i never know how to start writing about things that are going to end the same way, in a mushy unravelling about how coffee brings together the greatest people with the most impassioned spirits, but i’ll try to work some information between point A and point B and describe a little of what was magical and practical about last weekend’s slow food nation congress in beautiful san francisco.
for months now the murmur of what this would be had yet to make itself clear: andrew barnett (ecco caffe), eileen hassi (ritual coffee roasters) and tonx (tonx.org) were co-curating the coffee pavillion for this first-of-its kind event, a weekendlong gathering of tastes, talks, food-eaters and inspiring, considered producers across two sites in the city. the coffee pavillion, we were told, would feature espresso as well as flights of brewed coffee, and for months the details were hammered out. would there be clovers? would george howell let us put coffee in them? how many people were needed to help? which producers could they afford to fly in? can anyone get 10,000 nuova point demitasses over here, STAT?
it came together so beautifully: edwin martinez describes it in loving detail on the finca vista hermosa blog here; a two-and-a-half-day frenzy of excited, talented people from roasters to baristas to green buyers to coffee producers to equipment manufacturers to retailers to writers to vegan doughnut bakers all truly collaborating to make the best possible coffee tasting experience happen for our audience.
what i felt helped made SFN’s coffee transcend other coffee events i’ve been to was this true sense of alignment across the farm-to-cup spectrum. beyond competition and beyond ego, in a place where nothing (uh, once you got past the door fee) was branded or for sale, people gathered together in service of the coffees themselves. yes, we had exquisite equipment and champion baristas and amazingly reputed roasters in our arsenal, but more to the point we had these lovely coffees. removed was the performative aspect of baristaing, and instead there was a real sense of everyone linked on a chain of delivering these flavors and their messages to an amazingly receptive stream of people. “my job,” said one barista to a visitor to the espresso line, “is just to not fuck the coffee up on its way to you.”
the event as a whole was overwhelming and seductive, though i have no idea what it would have been like to digest it as a legitimate attendee. each pavillion had its own jaw-dropping aspect. in ice cream i sampled a fig-goat-cheese-and-cognac ice cream (when given spoonsful backstage, jenni said “is this goat cheese?” and andrew asked “is this bourbon?”) that blew me away. honey brought their own bees, bread made fast friends with us over at coffee, keeping a steady stream of paraitha, naan, breadsticks, boules, and on-site-wood-fired pizzas flowing back to us, which surely kept many of the volunteers from fainting of caffiene and enthusiasm shock. cheese and the sheep to whom i am deeply grateful offered savories, beer began filling our coffeepots from their taps, pickles and chutney had such a serious array of brined goods i didn’t even know how to comprehend it — as well as the most shockingly gorgeous pavillion in the hall, hundreds of canning rings suspended in an undulating canopy from invisible line above their booth. cheryl and i attempted to liaise with the spirits pavillion on the first night — only to have some european guy grab the coffees we’d brought him and brandish a bottle of absinthe, and exclaim “perfect! we’re going to make cafe correct-o!” before combining the two and serving to shocked and vaguely unwilling guests… i missed fish and wine and native foods altogether, but let’s not forget our neighbor across the hall, chocolate, which lined up treats and producers for an educational tasting, tea next door with their amazing seated tea service-and-talk sessions, and the many blessings of charcuterie, who offered flights of cured meat each day that reminded me constantly of where my weaknesses really lie.
for us, being part of something where we were making our product live and on the spot was vitalizing as well. though our friends in bread were kneading away non-stop, and many other pavillions were preparing things in real-time, it was intrinsically part of our pavillion’s experience that we were making something fresh for each visitor. coffee is a kinetic, temperamental, ever-changing creature. throughout each day, new coffees were being selected and tasted and learned and served at a nearly breakneck speed (sometimes too breakneck) from the incredible selection donated by the generous people at barefoot, zoka, terroir, ecco, ritual, intelligentsia, counter culture, stumptown and others. though i think it would have been an improvement for the baristas and taste captains to have had some more time and background with some of these coffees before dialing them in and introducing them, i think it is a testament to their professionalism and skill that they were able to adapt and experience and promote these beautiful coffees with such speed and finesse, delivering their message eloquently and in a way that offered the drinker a way to truly connect to it in the context of supply, production and preparation (with, in some beautiful cases, the roaster, buyer, and farmer all standing only inches away from your cup.)
in terms of where coffee fit into the event, it felt like such an important moment on a broader scale: the elevation of our niche interest within culinary, i hate to say, legitimacy, was being made real in a very prominent way to people that were interested and attentive. i think for people on both sides of the tasting counters, it was inspiring to be able to listen as well as be heard. imagine if every customer in your shop or every friend who asked you about coffee actually wanted to hear the details of the farm, the family that runs it, the elevation and climate, how it travelled to get to you, and what makes it special within its region and the spectrum of coffee at large. this happened several thousand times that weekend from people who truly wanted to discover coffee’s flavors and stories, and to share this experience with all the other volunteers was unifying and, i think, gave so much hope as to what is coming in the future.
ultimately what most of us who volunteered will take home, though, is that feeling of ever-renewed amazement at the ways people come together, the enriching pleasure of spending time with similarly minded, geeky, dedicated people removed from the usual context of competition, tension or trade show. brent fortune wrangled us into roles that suited us and the atmosphere allowed for flexibility and collaboration (coffeepot runners hopping behind the espresso machines, roasters diligently bussing the demitasses and proscuitto wreckage sprayed throughout the event site). i will remember the new friends and the gorgeous sense of generosity (both between helpers in the coffee pavillion and across other food groups — by sunday we were being hand-delivered trays of watermelon tequila and cold cuts) that filled the ocean-breezy halls of fort mason. i am sorry to abdullah bagersh (and his coffee buyers) for accidentally trying to steal that car with him, i am grateful to cheryl and jenni for being amazing travelling companions even when i am grouchy in the morning, to dan and amber for brooklynifying with us regularly and often, to peter g. and destiny for deploying the history of the martini at exactly the right time, to baca and barnett for escorting three out-of-towners to the BART and (worse) the party bus on late nights, to kyle and eveline for the posh wurlitzer digs, to the local foodies and cafes that let us linger in post-slow-food-stupors, to anyone who went on a taco or tartine run, and to everyone who made, drank, described, carried, spilled, cleaned up after, criticized, complimented and shared coffee amongst each other.
not one person i talked to didn’t feel lucky to be a part of it.