A while ago I wrote a blog post which listed some of the blogs about coffee that I read. One of these is jimseven, written by James Hoffman, co-founder of Square Mile Coffee Roasters, and author of the book, ‘The World Atlas of Coffee’. James has been writing on the blog for many years and has recently published via a crowdfunding campaign a compilation of the best posts in the book ‘Jim Seven 2004-2015’. I contributed to the campaign and while I am still awaiting the hard copy of the book I have now worked my way through the digital edition I received not too long ago.
I have read a lot of the material on the jimseven blog already, but I was quite happy to have much of the material in a book form, partly so I could see how the issues that are discussed have changed over time. The book is organised into four main sections: on espresso, on coffee brewing, on coffee business, and on a coffee career. As is highlighted early on in the book, having a compilation of these posts collated together gives the reader a good overview of some of the changes during the global boom of specialty coffee.
It’s an interesting collection with posts covering everything from discussions of coffee grinders, to barista competitions, to the use of loyalty cards. There are too many thought provoking chapters here for me to list, but there a few quotes I wanted to comment on.
I’ve heard quite frequently how some specialty coffee locations could do more to be welcoming to people who perhaps might not be the primary market. While I have usually always been welcomed into new specialty coffee shops, anecdotal evidence suggests some places could place more effort on being welcoming and inclusive: ‘if we can spend a little less time pouring self-absorbed swirls of water over coffee, a little more time being nice to people, then that would be great’ (Lets talk about EK43 then).
The growth of coffee shops in the UK (and in many other countries) has been phenomenal. I have seen several articles recently that mention the coffee shop bubble, and make predictions about the point at which we have reached ‘peak coffee shop’. James identifies that potentially: ‘the ‘rate of new cafes opening has outstripped growth in consumers for high quality coffee.. The market is becoming more competitive’ (Make or Steal).
He believes ‘we are heading towards a situation where we have more cafes than we have customers for them’. As a consequence we are ‘likely to see a large number of cafes close in a relatively short time frame’ which has implications for other businesses in the coffee industry – roasters, coffee buyers, equipment providers etc. James (writing in 2015) posits that a ‘substantial correction’ might take place over the following 3-5 years (State of Specialty Coffee Part III: implications and predictions). Many things have changed in the coffee shop industry and while in many cities there has been substantial churn in coffee shops, there does also seem to be many still opening (and many more coffee roasters opening too). What I have seen over the last couple of years since James wrote this post, is a continued growth in specialty coffee outside of London, as evidenced by the emergence not only of more coffee shops and roasters, but a growing number of coffee festivals across the country. There appears to still be a growing demand for specialty coffee across the country, suggesting that we have not yet reached ‘peak coffee shop’. It may be that the specialty coffee industry needs to move its targets from the traditional city centre coffee shops, to target markets in smaller locales, and to diversify their consumer base.
As is pointed out: ‘every business is having to fight a little harder for every customer’ (State of Specialty Coffee part 11: the bubble). However, the diversity of the specialty coffee industry has the potential to be attractive to a wide consumer base. As James highlights: ‘the real joy of specialty coffee is its diversity: this is what makes it the antithesis of commoditised coffee’ (What message do I want to send? Part 1).
‘Tradition must evolve…Deviation and experimentation away from tradition absolutely must happen in order to discover new and useful things that will become traditions we will pass down to future generations’ (Tradition).
He also highlights how: ‘conversations in the industry are starting to change. The more experienced owners in the coffee business have moved their focus away from how they can serve offer that would delight their peers in the industry, into how they can run sustainable businesses’. (State of specialty coffee part 1: the lull). In order to experience continued growth it’s likely that the specialty coffee industry will need to diversify as we have already started to see, with coffee roasters seeking to supply restaurants with specialty coffee, and efforts to engage a wider consumer base.
The crux of my research project ‘Spaces of Community’ was to illustrate how coffee shops are important spaces in town and cities – and not just for the coffee, but for the package of what the coffee provides. Of course, great coffee, is a bonus: ‘authenticity comes from honest, from transparency. Cafes are great canvases, for the expression of ideas about service, about taste, about design, about community, and about coffee itself. All too rarely, are there any let alone, all of these things’ (Hipsters Coffee and Authenticity).
Another area of my research is about employment practices (and labour market patterns more broadly) so naturally I’ve developed an interest in career pathways in the coffee industry. The churn of baristas in coffee shops has been a point I have discussed with coffee shop owners across the country. I’ve listened to the podcasts that James produced on the Coffee Jobs podcast which provide various perspectives on working in coffee, but I really like the analogy he used in the book:
‘Training baristas is like pouring water into a bucket that has a hole at the bottom.…. In an ideal world the businesses itself would act like a giant bathtub underneath the bucket , collecting as much of the information as possible that is being poured into it’ (The Difficult Middle).
He gives a piece of advice which chimes with some of discussions I’ve had with baristas who have developed successful careers in the industry. It is recommended that those seeking to develop their career in coffee should find employers ‘who have a old track record with developing staff and supporting them in future endeavours’ (How to progress in coffee).One of the most interesting posts was one written in 2008 in which James outlines his wish list for English coffee culture: traceability (so people have an understanding of what they’re drinking); preference (people making conscious and informed choices); seasonality; and a strong base of brewed coffee (The Failings of English cafes). In many way I think this wish list has been fulfilled in some cities, with some consumers. There is now more of a diverse coffee culture in the UK. There is definitely a greater awareness of coffee shops, coffee brewing methods and coffee origins, although the extent of this is variegated by region and most likely demographic.
These quotes are just a few points which I found interesting in the book, and there are many more, which I encourage you to explore from the impact of water on coffee, to issues around gender in coffee. If you have an interest in the coffee industry, this volume and the writing on JimSeven is a great place to consider issues from across the industry (and how it has progressed).