A typical specialty coffee shop experience involves receiving an espresso or filter coffee with an information card. Its purpose is to spark a customer’s curiosity and gain further appreciation for the coffee they’re drinking.
The card or subsequent bag of roasted coffee often contains details such as the farm and producer’s name, the names of their children, how many people they employ, the harvest schedule, farm altitude, farm size, and volume of bags per harvest. But nowhere does it say the name of the person who roasted the coffee, their hobbies, and the names of their children.
“If that information about ourselves was exposed, we would probably feel like it’s an invasion of privacy,” says Cafe Imports’ Managing Editor Ever Meister, or Meister as she is better known.
“I think there’s a lot of producers who buy into what we want, but we have to think more critically about the way we approach information and share it. Where along the supply chain did the farmer sign their life away for roasters to use their personal details as marketing material?
“The majority of importers and roasters don’t use a disclosure form when they take photos to ask permission for their use. We shouldn’t be thinking ‘we’re going to take your photo and put it on a bag to help sell your coffee, that’s an honour’. It’s not unless they agree to it.”
After seeing the evolution of the coffee industry for the past 18 years, Meister is most concerned that producers are still not empowered to reject or withhold information. They see big cheques handed over for their coffee, and emails sent requesting information about themselves in exchange. It may be how business is done, but it doesn’t sit right with Meister.
“Many businesses, and I’m also guilty of this, continue to use the word ‘partnership’ when describing their collaboration with a farmer, but many are one-way relationships. I give you money and you give me information, but I don’t give you any in return. The baseline equaliser of what we could do, is share the same information about my company,” Meister says.
“There’s never any communication about what we’re gathering information for, or why we may or may not need it. We need to be more considerate especially considering the way farmers have been disenfranchised from the supply chain, and together as an industry, question how we can all move the needle in a way that makes more sense than is ethical, and to be honest, a little less colonial.
“I know it’s done in a well intentioned way and after a while we will learn to ask the right the questions. But I don’t know we are at the moment.”
These are just some of the considerations Meister raises with herself on a daily basis, and some of the thought-provoking questions she will present to audiences when she tours Australia for Toby’s Estate’s first Knowledge Talks series in March and April 2019.
Meister says her presentation will be a “soul search” to these kinds of questions she’s been thinking about, but doesn’t necessarily have the answer to.
“I really want to step back and put into context what certain information means and how necessary it is to have and share, and how we can ask the right questions that really forms a partnership between the folks who are doing the work at the farm level and the export and the mill level,” Meister says. “In my Knowledge Talks presentation I also hope to take a philosophical approach to what traceability means, how we can be critical about it, and how we can do more good frankly as an industry with that kind of power and influence.”
Meister stresses the purpose of the talk is not to lecture, but to ask the questions no-one else is.
“If I get up in front of an audience in Perth and they start throwing tomatoes I’ll understand, but I do think it’s important that we stop making assumptions that more information is better and conducive to selling more coffee. We need to start acknowledging that farmers have ownership of their information, and that we should be asking them if it’s OK to share it together,” she says.
On the other side of the fence, Meister says there’s a fine line between acknowledging what customers really want and still bridging the knowledge gap between them and coffee professionals.
“We assume coffee drinkers want to know about the coffee they’re drinking and the person who grew it, but have we ever really asked them what information they actually want? The average roaster I think – and this is true in the States – puts a bunch of words on a bag because it makes them feel confident. But fundamentally, what the consumer looks for is what the coffee tastes like and how much it costs,” Meister says.
“The challenge, however, is how to get consumers excited about specialty coffee.”
Born and raised in New Jersey, United States, Meister studied journalism at Northeastern University, and like so many others in the coffee industry, fell into her coffee career. Her first job was working as a barista in a Boston coffee shop in 2000. Meister then moved to New York City to work at Joe Coffee Company in 2004, which was one of the first known specialty coffee companies in the state.
“Joe’s was famous for doing latte art. It was like the Magnolia Bakery of coffee shops,” Meister says. “Coffee in New York in the early 2000s was like a Seinfeld episode. There was the place that tells you ‘no, we don’t do sugar, no we don’t do soy’, there’s the place that has the Clover coffee machine, and the place that did the $10 pour over coffee.”
Meister stayed at Joe’s for several years before moving to Counter Culture Coffee in wholesale accounts out of its Manhattan office for six years. In her last years at the company, Meister focused on research and coffee education and building a company curriculum. She now works for Cafe Imports as its Managing Editor, a role that allows her to combine her skills for storytelling by writing and managing the company’s written content across its digital, print, and social channels.
“I started in 2015 on the sales team but it turns out I’m better at talking people out of buying coffee rather than selling it to them,” Meister says.
“I quickly realised when I moved into my role at Cafe Imports that it’s basically my job to discern what information is appropriate for us to share with our customers about the coffee that we’re buying.”
More than ever, working in green coffee, Meister feels her skills in research are a helpful asset in an area of the supply chain where people are hungry for information.
“I can use my journalism training and ethics and apply it to an industry that’s totally different,” she says. “We’re in a time where everyone wants to know everything about the coffee we buy, the food we eat, the clothes we wear. We want to know details because we feel it gives us some sort of protection to know that we’re doing the right thing ethically.”
This article appears in full in the February edition of BeanScene. To read the story in FULL, subscribe now.
See Meister on Toby’s Estate’s Knowledge Talks tour from 27 March to 2 April.
For more information, visit www.tobysestate.com.au