Erin McCarthy, the most recent World Brewers Cup Champion, found his way into coffee with Gimme! Coffee over a decade ago in Ithaca, New York.
From his beginnings as a barista, he quickly progressed through the company, moving into roasting and subsequently barista training, with a brief stint at 1000 Faces Coffee in Atlanta for a year doing a little bit of everything before returning to Gimme! to be their Regional Trainer. In 2012, Erin transitioned to Counter Culture Coffee to work as a Machine Technician, and has been there ever since.
Over the years, what’s kept McCarthy in coffee is the diversity of the industry, and how fulfilling it’s been socially, intellectually, and academically. As he puts it, “I love how multidisciplinary it is, and the focus on forming relationships from grower to roaster to brew to consumer… that’s just really rad, and makes it a far reaching industry to be a part of.”
“I’ve stayed because I’m passionate about coffee, and it’s an industry where I can challenge myself in different roles. I’m someone who is constantly interested in about one hundred different things – and for me, coffee touches a lot of different areas.”
Having worked in the industry for so long, and in so many facets of the business, Erin has unique insights into where some of the potential for improvement to specialty coffee lies. One very important area that’s been discussed and spoken about at length within the entirety of the industry is the green coffee end of the spectrum, with a focus on agriculture.
“The lack of genetic diversity with the epidemics of leaf rust and coffee borer are definitely troubling, especially when looked at through the lens of global climate change. In this there’s some great work being done by World Coffee Research to try and figure out some solutions.”
On the retail, customer-facing end of the specialty coffee industry, there is the potential to lose track of what’s important and get easily caught up, as Erin explains, “We can get very focused on minutia, and tend to form opinions without any real research or trial and error.”
Being focused on quality and being attentive to all the minute aspects of the specialty coffee industry is an important thing, however looking at the industry in a more holistic way has great potential. This unique potential for specialty coffee to thrive and contribute lies not in the coffee itself, or even in the supply chain, but rather in the social impact of cafes as institutions in their respective communities, particularly in the US.
As Mr. McCarthy explicates, “The thing I see, coming from ten years on the service side of coffee in the United States, is the way in which class intersects with specialty coffee at the retail level, especially when dealing with a product that is already undervalued in our opinion, but may be out of the budgets and mindsets of a lot of people. This becomes worth noting when a lot of those folks are residents of the neighbourhoods that specialty coffee shops are coming into as they ‘transition’ - a nice way of saying gentrifying. In the US, where we have in place a systemic, structural racism stemming from our history of slavery and genocide—and most certainly the upholding of current white privilege—class inevitably blurs lines with race. I have no answers, and mostly questions at this point. I acknowledge that our stake in coffee is based on a capitalist system and of course a history of colonialism and slavery, but one of the reasons I have stayed in specialty coffee for so long is the openness to challenge each other and have real dialogue.”
In the end, “I think the challenge is mainly to be honest with who we are and what we can do, and intentional about our place in our communities.“
All photography and articles © Eileen P Kenny