I recently saw an Instagram video posted by the comedian Godfrey in which all the Black men were holding Starbucks cups. He gives a tip to all Black men: if you don't want to be bothered by cops all you have to do is hold a Starbucks cup. Cops can't mess with you if you're sipping Starbucks. Look at them. All the Black men stood around with serious looks on their faces and began sipping their Starbucks coffees one at a time to prove that sipping Starbucks could transform them from "threatening" to "approachable softy". I'm not going to lie, it was funny. But as most jokes do this joke started from a real observation: coffee culture is really that white. It's so white that it can make you less... well, Black. But why is coffee culture so white washed? And why do POC continue to perpetuate it?
I was introduced to the "coffee world" when I worked at Starbucks throughout college but it wasn't there that I realized how white-washed and culturally exclusive coffee culture can be. At Starbucks I only learned about making coffee, not specialty coffee, just coffee. I didn't become a coffee expert but I learned how to steam milk for lattes and how to create foam for cappuccinos, and how to double the cup when pouring hot water onto a tea bag because the hot water at Sbux is kept at a scorching 250 degrees Fahrenheit. And most importantly I learned that coffee mostly hailed from the most colorful of countries, different regions in Latin America and Africa, and it didn't just appear in a magical red and yellow tin in my mother's pantry. But it wasn't until after Starbucks that I learned more about coffee "the crop," and acquired a taste for Ethiopian coffees because of their fruity nature and began to understand the difference between "blends" and "single origins." I began frequenting different coffee shops while attending grad school. I was exhausted all the time and coffee was necessary. So I took on the project of understanding coffee and New York City's coffee culture. Coffee culture is the idea that a coffee shop is a hub for conversation and discussion; a place to meet, greet, socialize, and share ideas; places that Majora, the co-owner of The Boogie Down Grind in the South Bronx, says are important in all neighborhoods because it's "a place people can do community." Coffee shops are conducive to exchanging ideas through conversation; they tend to be the breeding ground for revolutions and have historically played this role but nowadays not so much.
Nowadays coffee shops, particularly specialty coffee shops, tend to be culturally homogenous and because of that they exist almost exclusively in gentrified New York. The Boogie Down Grind in the South Bronx is an exception but the owners have been met with much animosity from locals who have internalized the belief that ownership of anything, especially coffee shops, is white. They are not entirely wrong. Specialty coffeeshop culture in New York City inherently excludes people of color. It is rare to meet Black specialty coffeeshop owners and even more rare to meet coffee roaster companies owned by POC. But do we like coffee? Of course we do. Some might make the argument that it's too expensive for many of us as on average we make less money than white America but to that I say: BS! People in the hood willingly go to Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks everyday and then complain that "fancy" coffee shops are too expensive yet the only real difference between DDs and SBUX, and all other coffee shops (with better quality coffee) is the culture. So after frequenting so many specialty coffee shops...
...the one thing I've learned about coffee culture is that there's a severe lack of it.
It's important to understand that for coffee to be deemed specialty coffee every step between growing that coffee to consumption is carefully controlled: climate, soil, picking the cherries (yes, coffee is a cherry and therefore a fruit), washing, drying, storing, roasting, and finally: brewing. In most cases the ground coffee to water ratio must be just right. I admit that it does sound a bit ridiculous but some of the best coffee I've ever had is specialty coffee and usually tends to be perfect in it's natural state: black, no sugar or cream. But who decides what's the "right" way? Cue the SCAA: the Specialty Coffee Association of America. That's right, unbeknownst to many of you this is a real thing. The SCAA and it's standards are to coffee what the Common Core State Standards are to education, sort of. According to NYS if all teachers are adhering to the CCSS then your child is technically receiving a quality education. If the coffee farmer, roaster, and brewer are adhering to all SCAA standards (green coffee, cupping, roasting, water, and brewing) then you've technically got yourself a good ol' cup of specialty coffee. Unfortunately these specifications of what makes a quality cup of coffee are arbitrary (though many in the industry would argue otherwise) and usually requires white men with money to "educate" coffee farmers in coffee growing countries and initiate the construction of an infrastructure that will make cultivating specialty coffee possible. This usually results in coffee farmers and their perspective importers making more money. In many cases farmers actually begin making a livable wage for the first time! This is undeniably a good thing. But of course guess who makes more money? It is also unfortunate that the cultivation of good quality coffee seems to be impossible without the white savior but as someone who prefers specialty coffee I'm actually OK with this as long as farmers are making a livable wage. The cultivation of specialty coffee isn't really the problem. The coffee culture that specialty coffee creates it the problem. Turning coffee, a crop native to POC, into a lucrative business in North America that cultivates an exclusive coffee culture is the problem.
The problem is that coffee, a crop native to people of color, has been re-colonized by white men. It is called specialty coffee and it is an industry dominated by white men. This may be unsurprising since coffee shops and specialty coffee are now quite a lucrative business and most POC are kept out of lucrative business opportunities. However, I find it necessary to enlighten those who are so against coffee shops in the hood, or who spend money on coffee everyday and should be giving this money back to their own community. This specialty coffee trend (I'm hesitant to call it a trend as it is truly supported by agricultural science) is known as the "third wave" of coffee and has created an even more exclusive coffee culture that inherently excludes the very people who invented coffee culture.
When it comes to coffee most of us are meant to exist in the Matrix. Even if you're an avid coffee drinker chances are you have no clue what this "other" coffee world entails, the world in which coffee is described as being in it's "third wave" and specialty coffee reigns. And bottom line is if you're a person of color you're simply not meant to know. POC invented coffee culture as Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee but alas! The white man has saved coffee (not unlike Columbus discovering America), dropped some agricultural knowledge and dominated, physically and mentally, as we attack a coffee shop in the South Bronx owned by two Black women instead of supporting it. This exclusive coffee culture in New York not only makes white men richer (hello, white supremacist patriarchy capitalism!) but also convinces us that specialty coffee, or the coffee business in general, is simply not for us. Of course this is not a new concept. As a kid who grew up in the projects I learned really quickly that the only things that were for us were chicken shacks and bodegas. But as a grown woman with a Master's degree who earns every dollar she spends, I realize that many in our community need to WAKE UP (and smell the coffee).
I sought to find a specialty coffee roasting company, no matter how small, owned by POC so I could feel good about who I gave my money to in my effort to support Black and Latino businesses and I came up empty. How can coffee and coffee culture be such an integral part of my culture (my mother has told me stories of coffee farms in Puerto Rico as she recalls watching her sister roasting dried coffee beans over a fire), my partner's culture (he's Haitian and his mother has similar stories of her laying washed coffee beans out in the sun to dry), and to so many people of color here in NYC yet not one of us has a stake in this third wave of coffee? It's clearly not because we don't enjoy a good cup of coffee or because we aren't entrepreneurs though statistically we do have less of a disposable income than our white peers. The real problem is the current exclusive nature of coffee culture. Specialty coffee shops are mostly regarded as "hipster" and are usually considered the first sign of gentrification, or as an acquaintance of mine defined it: the"refinement" of an urban neighborhood. Basically if it's white, it's "refined," and therefore not for us? What?
I currently reside in Jersey City and went on a search for specialty coffee roasted and owned by people of color so I can be proud of giving my money to Black and Latino owned businesses. I could not find one. I read through lists and articles, from articles in the Atlantic from about seven years ago displaying white men with Haitian coffee plantation owners, to articles in Fresh Cup Roaster Magazine and Thrillist about coffee and coffee roasters across the nation. Thrillist conjured a list of 21 "best" coffee roasters in the nation and unsurprisingly NOT ONE BLACK coffee roaster. Surely people of color like coffee, especially Caribbean people. It is most definitely a part of our culture. Coffee culture is my culture. Yet not one of us are in the business of coffee so I think it's time we make coffee our business.