The video above (which I find funny, I don’t know about you) has been making the rounds today. It’s similar in tone to an older video, below, that makes fun of customers with similar attitudes.

Of course the videos aren’t perfect representations – the majority of quality focused cafes are actually trying to serve a product using quality ingredients and best practices. They aren’t trying to dupe consumers with cynical marketing hype or gimmicky novelties (i.e. “Malaysian bat guano coffee,” standing in for abomination that is Kopi Luwak). Rather, most of the people I’ve met in the specialty coffee business truly believe in what they’re doing. There’s an almost missional zeal in the coffee world, an evangelical desire to win converts, to open the eyes of the non-believer to the rapturous wonder of a Kenyan coffee that tastes like berries, or the aptly named espresso “god-shot.”

But that zeal can backfire and end up coming across like the videos above. I think a lot of coffee professionals forget how hard it is to learn what makes “specialty” coffee special, and forget all the work they did to learn (cupping, doing comparisons, talking or listening to respected professionals and award winners, dialing in and learning how to evaluate a “good” shot or a brew, closely tasting the same coffee over time, or at different roasts, or different methods of processing, etc.).

While some people might get hooked and enjoy diving into this arcane coffee world, the majority will never come close to this level of self-education, and professional baristas & coffee professionals shouldn’t expect them to. Some will immediately notice taste differences and either enjoy it, dislike it, or be indifferent. But regardless of preference, the majority will be some blend of folks who are primarily consuming the intangibles of the experience more so than the taste, who will never be able to produce a good cup at home, who will prefer adding milk or sugar, and who will say that they prefer the ‘burnt sugar’ flavor of a Monsooned Malabar even after trying that glorious Kenyan.

I think, more than anything, this illustrates the semiotic precariousness of marketing and identity construction. Quality-focused cafes need to differentiate themselves in the marketplace, but these videos give the impression (which I think may be more common than we’d like to believe) that “specialty coffee” is a sham kept afloat by the hot air of snobbery, elitism, and self-serving declarations of “good taste.” The challenge, as I see it, is both to encourage consumers to want to put in some effort to learn (which usually leads to a desire to teach; a win-win), and to package it (i.e. advertising, marketing, public trainings and cuppings, and friendly interaction and engagement with customers) so that it’s easy to learn. This means being open, inviting, and persuasive rather than judgmental, exclusionary, and accusatory.

But what do you think? Do you like a bit of the “Soup-Nazi” treatment with your coffee, is that part of the fun? Or do you feel put off by this? What kind of service do you expect and appreciate from your favorite cafe? I’m supremely curious, so please chime in!

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