The Coffee Boosters: A Conversation with Sean Bonner of Coffee Common
We've already brought you two of the major food stories from last week's TED conference: chef Homaru Cantu's vision of a a miracle berry-fueled future, and the unveiling of Jamie Oliver's gigantic new Food Revolution truck.
And three's a charm, at least for the lucky TED attendees, who were treated to endless handmade cups of the world's finest coffee last week thanks to Coffee Common, a new collaborative project that aims to wake consumers up to the fascinating stories and global significance woven into their daily dose of caffeine.
What's more, under the larger banner of COMMON (see my colleague Alissa's recent post on this hybrid community, business incubator, and collaborative brand), the coffee enthusiasts behind Coffee Common have managed to persuade the best roasters and baristas in the business to put aside their competitive differences and work together.
I managed to catch up with one of Coffee Common's founders, Sean Bonner, to find out where the idea for this project came from, how they launched it at TED, and where it's going next.
Sean Bonner: The back story of all this is that last year, TED partnered with Intelligentsia for the coffee service. My friend Stephen Morrissey, who happens to be the 2008 world barista champion, was one of the people there working the coffee bar, and afterward, he and the five or six others who were involved started thinking about the conversations they'd had and the feedback they'd gotten. And they realized that there are some pretty universal messages that everyone in the coffee industry talks about and wants people to know about, but when they're talking about them with people outside of the coffee industry, they're always wearing a company hat, and so it's easy to dismiss what they're saying as marketing hype.
We all felt that if we could get all of these outstanding coffee companies who are very thoughtful about every step of what they're doing, but who are normally in competition for the same customers, and get them to work together to educate people about coffee, then it wouldn't be as simple to write it off as marketing rhetoric. All of these companies would normally prefer to have this spotlight on themselves, but they all agreed to put their own brands to the side and let the message get more of the attention, because at the end of the day, that's what's more important.
What's been amazing is how generous everyone has been. The baristas, many of whom are national champions in their own country, all paid for their own flights in. The roasters donated all of the coffee, and shipped it at their own expense to us, even though it's not being served under their brand. Everything, from the espresso machines to the cups, was donated or loaned.
GOOD: You launched Coffee Common last week at TED—what was the reaction from the crowd there?
Bonner: It's been fantastic. Last year, Intelligensia had six or seven people and did about 200 pounds of coffee. As of Wednesday last week, we had already gone through 800 pounds of coffee and there are 40 baristas involved.
GOOD: So it's the most wired TED conference ever?
Bonner: By far and away! There were some bars that were only doing espresso, some bars that were only doing pour over, and some bars that were doing Chemex, and so on. And we changed out the coffee served at each bar every three hours. So at any point you could go and try out the exact same coffee prepared six different ways and see the flavor difference, as well as just wait a few hours and try something from a completely different farm.
The most extraordinary part is the conversations we've had. There were people who walked up just wanting something hot and caffeinated and then we talked to them a little bit and gave them something and their mind was completely blown, right in front of us. Then there were a lot of people who were already familiar with artisanal coffee, so they were very excited to talk about the farms and the roasters that we're working with.
It was a pretty receptive audience, which was nice. There isn't really anybody at TED who's not interested in learning about something new!
GOOD: What do you hope people would do or change after having that kind of experience?
Bonner: The thing we were talking about when we came up with this collaboration is that coffee is everywhere—you can't throw a rock without hitting somewhere that is selling brown liquid in a to-go cup. But the majority of is a low-end commodity crop and its farmers are getting the short end of the stick and all sorts of other horror stories. And, on the other end of that, just this week, the price that coffee is traded at hit a 30-year high. So, in some ways, coffee is the most valuable it's ever been and, in others, it's utterly ubiquitous and ordinary. But most people wouldn't see that disparity, because most people have no concept of what actually happens before the coffee gets to their cup.
One of the things that we're really trying to show with Coffee Common is that there are so many people involved with the process of producing coffee, from the farmers to the importers, to the roasters. At every little step of the way, there are a lot of people involved and. if at the end of that long chain, the price is really cheap, it's not because somebody is giving you a deal out of the goodness of their heart. It's because somebody, somewhere in that process, is getting fucked.
So what we're trying to do is to put faces onto every single step in the process. At TED, we had each roaster pick one specific farm from one specific place, and so the baristas were able to tell the people they were serving who was involved in getting their coffee to them, very specifically. For example, one of the roasts that we were serving represented a very small micro-lot that only produced about 2,000 pounds in Colombia. To be able to pinpoint every place and person involved in the whole process for people and then let them taste the result is really powerful. And then we'd do it all over again with a roast from a particular area in Rwanda, and it would be something completely different.
But, that said, we don't really think that there's really a single step solution to any of this. It's not that we can just tell everybody the story of coffee and then they will make one simple change in their purchasing and then everything will be better.
Instead, it's really a much loftier goal of continued education and spreading the word, with the idea that a rising tide lift all boats, and the more people know about the process, the better the end result will be for everyone involved.