And as in those weeks after Kurt’s death, my phone has not stopped ringing lately. “Did you hear? Can you believe the news?” And although I’m legally bound not to disclose particulars of the breakup, with so many other sources speaking about it, I can now publicly comment. You see, some days ago, a rock band broke up — this one in the form of another promising coffee roaster selling itself to Wall Street. Duane Sorenson, the founder of Stumptown, the Che Guevara of the rock-star barista movement, sold his life’s work to the highest bidder.
If you’ve ever read what I’ve written in this space before, you might think this sort of thing would please me. It does not. As hard as it is for me to reconcile, given my criticism of hipster coffee in the past, I’m saddened. As the unofficial counterpoint to what Stumptown represented, I so enjoyed the days of playfully riffing on the geek-coffee movement, of seeing Duane’s block-letter signature in the guestbooks of coffee farms worldwide, and of feeling that I had a flipside in the world — my anti-matter. I miss the adventure of it. I miss the late-night texting battles over coffee philosophy and the playful rants about baristas. In a way, Duane was the yin to my yang, the duck to my jab and all that. No more.
So what will become of culinary coffee’s nemesis, Stumptown, now that it’s a big-money “brand” — even if its founder does remain as frontman? Will it continue its role as the leader of all that is hip? If the past is any indication, there’s no hope. Chances are, it will be another in a long history of promising roasters sold and promptly suffocated by corporate America, like Torrefazione Italia, Seattle’s Best, and Green Mountain, to name just a few. Instead we must brace for a watering-down of what was, by way of explosive expansion, in which Lady Gaga coffee ends up on Spaghetti Factory menus and ultimately, tragically, the whole thing terminates in some clever bundling transaction triggering a much-needed corporate tax write-off.
What advice can I give to anyone who’s mourning this loss? Vote with your dollar and avoid Wall Street-owned roasters. It is through sales, or lack of them, that these people might learn that trying to buy coolness is a finger-burning strategy. Hopefully then they will leave our roasters alone. In the process, they may even realize that some consumers do care that there is a real, hardworking craftsman behind the things they eat and drink. Those consumers are not statistics and marketing strategy targets. They are lovers of true craft.
In parting, I offer a short list of coffee roasters owned by men who have assured me they are roasters for life:
La Colombe (my own company)
Duane, I will miss you.
Todd Carmichael is the co-founder of La Colombe Torrefaction and the first American to cross Antarctica to the South Pole alone on foot.