Transcend Coffee

Ascending up from "Stove Land"

I think I have always wanted to write. Even as a kid, I think that desire was buried somewhere deep, but it was there. I read voraciously as a young person. I was reading heavy books too, Roots, Shogun, The Chronicles of Thomas R Covenant, just to name a few. Reading for me, unbeknownst to me at the time, was most likely a form of escape. The stories in those books were filled with places I could go to avoid pain. As I continue to dive deep into this journey that I am on, I am confronting the patterns of many others, and seeing similarities. Reading like I did as a youngster is definitely a common theme.

Despite the fact that I have often had a blog as an adult, I also know how much eleven years of university sucked the joy of reading and writing from my bones. It is only in the last year that I have even started to pick up a book, and the same can be said with writing. I attended a food and wine writing workshop in Kelowna in 2013, hosted by my friend Jennifer Cockrall-King, and truthfully I have often wondered why. That conference was a great experience in terms of the activities that we participated in, but the writing workshops almost had a negative effect on me, shutting down my desire to write. I think that I, like so many others, struggle with the basic notion of being a writer. What do I have to offer, what would I write that anyone would want to read?

I picked up Steven King’s “On Writing” this week and started in on it today. I started Margaret Atwood’s Master Class this week, and both offer up the sage advice that you aren’t a writer if you don’t write. So start writing! Like many who like to watch programs about cooking, but don’t cook, I think I adopted this perspective about myself in terms of writing.

I guess I had already decided a while ago that I was going to just write, regardless of what people thought about what I wrote. While this isn’t entirely true, I haven’t yet written with complete abandon, I have already let that horse out of the barn.

Back in December I asked people which book they thought changed their life.

I am indebted to my friend Dave Z for recommending “The Brothers K” by David James Duncan. It is a beast of a book! And to be honest, I have listened to this book via Audible, and not sat and read it (which probably would have been faster). I am almost finished, less than 30 minutes left in the over 28 hours of audio. I have spent a lot of time walking, and listening, getting to know the Chance family. The narrator of this book should get an Oscar (if they had one for reading audio books!). If you haven’t had a chance to read this book yet, I too, highly recommend it.

As someone who is emotionally stunted and emotionally illiterate, I am beginning to discover that books, or maybe more accurately, the accumulation of language is perhaps a key to unlocking the cage which has held all of my emotions locked up all these many years. Obviously writing about my journey in this blog has been therapy of sorts, but more than that, I am beginning to actually experience an emotional response as I listen to books like The Brothers K or Washington Black. Prior to this, I would say that it was only while watching movies that I felt any real emotions, and now that seems to have expanded to the realm of words.

The character Irwin who is emotionally damaged after his stint in Vietnam and a military mental asylum (electric shock therapy and all) begins to find his way back to being human by building wood stoves. It is his way of trying to climb back up from the nether regions of previous trauma. Irwin’s brother Peter names this intermediary emotional world as Stove Land. This idea of Stove Land resonated with me. The idea of climbing up from a world devoid of emotions, finding something to cling to, some common language to speak in the process. I am beginning to understand that perhaps writing is my Stove Land.

I know that one of the tasks at hand is to broaden, or more accurately develop, an emotional vocabulary. I don’t even have words for most of what I feel, which makes it hard to articulate those feelings with any precision. I recently finished reading “Running on Empty” by Dr. Jonice Webb and she has an appendix of words to describe one’s emotions. It is a very long list, I have a lot of words to learn.

I am also determined, perhaps not yet fully committed, to writing a book. I haven’t yet decided whether this book will be fiction, or not, whether it will be related to my life, or not, but I am going to write it. You may never get to read it. As Margaret Atwood says, the waste paper basket is God’s gift to the writer. Having said that, I will most likely eventually put it out there, with trepidation, but then as I am discovering, this is the plight of every writer. Until then, this blog and the Transcend blog will have to do.

Core Values

Almost five years ago, Transcend went through a process of establishing its core values. At the time, I actually didn't put much stock in the process. I have never been a fan of all the corporate mumbo jumbo that companies get excited about. I have little patience with CSR (corporate social responsibility) initiatives; don’t get me wrong, I am all a huge supporter of business being responsible and participating members of their communities, I just cringe at those efforts when they are dressed up marketing efforts. What I have learned in the ensuing years since we adopted ours, is that they must be CORE VALUES. This means that everyone in your organization needs to not only know what they are, but actually live them out. They need to essentially be the DNA of your organization which informs all decisions, who you hire, who you fire. They should define and nurture your culture. All of this, I have learned, takes time and a significant amount of intentionality and resources.

Recently, I have been thinking about my own personal core values. Brené Brown actually talks about this in her most recent book Dare to Lead. She encourages the self evaluation which ends up with identifying personal core values. While I am not sure I have nailed down my two core values yet, I definitely know that one of them is generosity. I am not sure when and where it was hardwired into my core, but along the way it has come to define me. I am not saying that I am always generous. For example, I am still learning how to be more generous in my assumptions towards others, shedding the cynicism which I became all too comfortable with these past years. Maybe another core value for me is community, I am not sure, perhaps transparency? Regardless, it is useful to work through the process of identifying the one or two things which drive most of your decisions and serve to motivate one’s actions.

Why am I writing about this today? Well in short, I received an email from my kid’s principal today where they announced the new branding for his school. As with most rebranding exercises, the logo changes are subtle, and to understand all of the nuances behind why one part is this colour or that is lost on almost everyone outside (and often within) of the organization. But what truly struck me and more accurately made me angry is the list of core values that accompanied the announcement of the new logo.

Learning should be rigorous and relevant

Teaching is learner centred

Students are complex, dynamic and capable

Effective instruction is engaging and empowering

Assessment clarifies goals, feedback and success

We are a positive and dedicated community

All means all

One of the fundamental aspects of core values is that everyone in the organization knows and lives by those core values. As I read through the list above, my instant reaction was that there is no way in hell that my kid knows these core values, let alone allows them to inform how he lives out each day at the school. I am not saying that there aren’t positive sentiments, even truth, represented in the values, but I am highly suspicious that all the students (probably not even all the teachers) allow these stated values to impact their lives in any meaningful way. And if what is said about is true, that teaching is “learner centred” shouldn’t the core values be about the students and not the teachers? Wouldn’t this make for a better learning environment? But alas, that educational model simply isn’t efficient, isn’t affordable, so we persist in antiquated models of assessment that have little if nothing to do with learning.

If you have read this far, I applaud your persistence and your generous offering of your time. I realize that this post has little to do with my journey, other than I felt compelled to write something after being pissed off. So maybe it does have something to do with my journey after all? Normally I would just quietly swear to myself and let my frustration sink inwards, which is probably why I became such a cynic! Maybe this writing will prevent another brick being laid in that wall that I am trying so desperately to knock down.

For the record here are the Core Values for Transcend Coffee

Celebrate Taste

Never Best only Better

Build and Foster Community

Never Stop Learning

Exceed Expectations

Old dog - new tricks

You would think that I of all people would know better? I have been involved in the coffee industry for over twelve years, and I was reminded yesterday of how easy it is to simply accept poor quality coffee.

I am not talking about poor quality in terms of the bean, as Transcend Coffee, under the direction of Josh Hockin, does an amazing job of sourcing quality coffee. The poor quality I am referring to is the shoddy execution of brewing coffee by yours truly at home. 

While I measure my beans every day (60 grams per 1 litre of water) and brew with water filtered by and Everpur system, I was destroying my daily cuppa Joe via my crappy grinder. I have been using the same Baratza Virtuoso grinder for the past six years and it was doing a terrible job at grinding coffee. Why should this matter so much, you ask? Well I have recounted countless times to many people at our coffee tastings during the past decade the importance of a good grinder at home. And like the shoemaker with holes in his own shoes, I have been guilty of ignoring the negative impact my old grinder was having on the quality of my home brewed coffee. 

This came to light recently as I have been dissatisfied with my coffee experience at home, and then randomly get to drink the same coffee at the cafe, flipping the switch in my brain as to what my problem was. This morning I employed a new grinder, and the results were dramatic! The coffee had life, vibrancy and complexity. The flavours were back. 

So you can teach old dogs new tricks, or at least get them back on track. If you are drinking bad coffee at home and want to learn more about how that could change, reach out, or check out one of the home brewing courses at Transcend Coffee. I should probably do some upgrading myself come to think of it, I have been coasting for too long on skills acquired many moons ago.

CBC Summer Coffee Column

This summer I have the privilege of being a columnist on the CBC Edmonton AM morning show. In addition of being sleep deprived out of fear of not being downtown on time, I am afforded the opportunity to talk with Mark Connolly about some timely topics facing the coffee industry. 

You can listen to the column here

This morning we chatted about the fact that the commodity price of coffee has essentially not changed in the last thirty years. If you look at the New York Stock Exchange price for coffee on July 27, 1999 (this was as far back as I could online), coffee was trading at $0.97 per pound. The price for coffee on the NYSE today is currently at $1.10 as I write this post. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that there is something shockingly wrong with this picture. How is it possible that the price of green coffee has only appreciated by thirteen cents when the cost of everything else has gone up significantly more - for example, the price of gas in Edmonton was $.51 per litre in 1999 and today is $1.25 per litre. Not only has the price of green coffee not kept pace with general inflation rates, the amount of money flowing back to the vast majority of coffee producers has not changed significantly. A troubling reality is that most coffee farmers globally do not get paid enough at farm gate to cover their cost of production. 

There is much debate around what the true cost of production is for coffee producers, and given the global nature of the industry, and the changing economics from one country to another, this is fair. With that said, it is estimated that an average cost of production is roughly US$2 per pound. The c market price referenced above is not referring to high quality coffee, and most companies do pay price differentials for better quality coffee. However, what is clear is that despite price differentials, fair-trade, and countless other certification programs, a vast majority of coffee growers around the world live in perpetual poverty.

This reality has perpetuated during my entire tenure within this industry. What can we do about it? What can be done? As a consumer, you can begin to ask questions of your favourite coffee provider, you can start to inform yourself about the issues facing the coffee industry globally.

Ask your coffee provider if they know who grows their coffee, how much the farmer gets paid, what percentage of the price they pay goes back to the farmer. You could ask if they know what the FOB (Free on Board) price is for their coffee. If your favourite coffee purveyor can't answer these questions, you may want to start shopping around for one that can. Transparency in the coffee industry is really the best mechanism to ensure that coffee producers start to receive their fair share of the money derived from this global industry.

For more information the World Coffee Research site is a great start.

A link to the WCR Annual Report is located here for your easy access.