Social Media in Specialty Coffee

January 11, 2012

It's occurred to me over time that there are a lot of folks in the specialty coffee industry doing social media really well. I'm almost proud to be a part of this sort of community of people who have embraced the state of technology and information in our lives, and have really just run with it. As a coffee geek working on my M.S. in Information Management, social media is cool to me for more than just the fadism. The ability to connect with pepole half a world away and have a lighthearted, or in-depth even, conversation has truly transformed how I look at the world. If the size of the universe doesn't make you feel small, the 800 million users on Facebook ought to. That's almost 1/7th of the world's population; and in fact, the 1 billion mark is expected to be reached by this coming summer. While those users may not correspond exactly to people, it's still one of the largest networks of any kind, and specialty coffee has carved a niche in there, just as they have in real life.

It should go witout saying that coffee is a communal beverage, traditionally, so it is fairly natural for coffee and community to flow together. So, when communities moved online, so too did coffee. Before we had web sites like Roaste, where you can order beans online, an even before most cafes had any web presence at all, we had communities on Usenet, on Geocities, on alt. pages, all with coffee enthusiasts coming together to talk. This was acutally the start of something fairly unique, as one of the hallmarks of the web was global access (slowly, of course, in the beginning). All of a sudden, a fellow from Seattle can exchange ideas with somebody from Minneapolis, or even London. Since the early days, communities have thrived, expanded, as well as dissolved and disbanded. More and more, though, there is exchange between the "tiers" of people in coffee. Services like Twitter make it far easier for me, a college kid from central New York, to connect with some of the best professionals in the world. For instance, I had a rather exciting back and forth with Tim Varney in May last year, regarding brewing super-fresh coffee (one day off roast). We've never met before, and I'd consider him far out of my league, as he's the head roaster at Tim Wendelboe in Norway. And yet, unsolicited, he offered commentary and responded to my questions, something I would have imagined unthinkable at the time.

Tweeting Tim Varney

Yet, since then, I've taken to paying more attention online, and I've realized that many of the active voices in specialty coffee are eager to pay attention to anyone who shows interest. Be tey a hobbyist like myself, a normal consumer, or another professional. Dialogues are often created in brief on Twitter, or slightly more extensively on blogs or Facebook - places where more words are better suited. What's great about that is mainly the feedback. Specialty people are bred with enthusiasm and inquisitiveness, so there are always experiments and thoughts to be found online, which are always open for discussion or dispute. Brewing techniques, coffee science, retailing, farming; all are covered, and all are fair game for anyone to contribute to. If I feel like a West Coast cafe owner's thoughts on customer banter are a bit  off, I can say so, and support my argument as being the type of person who values interaction with a knowledgable human being as part of my cafe experience. I don't want to distract them from their work per se, but it's nice to be able to converse without feeling like I'm going to get somebody fired. And, more refreshing is the customer service aspect on the part of retailers. Baratza and Joe Behm have both blown me away with how helpful they are with their Twitter and Facebook accounts. Many companies put the intern in charge of updating social media, but folks like Joe - who's got to be a busy guy! - will respond to your inquiries at the drop of a hat! My tweets about my Behmor learning frustrations were tactfully handled by Joe, and I was set more or less straight in just a few days. The man was on his way upriver in Hong Kong, and he still let me know what I might be doing wrong. Gotta love that.

Beyond the discussion of coffee topics, which are near endless, the other thing I've found impressive for such a small industry is the quantity and quality of content creation. Everything from blog posts, to photos and videos, how-to articles, and more, are all curated with near-ubiquitous quality and care. You want brewing tips? Follow somebody like Nick Cho or James Hoffman online. Tips abound! The enthusiasts, especially other bloggers, are particularly helpful to that end, and you have to love the plethora of daily "what's in my cup" type photos. Honestly, this kind of content generation is so unlike many other consumer markets, it's incredible. It's definitely something unique to the food world, from what I've seen. Distinctly, though, coffee people post lots and lots of recipes - you don't find much of that with other foods. Brew weights and water volumes can be pulled from the aether with a simple request to oyour followers, and you may very well get some great results. Try asking some foodies how best to fry an egg, and you will probably get a dozen or so links to instructions. Helpful, but not quite the same.

I really hope the trend of high-quality engagement in the specialty coffee industry keeps growing the way it is. Social media may be scoffed at by folks as a fad or vainglorious, but I think in one form or another it's here to stay. And so long as it is, we can only hope that the relationship between consumers, enthusiasts, and producers can stay strong, and be more and more innovative.  





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