The Perils of Passion

Blackwood Baristi, in case you didn’t know, is two people: Glen Surtees and Glenn Harpur. Meet the former.

I’m writing this post for two reasons: firstly, I had a conversation the other day and I had one of those weird dissociative experiences, you know, the kind where you actually listen to what you’re busy saying from an outside observer’s perspective and think: Do I really sound like that? And no, I’m not currently on strong medication!

The second reason is that the topic of said conversation fits in neatly with Glenn’s recent article on how he got involved in coffee in the first place.

So, without further ado, here’s what happened:

Someone mentioned coffee at a Saturday afternoon braai. The host, always the networker, pointed the person in my direction. I launched into my usual diatribe with passion. As it turned out, the other person knew very little about coffee and was mildly interested at best.

Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t one of those conversations where I was still going strong after 30 minutes and showing no sign of stopping, no – it was short enough.  It was, however, during this conversation that I went into a sort of ‘autopilot’ and found myself listening to myself. I couldn’t help but think: What’s happening to me? Please don’t let me become one of those people who starts every single freaking conversation with the words, “I’m not a racist but…”. What I did wrong, I believe, was to engage the person at a level on which they couldn’t relate.  Again, this was subtle but nevertheless a problem.

I see this happen a lot. We tend to be passionate about coffee and we fail to understand how anyone could not love coffee like we do.

When you are passionate, you speak about that which you are passionate about. All well and good if your speech is of a frequency and level that the average Joe can relate to. But the trouble seems to start when we get it wrong.

All of us know what attracted us to coffee and coffee culture. We also know that we baristas are a strange breed. We obsess about things – tiny, seemingly inconsequential things which we KNOW make all the difference in the world.  But to get the average man in the street to buy into that or even mildly care is a different kettle of fish altogether.

We all want people to learn more about coffee, we want people to know the difference between what’s good and the dirty dish water that’s still passed off as coffee in some establishments around town. We want people to CARE! This is good. It’s logical because if the general public becomes more discerning in their coffee drinking, the standard is raised and you don’t have to fight your way through that cup of liquified burnt toast with something that was once milk but now looks more like a scalding hot thought bubble clinging to the last precious seconds of life floating insipidly on top. 

So yes! Let’s talk about coffee! Let’s tell people that there’s something much, much better out there than commercial freeze-dried chicory extract. Let’s tell the poor misled soul who thinks that vacuum-packed commercial brands from Italy are the be-all-and-end-all that we have freshly roasted, top quality coffee on our doorstep. Let’s guide those who assail you with the words, “Bru! You HAVE to try XXXX [insert name of poor quality coffee here]. It’s so good!”

But let’s face facts There are some people (in fact most people) who will sip the best specialty coffee money can buy and then go home and have a cup of instant later on without the slightest qualms.  In short, they like coffee. And you know what? I’m actually OK with that. I’ve realised that we are never really going to convince these people to care with our facts and our ‘fanciful’ descriptions of the peaches and cream flavour notes we can taste in that fresh batch of Costa Rica we have just cupped. Rather, those things tend to alienate them even more and, consequently, we get painted as some sort of obsessive lunatic fringe.

People HAVE to make the decision to care for themselves. Think about it: no-one has been argued into loving coffee. Coffee held a certain appeal for some and none at all for others.

If people put sugar in a coffee I’ve just made (out of habit) I don’t scream internally anymore. I KNOW that I’ve made them the best cup of coffee that I could possibly give them. I’ve done my job and I’ve done it well. I’m content with that.

Will I continue to talk about coffee, to educate people about the joys of this amazing drink and the culture surrounding it? Sure. But I will certainly be more tactful and understanding in the way that I approach the subject and try to sound less like a stuck record whilst doing it.


Glen Surtees

Peaches and cream? Dark chocolate and caramel? Hopefully not burnt toast…


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