent.
What does this mean? This means, when I’m talking to people at the Coffee Collective about their packaging, which is all plastic, their relationship with plastic is different than our relationship with plastic in the United States. That plastic gets burned for power. There’s very little anxiety about that plastic relative to that of the United States. And they’re packaging everything in plastic because they believe in that flavor.
So, I know that Blue Bottle is in paper, that Four Barrel’s in paper, Stumptown’s in paper, and a lot of that has to do with issues about waste. Most Scandinavians package with plastic because their relationship with waste is different.
Their relationship with waste in Copenhagen is so different that they’re building a power plant by [Amager Bakke,] the hottest architect in Copenhagen. He’s doing huge luxury apartments in New York, he’s doing all the hotshot things, and he’s doing the new power plant in Copenhagen, and it’s going to be in Copenhagen. So you’re not pushing it out to the suburbs. It’s going to incinerate waste. And he wants it to become a place where people go. So the whole thing is going to have a ski slope built into it. Because Copenhagen is flat, and people want to ski. And he also wants to draw people to the power plant.
He doesn’t want for this industrial act to be hidden away. He wants for it to be acknowledged.
There’s one last twist to the power plant. So, on top of everything else, there’s going to be a chamber on top of the smokestack – even though that’s not the right term – where the waste is pumped up out into the atmosphere. It’s going to hold onto the waste and puff it out in a big circle, almost like, you know, smoking a cigarette. An enormous smoke ring, highly visible, and I forget what the amount is but I think its’ every 250 kilos is going to be one ring. So you can actually watch how much you’re polluting.
So not only is this one of the most environmental ways you can possibly can have getting power; and not only is it becoming a sight of recreation; it reminds you that ultimately this is a compromise and this is a flawed system. So as you’re skiing, you can see one ton of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere. So, this informs what Klaus at theCollective is doing with his packaging. I think this is really interesting. I think it informs everything that you do in Copenhagen. Everybody knows about what happens with their waste and everybody knows about where their power comes from. In a few years, they can go on a date at the place where their waste goes and their power comes from.
So what is this book about? Ultimately it’s a book about coffee that’s not really about coffee, because the decisions that you make are informed by so many different things. They’re social, environmental, contextual, and there’s personal values. It’s kind of artistic in the end.
My book is about this moment in coffee, the Third Wave, or whatever you want to call it. But it’s looking at certain places, what’s happening in Oslo and Copenhagen, what’s happening in Seoul, what’s happening in Paris, what’s happening in London, what’s happening in Sao Paolo, what’s happening in Paris, Nairobi, Addis Ababa, San Francisco.
I’m looking at all of these places, and trying to dig, not a little deeper but I guess trying to reach a little wider to see why certain decisions are being made.