Můj názor by neměl být definicí, říká James Hoffmann (v originále)

16 februára, 2024
15 min read
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James Hoffmann je úspěšný britský podnikatel, jeden ze zakladatelů pražírny Square Mile Coffee Roasters, známá tvář platformy YouTube, kde vzdělává kávovou komunitu, autor několika knih věnovaných kávě a vítěz světového baristického šampionátu z roku 2007. Jak se dostal k „youtuberingu“ věnovanému kávě třetí vlny? Které video ze svého kanálu raději smazal? Proč vnímá budoucnost výběrové kávy tak negativně? A kolik kávy vlastně denně vypije? Nejen na to, ale na mnohem víc jsem se ho měl možnost zeptat během našeho videohovoru. Český překlad tohoto rozhovoru naleznete v našem magazínu (2023 – 4. číslo). Zde uvádíme pro větší autentičnost anglický originál.

Hello, James. Thank you for your time. Are you ready for this interview?

Hello, Patrik. Yes, I’m ready.

Without a doubt you are one of few people who managed to bring coffee education into the online space. Can you tell us about the history of educating people online? Did you anticipate back then that this would lead to a successful career?

My history with online education starts with writing a blog in 2004. I liked the idea of learning publicly, because when I did my learning in public, people could learn from me, people could correct me. I was writing it for like 12–13 years. I learned to explain the problem to people. And I think in 2016, I realised that people no longer want to read blogs anymore – people wanted to watch videos. I’d done some bits of videos over the years for Square Mile, it was like a daily vlog for 3 weeks back in 2009. I liked making videos, it just wasn’t a serious thing for me, so I did not actually continue. And later, in 2016, I was like: I should probably try that again and just see if this is how to do it. By 2017 I remember writing a piece and making a video about the same subject and despite having spent 13 years writing the blog, the video was doing more views, people were watching it longer, engaging more deeply, so I was like – the blog is dead.

I was aware that people were making living on YouTube, but for me, it was just a place where everyone was. That was that. It was the place to go to get connected with people. I had no idea how big it would get. It freaks me out. I don’t think anyone thought coffee videos had this big of an audience. I think that has been the biggest learning for all of us – that...

... way more people care and want to enjoy coffee than we anticipated.

Based on this, you are one of the most recognisable figures in the world of specialty coffee and coffee education. Some may even consider your word to be “law”. Does it ever intimidate or scare you that you are in this position?

I don’t think it intimidates or scares me. But it is definitely something we think about a lot, and we talk about a lot when we’re making videos, when we’re choosing subjects, when we’re deciding how we wanna talk about things… When it comes to things like how to brew coffee or techniques etcetera, it’s actually less stressful because I often explain my reasoning, I show you how I came to the conclusion and it’s very okay if you disagree.

The area that’s much more stressful is product reviews. Especially when the product comes from small companies where my negative review could have enormous financial consequences for them. And so, over the years we’ve bought a number of products to test and never made a video about them because I had nothing nice to say. It’s changing slowly as there are more reviewers – I think if you have a very diverse group of people, it’s easier to be honest and more negative about the product, you have whole spread of opinions.

My voice is disproportionally loud and so what I may not like shouldn’t become a definition or decision for other people.

That’s why I prefer making positive videos about smaller companies. For bigger companies, I don’t feel too bad about making a negative comment, but we have a rule that we should try not to punch down. That’s not fair.

Talking about your videos, they are well-known for delving into thorough details or presenting elaborate scientific explanations. Sometimes, they tend to cause a bit of controversy. Have you ever produced a video that you found to be particularly bizarre, to the point where you questioned whether it crossed a line?

I think the biggest mistake I made was when Starbucks released some drinks that looked really silly – they had olive oil in them – and I was like, “These are ridiculous. I don’t feel bad about making a negative video about Starbucks. I’m gonna go to Italy and try these and make a video about them.” Butthe team in Milan looked after me so completely and I was so charmed by it… I had such a nice experience that I ended up making a promotional video for Starbucks by mistake at the time when they did not need or deserve a promotion. Half of the audience was like “This is amazing, this is fun”, and the other was like “What are you doing?!” and I was like “No, I’m not doing that”, but I was – by mistake. It took me about 12 hours to really accept that I’d done a very stupid thing and to remove the video. That time I crossed the line.

Anyway, your videos are very helpful for the coffee community. But coming up with new ideas for them must be increasingly challenging. Do you ever run into a lack of inspiration or feelings of exhaustion?

I have no problem with inspiration. Actually, I tend to come up with ideas that are just beyond the point that I’m capable of executing. We have a “production ideas bucket”. I think there are about 85 ideas at the moment. I think we can usually make ideas about 2–3 times faster than videos, so I have no concern there. In terms of exhaustion… oh, totally. YouTube is not my sole responsibility; it is just one of the things I do alongside other things. My problem is that I like making lots of things putting myself in kind of time pressure, which must be frustrating for the people I work with. It definitely is tiring, but I’ve never done a very good job of resting enough because there are always things to do… I’m very lucky because I picked the right kind of topics to talk about at the right kind of time and that’s why during COVID my channel surprisingly grew.

And how do you strive to capture the interest of newcomers, ensuring they don't become discouraged by the overwhelming complexity of some of your topics?

I think coffee is fun. I think it’s enjoyable. And I think it can be fun if you are a little bit into the science of it, or a lot. It’s surprising thing and that has to be in the middle of everything. I think if you’re someone who is not really interested in understanding too much about it, the video can still appeal to you, ‘cause everyone likes fun. Secondly – there are topics that appeal more to beginners and topics that appeal more to advanced users – I think if you can make a video fun and entertaining to watch, then you can appeal to both regardless.

Coffee can be and is a very serious topic, but we all do it for a living because we really enjoy it. It’s delightful. And I feel like historically we haven’t done a great job of sharing that, because we’ve been very serious about it.

I’ve learnt to be less serious or more fun without having to compromise the information. I’m not trying to make it stupid and dumb it down and lie to you. I want to educate you, but that has come secondary to having a great time watching the video. I need to build your trust, I need your time and your attention, and then maybe you might choose to learn something as well.

Have you faced criticism from viewers who feel that you overly complicate the coffee preparation process?

Yes, but I’m very reluctant to pay too much attention to the comments on YouTube. By the time the video has about a million views, between 5 and 20 % of people hate everything or something… if there are 5,000 comments, probably 500 are gonna be negative. That’s inevitable. So, I really don’t wanna pay attention to them because whatever I do, they’re gonna be there. That’s just part of it. And so, I can do the simplest brewing method in the world, and someone will be like, “This takes too long / This is too difficult”. And that’s okay, but I don’t wanna listen to that. If every comment was “This is ridiculous and complex” – fair enough.

So what are the essential things to do when someone wants to delve deeper into the coffee world and become a professional? How can individuals progress to higher levels of expertise?

Early on, I thought the answer was to just learn as much as possible. I acquired as much information as I could. I was reading every website, I bought all the books… By this, I got as much information as I could. And ultimately at that point, that was fairly useless. If there was a quiz about coffee, I would be quite well, but that was like trivia. It was just information. What I needed to do was convert that into knowledge through, ultimately, taste. The more you taste and the more diverse stuff you taste and the more people you taste with, the faster everything that you learn on paper makes sense. And that’s not always easy to do. It’s hard to have a coffee cupping for lots of people and taste ten coffees at once. It’s either expensive or something else… But taking the opportunity to taste as much as you can in any field, any food, any drink, anything – that’s what is absolutely essential. Because all the paper knowledge starts to connect to real-world knowledge.

You gotta pay attention and develop your sense of taste – if you wanna be a barista, it will make you a better barista, if you wanna be a roaster, it will make you a way better roaster, if you wanna be a greens buyer, it makes you a greens buyer.

Having a better understanding of taste leads to a better understanding of process and technique. That’s it. That’s the essential thing.

What about you and the teaching of coffee at gastronomy-oriented schools and training centres? Do you receive offers to educate students through coffee courses?

I don’t receive any offers! I receive requests to use my videos. And I’m like “Yeah, sure, go ahead. There’s no point paying me to tell you what I’ve already told you for free.” (laugh) I am asked to do some sort of talks or lectures, but that’s usually outside of the environment of the traditional food learning. I think inside the UK the interest in the coffee technique does not yet permeate through the wider world of food, surprisingly. I would say restaurants are still broadly very bad at coffee here and that’s not gonna change anytime soon. But I don’t get offers like that. I want my videos to be open to anyone, but I have a bias, I have a coffee company. That should never appear in the videos, because that is not a neutral thing and another coffee company can’t use them for education.

There has been news about the cultivation of “decaf” coffee trees in Brazil, a significant development in a relatively short period of time from a historical perspective. What do you think the coffee world will look like in the future?

The world has taught us that making long-term predictions is a bad idea. So I’m gonna be hesitant to try and predict the future just for next 20 years. I think 10 years in the future the gap in price between specialty and commercial will continue to increase. I think cheap coffee will probably get cheaper still and I think there will be less specialty coffee. I think the demand will remain and prices for specialty will continue to go up. That will cap the market and it will decrease the number of people able to drink the specialty coffee. I think the quality of specialty will continue to evolve, there’ll be incremental improvements in every aspect to coffee as it happened over the last 30–40 years.

Climate change seems to be accelerating and questionably that’s gonna impact coffee farms and only in one way we haven’t done enough work – in terms of research to kinda get ahead of climate change. There’s still no funding put into it by the coffee industry. I think technology will mostly be leveraged to make more money for the people that have always made money in coffee. That sort of makes me sad. I think big commercial coffee companies are going to be completely fine, larger roasters as well. And I feel like producers and consumers will both suffer a little bit in the future.

I don’t see a particularly bright future for specialty coffee.

As a species we’re seeing consistently the highest, hottest temperatures on record, every month is hotter than the last, every year is hotter than the last. And we’re still debating if it’s real! It’s hard to feel like it’s all going to go just fine when we are this collectively stupid about stuff. Unless humanity has a course correction, it’s a broadly negative future.

I think we’ve reached or worked hard into a golden age of coffee, but I’m not sure how much longer it will last.

Where coffee is not that expensive, how good it is, how diverse it is, how many choices you have, how easy it is to drink great coffee – I don’t think that will last into the future. I’d like to be wrong.

Let's move on to a more positive topic: You won the World Barista Championship. What is the most important aspect to focus on when training for barista competitions?

Honestly, the answer is pretty boring. You have to remember you’re playing a game based on a café. You’re not trying to replicate a café. You’re playing a game. And I think people have understood that more and more and more, but I feel like people still come into barista competition thinking “I know great café services, I do a great job in my café, and so I’ll do that in a competition.” But this isn’t a café. This is a really weird game based on making coffee in a café. There are rules and if you don’t know them, you’re not gonna do that well. This isn’t the real world, don’t try to replicate the real world.

But you knew the rules and you won. What does success like this mean to you?

Of course, you’re competing, you’re competitive, you choose it because you want to win but for me going into it, I was always very aware that I have no control over how good anyone else is. There are no tactics, I'm not competing against someone where I can play to their weaknesses and play to my strengths. If they practised harder than I and their coffee is better than mine, I have no control over that. You can definitely aspire to win but in terms of setting goals, you need to decide what success looks like for you outside of your ranking at the end. Your goal can be to have an impact in the community – that’s what I was trying to do. You know, at the time, everyone used espresso blends and so I used a single estate coffee from Costa Rica for espresso drinks and a single estate coffee from Kenya for my milk drinks – to be like, this is still delicious, we don't have to do blends... and there were other things that I felt like if I did this well, wherever I ranked, I would’ve achieved a goal. That’s really important because you see too many people compete, think they're going to win, try to win, not win and then walk away empty-handed from the whole experience. Not be better baristas, not be more passionate, more engaged... and so that's essential.

And the most valuable lesson from championship for you is… ?

I think it was a really good exercise in ego death. Even winning the WBC, I barely scored half of the available points. At the end of that performance, I still got to sit down with a judge, and they’d be like: “These are all of the things you could have done better”. And that's a really healthy mindset to carry with you – there's always more to progress. If you're solely focused on the destination, you’re gonna have a terrible time, but if you like the idea of improvement, it is great. Because...

... you're never going to be perfect, that doesn’t exist, that’s absurd. I'll never make perfect coffee; I’ll never have perfect technique – but I can be better tomorrow.

And a competition is a great way of having seven really passionate people give you feedback on how you can get better. If you do it right, it’s as hard ten years in as it was on the first day. It doesn’t get easier – if it gets easier, you’re doing it wrong. It’s always supposed to stay hard. And that’s good!

And since then – on average – how much coffee do you consume per day?

Less and less. About ten years ago, people asked me this all the time, so for a month, I logged every single cup of coffee I drank in a day. And I was like: I drink 4.2 cups of coffee a day – that was my answer for quite a long time. I got older and I can’t drink as much caffeine now. I drink 2, maybe 3 cups a day, max. No coffee after 3 PM, that’s my limit. Most days, it’s like one to two cups max. During roasting and testing, I’m trying to spit out as much as possible and not drink it. If it’s a video, there’re certainly days when it gets way higher than that. But I don’t feel good and I don’t recommend it. I don’t need much. I just need it to be good and I’m okay with delicious, small amounts, I’m pretty happy.