Pull up a Chair: a Conversation with SnobCoffery

There are quite a few coffee blogs out there, but there are only a few that I really like. Even fewer are the coffee blogs that I read on a very regular basis—Daily Shot of Coffee for sure, The Coffee Adventures and FRSHGRND most certainly. Not so long ago I stumbled across another coffee blog that became an instant favorite of mine.

Today, I welcome Randy Levine, the founder of SnobCoffery to my Table. Randy, feel free to pull up a chair.

First of all, I just want to say that it’s a massive honor to welcome you to the Table. I’m a really big fan of your website, Snob Coffery. But before we get started, could you introduce yourself and tell us all a little about you?

Thanks for having me. The pleasure’s all on this side of the Table, trust me.

My name is Randy and I love coffee. It is one of the many joys, hobbies, passions, whatever you want to call them, in my life. A big part about getting involved in anything is sharing it with others. Anyone that knows me personally knows that some of my biggest passions are the sciences, coffee (of course), music and to some extent technology. When it comes to these things, I’ll chew your ear off for hours. I just want to share the experience with other people and listen to what others have to say about it.

I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog as it progresses – going back and reading your early posts and comparing them to your more recent posts, it’s obvious that your palate is getting more and more sophisticated, your knowledge of coffee is expanding, and even your writing is improving. What was it about your love of coffee that made you decide to start a blog? How did you get started?

I really appreciate that. I certainly feel like I’m expanding and growing as both a coffee drinker and coffee writer.

Like I said, to me it’s all about sharing the experience. I’ve had (unsuccessful) blogs in the past, and sometimes I wonder if they were unsuccessful because I didn’t put enough effort into it, or my heart wasn’t in it, or the community was harder to penetrate, I’m still not quite sure. But this coffee thing seems to be sticking – at least to some extent. Maybe that’s because it’s a bigger passion than some of my other endeavors or maybe it’s because the coffee community has been largely very welcoming. But in the end the blog is a combination of two things for me. First, it’s a sort of log of my life with coffee, which makes it a very personal thing and almost a little self-serving. But more than that, it’s a way that I can share this with other people. Whether it’s my music, my photography, or my coffee, I want other people to be able to experience what I’m experiencing. And not so I can say how right I am, but so that if there’s someone out there that wants to enjoy it – that wants to experience it in a similar way – they have someone to talk to.

What about it have you enjoyed the most?

Well when I think about SnobCoffery, I really think about the community as a whole and my involvement in it. So in that respect, it’s enabled me to connect with a lot of people that I don’t think I ever would have otherwise. People like Jason Dominy and Nate Jones of Kaffeologie (name drop!). As for specifics, I think my Aeropress Filter Throwdown was simultaneously the most successful and most enjoyable event. It got a decent amount of attention, for me at least. It was very cool to work with some really involved people (Kaffeologie, Prima-Coffee, Able Brewing, and American Coffee Trader) to set up the Throwdown. It was exciting to get to work with these people who weren’t interested in ad space or branding. They’re all just proud of their products and want to see people enjoy them. That strikes a chord, because I think a lot of us on the consumer side feel the same way.

I know you’ve been self-conscious about it in the past, but I really like your site’s name, Snob Coffery. What does being a coffee snob mean to you?

You know, the “snob” term gets thrown around a lot, and not necessarily without merit. It’s something I heard a lot, aimed at me, from friends and family. Particularly right when I was getting into coffee. I think “snob” is heavily tinged with negativity. I always think of exclusivity when I think of snobbery. It’s about enjoying something specific and special and feeling better about yourself because of it. But that’s not me at all. I just love really good coffee. And I’m not interested in excluding anyone. I want to include as many people as are interested. “SnobCoffery” is sort of like taking the “coffee snobbery” idea and verbally turning it around. Maybe that’s why I went with it in the beginning, who knows. But as I started to realize that I was going to put some real effort into this blog, I was concerned that putting “snob” right in the title would just end up alienating people. I worried that I was basically proclaiming myself to be that exclusive snob, which is a big turnoff to people who might be interested in bringing their coffee to the next level.

In the end, admittedly with your help and input, I decided to just stick with it. Some say you should always stick with your gut – your first choice. Which is what SnobCoffery was. And also I think there’s something almost whimsically vaporous about it. I hope that comes through to the reader. I take my coffee pretty seriously, but I don’t presuppose that anyone should take me too seriously.

You’re often pulling up chairs here at the Table, and I thank you for all of your support – what are some of your other favorite coffee blogs?

Let’s be honest here. You’re not a bad writer. You certainly know your way around a coffee review. That’s why I’m always here.

It’s the same reason I’m always keeping up with Jamie over at The Coffee Adventures. Considering how wet-behind-the-ears I am with coffee, I’m always trying to seek out and absorb good coffee reviews. I can’t exactly try a brand new coffee or roaster every day, so keeping up with you and Jamie has been borderline invaluable.

As far as other blogs go, Daily Shot of Coffee is a great consumer-targeted blog. Mike does a great job of covering a lot of bases between the higher end stuff all the way to the auto-drip, big box coffee drinkers. Of course I keep up with Oliver Strand. I really like the tone of his writing. It’s very unpretentious and informative. And smdlr has really captured the community and people behind the places we all go for coffee. It’s a natural fit for me, since I also have a bit of a love affair with photography.

As we’ve seen in this series of interviews so far, everyone has a different angle when it comes to their coffee blog: smdlr is all about photography and coffee shops, Daily Shot is all about consumer reviews in layman’s terms, FRSHGRND is an overview of Aaron’s travels and related coffee experiences, and The Coffee Adventures is an overview of her journeys in coffee. How do you ensure that Snob Coffery has a unique identity?

Randy Levine #likeaboss

This is probably not the best approach when running a website or blog, but I haven’t really put much thought into my blog’s identity. I tell myself that as the blog progresses it will sort of take shape and find its own little space in the industry, but really I don’t know. Right now I’m just sort of getting to know the industry and what I want to do, and I guess the blog is chronicling that. It feels like a mirror of myself. I’m just ambling my way through the coffee world, taking it a day at a time. Sometimes I’m out evaluating a new espresso bar, sometimes I’m at home struggling to dial in a new recipe, and sometimes I’m putting some new piece of gear through the ringer. The blog follows that pretty closely. And maybe that’s a bigger problem than I realize. Maybe it means that I don’t have much to offer that is different to what others are doing. It’s likely that’s true right now, though I can’t say what will happen as I move forward. But for me, it’s more important to be honest and accurately represent myself and what I’m doing, rather than trying to carve out a niche doing something I might not be as into.

With any luck, one day I’ll be making a living from coffee and the blog will serve as an insider’s perspective in some capacity.

Do you remember the first “real” coffee you tried? Can you tell us about that experience?

Terminology is something I struggle with. I’m not entirely comfortable with terms like “real” coffee or even “specialty” coffee. It always seems to imply that there’s a definite distinction, and if you don’t cross that line then you aren’t welcome in our community. And really, paying a fair wage and offering a quality, healthy product shouldn’t be “special”, it should be standard.

But I know what you mean, and I guess my first “real” coffee was from a shop called Small World Coffee in Princeton, NJ. I’ve learned so much more about coffee since…well I guess since my journey started there. I don’t feel the same way about them now as I did then, but I remember how amazing their house blend tasted at the time, even batch brewed, and especially their iced brew. Bringing it home and brewing it in my old Mr. Coffee, it was the first coffee I ever drank black. By choice anyway. It’s their community that makes them shine. Local art and photography is always on the walls. Poets, musicians and comedians are there weekly. They work with local business and schools. They’re quite well respected and held in high regard, and with good reason. Finer folks you may never meet. If you’re ever out there, try the New Orleans iced coffee. It’s something else.

Where has your journey in coffee taken you so far?

Physically not very far. I live in NJ and work in midtown Manhattan, so I do have quite a few excellent sources nearby, but I’ve yet to venture out much farther. I’ve visited a bunch of shops and got to chat with some really friendly, knowledgeable people. And of course online I’ve gotten to speak to a huge amount of people. I’ve met fellow bloggers, baristas, roasters, shop owners, etc. Every day it’s a little awe-inspiring how many people are out there, all with lots of info and their own perspective, and all they want to do is share.

Unfortunately for me, that’s been about the extent of it thus far. I’m trying to get more involved and make it out to more events and meet (face-to-face) a lot more people in the industry.

What lesson have you learned along your journey that has stuck with you the most?

Without a doubt, it’s the importance of transparency. Tim Wendelboe talked a lot about this during his Tamper Tantrum talk in Vienna, in terms of what some of the coffee terminology means and what it communicates to others. And really, a lot of it is smoke and mirrors. But I’ve also found that a lot of the people involved – from crop to cup, growers, roasters, shop owners and baristas – are all excited to talk about their coffees. That’s something that should not be glossed over or taken lightly. It’s important that we know where our coffee comes from, how it gets to our cup, and where the money we are paying actually goes.

You have tried an awful lot of coffees since starting your blog. Out of all the coffees you’ve tried, could you pick out a favorite? How about a least-favorite?

I think a lot of people out there will agree that the Kuma Coffee Bella Carmona ranks way up there. I have a fondness for things that are interesting. This goes for a lot of my hobbies, not just coffee. I don’t like boring music and I don’t like boring coffee. That being said, a good clean coffee is also incredibly enjoyable. But when something is really off the wall, it tends to at the very least catch my eye..or tongue…or ear…you get it. It’s memorable. The Passion House El Limonar that we recently shared for the Great Coffee Exchange of Spring 2012 was a lot like that. Outside of what you may have read on the blog, Culture Espresso recently served up a fantastic cup of PT’s Panama that took me by surprise. Like a strawberry wine reduction. And Third Rail Coffee was pulling shots of Stumptown Peru Cesuvo – not typically used as espresso. It wasn’t necessarily the best tasting shot I’ve ever had, but it was one of the most interesting and unique.

As far as least favorites go, I’ve yet to really be blown away by a Burundi. I guess the Handsome Roasters Burundi Gatare was the most disappointing. It was the first Handsome I tried and after all that hype I was expecting something that would at least get me a little excited. But it fell a little flat for me. Though it was better than the Stumptown Burundi I had tried a few weeks earlier.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the Ethiopia Harrar I had from Spro. The roast was just too dark to let the flavors really come through. It was unfortunate, because I could still tell the coffee underneath was tasty, but the burny taste was just too damaging.

You and I recently collaborated on the Great Coffee Exchange, where we traded coffee from our hometown with a couple of our Twitter pals – have you collaborated with anybody else? What sort of collaborations would you like to do in the future?

It was the first collaboration of its kind that I’ve been involved in, and frankly I thought it was awesome. Any way that I can try a wide variety of coffees in a short time is beneficial to me at this point, as well as lots of fun. I’m all for doing another. I don’t have anything specific in mind, but I’m sure we can come up with something. We can sort by region – by country if we want to get specific.

I think we got some attention from our Twitter ramblings. It seems like a few other people are interested in joining up or getting involved in other such trades.

For all the “everyday” coffee consumers out there, what is the most important piece of advice you could give?

That’s a loaded question. Most people will probably say something like “control variables” or “always grind fresh” or “buy the best beans you can and work from there.” But for me, I tend to give everyone the same advice:

Figure out what you like and spend your money there.

I don’t care what kind of coffee it is, if you like it you should support it. Of course, even above flavor, I would hope that people really care about fair wages and quality products, but I can’t exactly force my ideals on others. The best I can do is try to educate people who are interested in being educated, to pass on to them whatever knowledge I have. That way, they are in a better position to make an informed decision about where to put their money. This goes for just about every product and industry, not just coffee.

What’s the one piece of advice you wish that someone had given you when you first started in coffee?

Honestly I don’t know if I have an answer. To me it’s almost like asking “What knowledge would you like to have been planted into you early on?” And that’s just not how I want to do it. The joy is in the struggle. Part of the fun and the satisfaction is earning it. We appreciate good coffee because we know what bad coffee is like.

I had a history teacher in high school who once told me that the reason I liked math and science was because I liked the clear-cut yes or no answers. I never could convince him that that wasn’t the case. It’s getting there that I enjoy. You calculate your brewing ratio and meticulously measure out everything. You can expend all this energy trying to perfect your pour over, or your espresso shots, and still you’re going to come out with disappointment now and then. The truly talented ones have simply been able to minimize those disappointments. To elongate the time between them. But still, even when you take that first sip and cringe at all the wasted time, wasted energy, wasted coffee, maybe it’s the coffee’s fault or maybe it’s yours, but there’s still a part of you that enjoyed the whole process. Even the bad cups have something to teach us.

Randy, thanks again for joining me at the Table and for all the hard work you put into your website. Many wishes for continued success!

Thank you kindly, Drew. It’s truly flattering to be featured here. I hope we have the chance to collaborate more in the future.

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