Jordan Michelman is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge.com, a quality-focused, aesthetically driven source for independent coffee journalism. Founded in 2009 by childhood friends Jordan Michelman and Zachary Carlsen, Sprudge is followed by thought leaders and influencers across the food and beverage world, with a writing and editorial staff in more than a dozen countries. Born in Tacoma, Washington, Michelman is a graduate of the University of Washington in Seattle, and lives in Portland, Oregon.
London Coffee Festival, April 2016
Marta Dalton: I’m here with Jordan from Sprudge at the London Coffee Festival and we are about to kick off the Coffee Break Questions!!! So, first question: If you could have a coffee with anyone in the world who would it be with? Any point in time.
Jordan Michelman: Well, there are a couple of people in the world who are heroes of mine, and one of those is the novelist and reporter Tom Wolfe. He wrote The Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full and a lot of really incredible experiential, real journalism back in the sixties and seventies for a magazine in New York. I’m a great fan of all his writing and all his books. He’s very old but still writing books and he’s sort of my “words” hero. A lot of how I try to think about writing comes from him, and my favourite writing is by him.
I don’t even know if he’s into coffee or not but he’s a Southern guy so maybe he is. But I would like to talk to him about many different things and if coffee was how I got to hang out with him in the same room then that would be who I’d pick.
MD: You live in Portland, Oregon. What’s the average price of coffee in Portland? In a cafe.
JM: I would bet that the average cost of a cup of coffee in Portland would be $2.50. Figuring that some would be a little bit more more expensive, like a pour-over coffee, and some might be a little bit less expensive, for example if you were at a diner or somewhere serving just drip coffee…
MD: What is the most that you would pay for a coffee, out?
JM: I think that factoring in flights and hotels and all the rest of it, I’ve probably paid more than $1000 for a cup of coffee! I have a very skewed opinion on this because I write about coffee for a living and I get to try all these really beautiful high-end coffees. So when I go somewhere and I see the option to pay more than $5, say, or even more than $10 for a coffee, I actually get really excited and point to that one and try it first because maybe it could be news and really interesting.
MD: Do you think there is any connection between coffee farmer and coffee drinker? And if not, how could one be created?
JM: That’s a great question! I do think that a connection exists. [I don’t know] whether or not the farmer or the drinker is always aware of it, because the creation of the products that we consume is part of their total narrative and whether or not you’ve been activated to thinking about things like that… it is kind of a closed loop. It’s very powerful and very interesting to be able to think about the things we consume through that [loop].
I don’t think most people think about it like that, in the same way I know that many farmers in the world who grow coffee never actually get to try the finished, roasted versions of the coffee that they grow, and so I’d love to see more of that kind of connectivity being made. I think there’s probably a couple of different ways that it can happen. One is people being able to educate themselves more, and I think that’s happening more and more as we digitise the experience about learning about, and consuming coffee.
There’s more and more information every day available about coffee and people are making that available to themselves more than ever before. Not necessarily because people are “smarter” or “better” now but just because it’s so available that you almost can’t help but stumble across information. I also think that this dovetails with a little bit more consciousness of consumption patterns or the choices that we are so privileged to be able to make as consumers in a city like Portland or a country like the United States.
Many people can be thoughtful about the things that they consume and that fosters a greater understanding about [the connection] and this is something that many coffee companies are looking at as a potentially important way to talk about what they do and about what makes their coffee special. Being able to provide that connectivity between their finished roasted product and the people who grow it all round the world.
So I think that in some ways the tide is starting to shift towards that and, as a journalist, we always look for the ability to give a wink to a coffee producer or tag a coffee producer on twitter or provide that connectivity where possible. If some of this tech comes into the different parts of the world where coffee is grown, and the awareness of wanting that knowledge becomes more available to people growing coffee, then yes, I think that helps close the loop a little bit too. The whole experience of consuming coffee is becoming digitised and that goes all the way back to the farm level and that’s not going to stop anytime soon, it’s going to keep building and building.
MD: What does Direct Trade mean to you, if anything?
JM: When I was first learning about good coffee, and learning that there was such thing as coffee that was better than other coffee, I thought that “Direct Trade” meant that the roasting company flew to wherever it was that coffee was grown, and then put their satchel in the checked baggage, and flew it back to Seattle or Portland and put their “Direct Trade” stamp on it, because to me “Direct” meant that you were directly the person who managed it. I have since learned that direct is more of a way of communicating what I see as the happy accidents that are possible by spending time and money and effort and energy to send someone from a coffee company to the coffee producing world to attend cuppings there, to go to the farms there, to meet the people who grow the coffee, and have access to the different lots of coffee that they might not be able to if they solely relied on a spot buying list from a green coffee importing company. So there’s still that directness to it. I personally think that “Direct Trade” is kind of a simplification and it can be confusing to the consumer because the average consumer does equate that with directness.
Being frank here with you, I think that some of that conclusion has been fostered, and I think some of the coffee companies are ok with people thinking that [Direct Trade] is a little bit more direct than it actually is. Which sort of undercuts the important role that’s played by responsible, quality-focused importing companies, of which there are many around the world. Direct Trade is really about, hey, we may be a company in Portland or California or wherever, but we’ve got somebody in our team that goes to Rwanda or goes to Guatemala and has these cuppings and not all our coffee is coming through that chokepoint of what gets brought into the country by the importer. [The roaster] can go and try something and very specifically tell the importer “bring me that!” and it might not be available to everybody else, and it’s a way to have something that maybe the other cafe down the street doesn’t have. I also don’t have the answer to what you should say instead of “Direct Trade”! But I do think the term kind of blurs the actual, and much more subtle and complex, story of how coffee gets from point A to point, B and how you get good coffee especially from point A to point B.
MD: Thank you. I really love your answer. I’ve asked a lot of people this question and Direct Trade means a lot of different things to different people and I like the way your response captured it.
Last question! Can coffee make the world a better place?
JM: I think that it already does! Coffee and connectivity goes way back…. The Enlightenment was built on coffee! Digital culture now is being built on coffee, people have never been more interested in coffee, and I think that we’re seeing coffee, in its own way, have great potential to make the world a better place. Coffee also has potential to be just turned into another brand experience, just another lifestyle token to qualify yourself as someone who is desirable and has social capital. Coffee is as subject to how humans experience capitalism as anything else. But I guess I’m an optimist and I think it can make the world a better place and I think that if we pull apart what it’s doing now we’ll find very real ways that that’s happening.