Coffee: An Allegory with a Shot


Photo of Barista
Baristas create caffeinated goodness all around the world. Courtesy of Gotovan on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

While some called Finn a glorified coffee brewer, he knew better. He’d been a barista for a long time. Finn had an innate ability when it came to brewing the java juice. Being a barista defined him professionally, and more than a little bit personally. For Finn, coffee was a way of life, and the best barista was, as a matter of practice, a life-long coffee drinker.

His first year as a barista, Finn was eager, energetic, and willing to do anything he could to brew a great cup of coffee. He was going to serve coffee to customers who had never taken it seriously before. This meant working in a coffee shop where little was expected of coffee. Some of his customers had family members who had tried coffee long ago and had been turned off by the experience. Some would talk coffee down as a waste of a drink, as not being important in the beverage world. Others in these coffee-deprived neighborhoods didn’t trust coffee and questioned if it really had any affect on those who drank it anyway. Others suggested that you could somehow survive and maybe even thrive without it.

The suggestion clawed through to Finn’s very soul. “Coffee is necessary for a full and complete existence,” he argued. “There are events each and every day where a cup of coffee gets you through, helps you cope, enhances your experience in this world.” Perhaps naively, Finn continued trying to make great cups of coffee in spite of the fact that his equipment was substandard, and his beans were pre-ground and pre-packaged.

Still, Finn left work every day feeling like he impacted at least one coffee drinker, and while he wanted to “change the world” with his coffee, it was enough feeling satisfied that he was doing the right thing—professionally, and, personally.

Many of Finn’s former customers, despite having moved on to the swankier coffee shops across town, came back every once in a while to visit and share their appreciation for how he’d helped them see the light and value the finer points of coffee.

But there was a problem. Baristas in Finn’s neck of the woods were being blamed for substandard coffee drinking, and that wouldn’t do. It became such an issue that some politicians got involved. “We cannot allow this inferior coffee to impact our country!” they exclaimed. “Other nations are able to brew an excellent cup of coffee, and this enriches the lives of the coffee drinkers there, sets them up for future success, and makes Americans look like a bunch of swill-swallowing degenerates!”

The politicians created legislation that forced barista evaluation based on the coffee they brewed, how well they assessed their own brewing skills, and their willingness to improve their skills as baristas. A national surge for standardized coffee—a weakened version to serve every coffee taste, every customer, regardless of their coffee experience—went into overdrive. It was known as the Total Beverage Standards, or “Total BS” for short. Baristas everywhere, even in those fancy boutique coffee shops, would be pressured to conform.

Photo of Coffee Beans
Unbrewed beans hold so much potential. Courtesy of umershabib on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

In addition, customers would now be assessed on their ability to identify beans and roasts, and country and season of origination. If the consumers didn’t meet the highest levels of Total BS, baristas would face serious repercussions, now dictated by state law.

Another group, called the “Coffee Party” —which subscribed to a ‘back to basics’ approach—was much stronger in condemning the baristas. “We must use every tool we have—particularly the tools of the free market—to destroy the liberal hold on coffee drinking,” they cried.

Finn and his colleagues—felt under attack. “What did we do wrong?” they asked each other. “We’re dealing with customers who didn’t always value a good cup of coffee or know what one should taste like. They come from homes where coffee wasn’t respected, let alone appreciated. In some cases their parents never even finished their first cup! How can anyone compare the disenfranchised coffee drinkers against the privileged, overachieving coffee drinkers in the upscale coffee shops across town?”

The pressure was beginning to have an effect on Finn to shift his thinking away from brewing and appreciating coffee to instead making sure that customers were prepared for their Total BS assessments. And so much time was now being spent on assessing coffee drinkers they were losing interest in actually drinking coffee and being in the coffee shop. Yet, Finn pushed on in the hopes that somehow he would have a positive impact and redeem himself as a barista. Still, Finn couldn’t help but feel a little less energy for what was becoming a “job,” losing the magical qualities that made it a “profession.”

A boutique coffee shop.
A boutique coffee shop. Courtesy of Charleston’s TheDigitel on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

Now all baristas were under attack and it all seemed to be a result of the Total BS. Finn scratched his head, waiting for the moment in the not-too-distant future when others realized what an absolute sham this crusade was, and how it would certainly and absolutely fail a generation of coffee drinkers, mostly those in the poorer communities he served.

Many of Finn’s colleagues flat-out quit their barista jobs or planned on leaving the profession as Total BS scores came in for their coffee drinkers. “My boss always told me I was a great barista!” said Trinity, one of Finn’s colleagues, as she suddenly resigned and turned in her apron.

“I can’t believe Trinity would leave!” cried one customer, “She changed my life! I won’t ever look at coffee the same way again. It’s lunacy!”

Lunacy or not, because of Total BS, the push was on to quantify every aspect of coffee shop efficiency and hold baristas “accountable” for demonstrating coffee drinker progress through weekly assessments. Finn received his results from the Total BS assessments: “least effective.” Finn was devastated.

“What in the hell have I been doing this whole time?” he thought in a moment of self-reflection. “I was doing what I thought was best, but obviously I have to do something different.” As Finn tried to determine how the barista rating system worked, he realized there was a lack of transparency around the specifics of the Total BS assessment model. The details of how the scores were calculated weren’t 100% public. His State Coffee And Barista Evaluation & Estimation (SCABEE) paid a consulting company several million taxpayer dollars to conduct and report on barista quality, even though no demonstration of this company’s expertise in coffee seems to exist. The consulting company has released some tidbits on its evaluation model but declines to provide key details about how barista scores are computed.

Drinking coffee
A customer enjoys a cup of joe at a local coffee shop. Courtesy of Anika Malone on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

In a maddening twist, SCABEE won’t share a copy of the assessment model and calculation rules for the evaluations either, citing intellectual property rights.

Being a barista wasn’t supposed to be like this. “Sure,” Finn reasoned, “there are some baristas out there who give the profession a bad name, but there are far more coffee drinkers who need additional support. The deck is stacked against them.” But this reality was not a reason to muck up the entire system. Coffee drinking should be a wonderful experience; about empowering the coffee drinker, of getting each and every coffee drinker to find their favorite blend or roast and live a happy, caffeinate—or decaffeinated, if they choose—life. A barista’s calling is to guide the drinker through that experience, and open them up to new possibilities. There would be little time for that under the new Total BS consume-and-assess system.

Finn knew that an excellent barista wasn’t always the one who brewed the perfect cup; he was the one who provided customers with a reason for returning the next day to enjoy another cup of Americano, regardless of the Total BS. He seriously wondered how long he’d have the fortitude to stomach Total BS slop.

Bloom, Molly. “Ohio teachers graded by controversial ‘value-added’ measure, based on students’ progress.” Cleveland.com. The Northeast Ohio Media Group, 16 Jun 2013. Web. 4 Jan 2014. <http://www.cleveland.com/metro/index.ssf/2013/06/ohio_teachers_graded_by_value-.html&gt;.
Phillips, Judson. “The Greatest American failure..” Tea Party Nation. Tea Party Nation, 09 Feb 2013. Web. 4 Jan 2014. <http://www.teapartynation.com/forum/topics/the-greatest-american-failure?commentId=3355873:Comment:2436031&gt;.
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