A Collective Voice

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illustration of Dale Harris barista champion

POWER THROUGH COMMUNITY

Coffee is a beautiful industry, but it’s also one full of contradictions and challenges. The issues facing the specialty coffee industry, and the world generally, will not be solved by individuals or single companies - but by shared goals, collaboration, and dialogue. In this piece, Dale Harris shares his experience, his perspective and his thoughts around being part of the New Zealand Tamper Tantrum event at our Auckland eatery pre-pandemic, and points to the power we all have as a collective global coffee community to affect positive change.

Coffee is a truly global product, connecting disparate places, behaviours, economies and actions around a shared goal. I fell in love with coffee, and eventually chose it as my career, not because of its flavours or for the warmth and hospitality of the café, or even for the sensation of adjusting a brewing parameter and seeing how my actions shaped the experience of a guest - but instead, because coffee is an incredible lens through which you can understand the world a little better.

The history of coffee takes us through exploration, empire, religion, democracy, The Enlightenment, and the reconstruction of Vietnam. The logistics leading coffee from a farm at origin towards an espresso in a caf. heavily rely on a complex infrastructure of road systems, ports, shipping containers and financial instruments that were non-existent sixty years ago. The social impact of coffee today allows us to clearly visualise urbanisation, gentrification, the greying of farmers and the shifting in work patterns and values for demographics of people previously unimagined. Every farm and producing region are examples of the current and increasing impact that climate change is having on livelihoods and production yields, and therefore the cost of coffee to drinkers on the other side of the world.

Coffee connects us all, but the community that views and values it in this way is small. Baristas and roasters in London, or Lima, or Auckland spend most of their time talking to customers, and very little listening to each other or working with their counterparts in other cities. And although the internet and social media have allowed greater connection than ever before, we can all probably agree that they’ve amplified marketing, broadcasting, and pretty pictures a lot more effectively than they have meaningful conversation between like-minded humans.

I was able to speak about some ideas that I rarely have a chance to share in my daily work. Having spent most of my life working as a barista, I know that this career path can be a true vocation. However, it can also sometimes feel like it’s a role that doesn’t allow you to positively impact the coffee industry on a grander scale, nor allow you to challenge some of the problems that impact our product. Over time, I’ve learnt that although there are limitations, the ability to network and communicate as a collective has never before been so powerful. If we use the tools at our disposal and work together, the global barista community has the potential to influence consumer coffee choices, to educate consumers on the impact of their choices, and to encourage them to understand the connection they share with the coffee producers at origin.

It has never been more expensive to produce coffee, but the price achieved on the market, not including any impact from inflation, is lower than it was 10 years ago. This economic situation is unsustainable. Newspapers regularly report on the impact that rising temperatures will have on coffee production and usable land area. The reality is much more complex than is often communicated, but it is equally dire. It’s not so much that coffee itself will disappear, but that better-tasting coffee (which relies on more investment and a more stable growing season) will. The only viable coffee growing businesses will be high-volume/ low-quality, and that’s a future neither baristas nor our customers want to allow. By exploring alternative ways of buying and serving coffee, as well as exploring opportunities to use farming practices that allow net positive carbon capture, all parts of the coffee industry (particularly the historically disempowered farm and café workers) can take a unilateral step towards a world that is more in keeping with our future needs.