By Hylan Joseph
I've been following Nick Brown and Daily Coffee News since its inception. I'll readily admit I'm a bit of a fanboy when it comes to Daily Coffee News. Nick and his team are avid supporters of the Guild. They have spearheaded efforts to get the CTG's name out there by re-posting some of our blog articles. An important subject Nick writes about is the consolidation and the expansion of our industry. This subject has a direct effect on us as techs and service managers. A hearty thanks to Nick Brown from the Coffee Technicians Guild and myself for taking the time to answer a few questions.
Hylan Joseph: Why write about the coffee industry? Can you speak to your history as a journalist in this industry and what drove you to choose to write about our industry?
Nick Brown: My background is in journalism, rather than in coffee. That can be somewhat problematic if you're writing or editing something that's extremely technical or requires the kind of perspective than can only be gained by time spent in any number of coffee's trenches. But I do think it also grants Daily Coffee News some amount of valuable perspective, even if it is just some good old-fashioned skepticism towards marketers and corporations.
There are approximately one million subjects that swirl around coffee that are extremely appealing from a news perspective: economics, global trade, corporate sustainability, social justice, environmental sustainability, politics, marketing and branding, you name it — this list around coffee goes on forever. I feel like I've personally only scratched the surface, and I'm hoping to be able to write about coffee for as long as the readers will allow.
HJ: As a writer, what writers or journalists have inspired you?
NB: Oof. I have trouble on a daily basis choosing which socks to wear, so this question is a little overwhelming for me. I’m not necessarily prone to being inspired “as a writer,” since I would hardly consider myself one. But I am constantly inspired, just as a human on earth, by journalists who speak truth to power, and by certain poets, songwriters and novelists. If I had to single something out from the past year that made me feel guilty about my own job performance (growing up in the Upper Midwest, this is how we would characterize “inspiration”), it would be Nathaniel Rich’s report in the NY Times magazine about “the decade we almost stopped climate change.” But I also really like reading cookbooks.
HJ: You have been a great supporter of the Coffee Technician’s Guild. Where would you like to see us grow, are there specific articles you’d like to see?
NB: Well, I certainly admire the CTG’s mission, and I think it’s reflective of a lot of circles of the coffee industry in which isolationism is being recognized as generally less productive than collaboration. It’s the old rising tide analogy. I’m definitely not a technician, so the stories that might resonate more with me are those involving communications or customer service or what have you. But generally, I’d say whatever floats your collective boat, and let the readers/members hold the compass.
HJ: Your coverage on the consolidation of the coffee industry is very detailed and well-written. What do you think of JAB, Nestlé, etc. buying up retail and roaster operations? To me the TSG’s investment in Stumptown in 2011 started all of this. Why do you think companies are doing this and where do you think this strategy is headed?
NB: Blushing! I don’t have much of an opinion, per se, on these kinds of acquisitions or what they might mean for the future of the coffee industry. I can only assume companies are doing this to do what companies are always looking to do: maximize their ROI or gobble up market share.
I do think as consumers or even as social subscribers to some aspect of coffee — specialty coffee, or “third wave” or sustainable coffee — people do tend to develop odd, lingering loyalties to specific brands or companies. But in terms of the big business of small coffee, I think wherever there is some amount of expendable consumer income, there will always be opportunities for independents and creatives and envelope-pushing startups, even if it is just for the hipper-than-thou crowd.
HJ: Do you think the result of all these mergers and purchases will result a greater need for technicians?
NB: These types of acquisitions and mergers may have already shown to have some impact on how coffee is sourced and traded, perhaps negatively. That, I think, poses some existential threats to the coffee sector as a whole, considering what we’re seeing in terms of prices, farmer profitability and things like that. But from the technician’s standpoint, I might guess that growth is growth is growth; and where there are more consumers globally interested in buying decent coffee, and more companies endeavoring to provide a retail venue for that, there will be more opportunities.
HJ: Where do you see our industry heading in the next five or ten years?
NB: Fingers crossed, we’ll see more companies build brands to which the growing number of conscientious consumers flock for their desire to support healthy supply chains and sustainable practices in addition to quality, convenience and fun. But I’m a skeptic by nature, so who are we fooling? Let’s hope that the problems we were all warned about five years ago aren’t exacerbated over the next five or 10 years by the complacency that seems to so naturally accompany any measure of “retail sector growth.”
HJ: Last question, what is your favorite coffee bean and your favorite coffee drink?
NB: I can be easily sold on a story. Tell me about the experimental processing that led to these flavor notes, or about the progressive trading model that brought the coffee to this cup, and I’m most likely all in. The story can change every day. But most often, I’m enjoying a simple drip brew at home with the occasional afternoon pour-over. If I’m feeling frisky out on the town, I might ask for a cortado.
Photos via Nick Brown and Roast Magazine.