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I don’t know if Leonard Nimoy was a coffee lover. Possibly not, but as I have been writing about globalization in recent months Mr. Nimoy, and his alter ego Mr. Spock keep coming to mind. I find myself remembering my youth in a coffee galaxy where the American small roaster community was within a hair’s breadth of disappearing. Today the independent small roasters are conquering , and they are owed recognition for having saved both themselves, and the good name of American coffee, and brought it to world prominence. It is something that the leadership of SCAA should be cognizant of as they consider merger with the European trade group SCAE.

The farm families are our friends. The local communities that are models for the new century’s agrarian community are all around us. Innovation, as the development of the Panama Geisha, and exemplary farm communities as La Vos on Lake Atitlan, and La Minita in Tarrazu are architypes of best origin practices. Still, innovation and invention that ignites trends in coffee consumption come most often from activities in destination countries. It may have been a sometime American beer brewer who threw the King’s tea in the harbor of Boston instantly making coffee The American beverage, but it was an American roaster who adapted Chinese rice paper to make a filter for drip coffee. It was an American roaster who innovated flavored coffee, and an American roaster who took a beverage for the infirmed and turned it into the Latte we know today. Along the way small independent American roasters created a market for the $4.00 cup of coffee where less than 20 years before it was two-bits.

That $4.00 cup changed the economy of coffee. It permitted roasters to talk high quality to ever economically squeezed retailers convincing them to buy better grades, brew with less water, and reap the financial rewards of a better tasting brew. The retailers responded with a new menu of coffee beverages, and the reintroduction of both new and age-old brewing rituals. It all succeeded, and roasters sought ever better beans and encouraged farm families to grow ever better beans. A small roasting retailer from Rhode Island taught us to care about our farm brethren. A small roaster in Vermont brought the K-cup to market and changed the world by creating a new brewing category, while raising the consumer price of coffee to over $30 a pound. SCAA 2nd Vice President, Tracy Ging, wrote yesterday, about, “the local communities that so often ignite trends and drive interest in what we do.” When I read her words I immediately thought of the community of small independent American roaster and retailer entrepreneurs who brought goods to market and created consumer interest where there was none before. It’s those folks who stepped up and created the new American coffee industry with their own hands and no help. They created SCAA in their own image 35 years ago. 80% of SCAA members are from within the USA, and the largest body within SCAA are the roasters, and their retail friends.

Globalization sounds delicious. I yearn to stand on a hill and breathe the crisp clean youthful air of SCAA glory. Almost 20 years ago SCAA was also in ascendancy, and in doing so had moved away from having the roasters at the center of their activities. There was a roaster Rising during a Town Hall breakfast attended by many hundred at that year’s SCAA Conference. An unspoken risk of the roasters breaking away from SCAA and creating their own splinter group was palpable as one-by-one members of the small roaster community made their displeasure known. It was over 10 yearss since I had been on the SCAA Board. I stood, and asked the leadership for a room where I would organize and run a series of roaster specific open forums, round tables, and panel discussions, beginning in the next hour and running throughout the event. The frustration and anger was quelled, and the foundation for Roasters Guild was laid that day. I stand now as I did that morning to plead the case for the singular importance of the small independent roaster and retailers who are the backbone of the trade they birthed. Lest we forget, these honest, hardworking, small roaster folks and their allies the retailers are the pulsing engine that drives the trade, and the beating heart of the association they birthed. They understand today, as they did a generation ago, that they go the distance for SCAA, and they require our attention, as precious individual members. They are each entitled to the trade group’s respect and support. Without these drivers SCAA would never have reached this pinnacle.

Allied members may see consolidation opening new markets for their wares. Farm communities may see consolidation opening new markets for their produce. Consolidation does not offer these advantages to small independent retailers and roasters. For this reason among others the leadership must provide a zone of comfort and support to the individual members of these member categories if the organization is to retain them as members in the years to come. That is why a vital part of any consolidation plan must be to redouble the association’s efforts in support of Roasters Guild even as we continue to encourage Barista Guild and the new Guilds that are currently in the early stages of gestation. The Guilds, you see, are from whose ranks will come the next generation of American specialty coffee leaders.

The habit of lathering layers of jargon throughout the pro-merger materials, and statements presented by advocates for consolidation is unfortunate, as are slick presentations that are long on graphics and short on substance. What the membership, and particularly the roaster and retailer members need are facts about the proposed merger, and buckets of them, along with the answers to Ray Consella’s question, after he went the distance in Field of Dreams. “What’s in it for me?”

Part of the consolidation plan must be to keep the American roasting community comfortably within the fold for they are more than the standard bearers carrying the specialty coffee banner on high. In a very practical way they serve the trade by being the customers who drive SCAA revenues, for it is their presence at events that drive booth sales, sponsorships, and advertising dollar spends. As knights arrant, they are the most visible element of the trade to consumers and media. Any consolidation plan must gratify, and satisfy the wants of the roasting community through indulgence, recognition, and appreciation of their continued support, and participation in the specialty coffee village at home in the USA. There should be a formal appreciation program aimed at the long term retention of individual North American small roaster members in whatever group emerges from this talk of consolidation. The goal of the program should be to encourage the growth in number of small roasters, and retailers and the retention of SCAA as their sole affiliation, all with the aim to help them live long, and prosper.

-Donald Schoenholt

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