The World Barista Champion, author of The World Atlas of Coffee, and host of a popular and influential YouTube channel about all things coffee, say that we tell the coffee store the wrong way. Start with a bush that people haven’t seen, with fruit they haven’t seen, in a country they haven’t been to. Then, we say, “Here are ten more steps in which coffee goes that don’t look like coffee.”
When it comes to coffee, the Staffordshire-born Hoffmann has a lot of knowledge and can be a little sarcastic at times. He encourages his fans to find more than just a caffeine boost in their daily cup. They range from very informative to silly and irreverent. In one video, he dressed up as a 1970s man to show how in-car coffee makers from that time were just a piece of plastic that barely heated up water, with a fake mustache in hand.
Hoffmann is aware of the stereotypes that come with drinking coffee. Coffee professionals talk a lot about how cheap coffee is, but many coffee drinkers say that good coffee can be very pricey. On the other hand, Hoffmann isn’t interested in scolding anyone. In this conversation, which took place over Zoom on the first day of 2022, we talked about how to make people happy. Instead of lecturing people who drink coffee, Hoffmann makes videos about things he finds interesting. It’s fun to watch him buy and test all the coffee brewing equipment IKEA sells, and some people like that. For some people, it’s learning the best way to brew with a V60. In fact, for some people (like this author), it feels like they’re right there with Hoffmann as he tries to figure out why Aldi made cheese that tastes like an espresso martini.
Beside writing, you have an online channel and a coffee roasting company. You also used to have a blog, but now you only talk about the things that you love. When did you figure out that you were someone who had ideas about coffee that they wanted to share with other people?
At the end of October 2004, I started a blog called Jimseven. At that point, I felt very alone in London because I didn’t know anyone else who cared about coffee. My goal was to learn more, and I thought, “If I can explain it to someone else, I’ll understand it better.” That should show me where I’m wrong, right? Writing a blog about what I was learning made me feel like I was part of a group that was all over the world.
Before the pandemic, your YouTube channel was very popular. When people were staying at home and making coffee on their own, your channel got a lot of new fans. In April of 2020, you had about 250,000 subscribers, which is about the same number as now. Now, you have more than a million things. How do you decide which videos to make?
In the past, YouTube didn’t have a lot of people who made videos about coffee. That’s changed a lot now, which is good because there are a lot of videos I don’t have to make because other people can make them. I don’t have to make all of them myself. So, I don’t feel like I have to implement all of my ideas.
No, they don’t expect you to make a certain type of video or talk about certain things.
If they do, they won’t get it. I don’t have a plan. I will not post on a certain day. When the video is done, you can have it. [Laughs.] I won’t just make things that work well, and I won’t make things that people keep asking me for. In the long run, it’s all over the place.
Beside, that’s the point. People love coffee because it’s fun and interesting. My goal is to find people who are interested in all of the little pieces. I’m not here to make people change their minds. I’m here to make people happy with a cup of coffee. Then, when you watch two or three more videos, your ideas about coffee change. If you’re a fan of the moka pot, you’ll be surprised by how different your ideas about coffee can be. And that’s good.
If I only made videos about how to brew coffee or reviews of coffee equipment, I would have been very sad and I would’ve stopped. I want to make videos where I juice vegetables so I can make stock. We can use what we know about coffee to figure out that more surface area means we can get more flavor out of things. I make a promise to be inconsistent and varied, and I always keep it.
It’s hard for professionals to talk about coffee because they want to make things easier for people to read and understand. Why did we act so smug at the start?
Wow, this thing is so cool! It might happen if you’ve worked in coffee. Getting excited makes you talk about the thing that’s exciting to you.
You’ve been on a journey. The person you are talking to hasn’t been on the journey, so they don’t understand what you’re talking about. The more you go down the rabbit hole, the more difficult it becomes to have a conversation with the person on the other end. If you are excited and passionate about what is right, good, and delicious, it’s hard to have that conversation unless you have a lot of empathy for them. People might be sympathetic, but when you are excited, you just want to say, “Hey, milk changes the taste of coffee! I don’t like it! ” Milk and sugar are good, but they change the taste of coffee. It’s hard for us to help someone get into coffee because many of us are also excited and passionate about it.
There is no doubt that the end of the rabbit hole is kind of grim. I don’t think I’m wrong. A lot of the time, it talks about things that are sad about coffee, like how it came from colonization, how climate change is killing crops, and that we don’t pay enough for it. Some of these things aren’t very fun to talk about, and telling people about them isn’t very effective.
It’s a huge miracle that people keep the seeds of a tropical tree in their cupboards, and they steep them in water with their breakfast every day. It costs just a few cents to do this. We, as a species, built a system that allowed that to happen, and it shouldn’t have been allowed. And the way we got it down to pennies was to squeeze the people who didn’t have a lot of power. That kind of sets the bar for how cheap coffee should be.
I think that the fact that it’s so easy to buy coffee for a few cents makes the conversation about how cheap it is hard to bear, because it’s always been cheap. If it’s always been this cheap, how can it be wrong? Isn’t that just the seed of a tropical tree that a lot of people have been very careful to handle for you all the way here? You have it in your house, and that’s magic.
How do you do the hard work of getting people to like coffee?
Coffee drinkers may not be interested in the right thing. The way we’ve asked them to feel guilt and do the right thing has made it hard for them to just enjoy their coffee. I think I’ve been more like, “Hey, coffee is good and fun.” Coffee gives you a good return on your money, depending on where you want to invest. If you want to start a new hobby, you can go all the way down to the bottom. A lot of tools are out there for people who like to make things. The cost of better coffee isn’t very high. It’s fun, and it’s interesting, and it’s easy to do, and you can have a good time. That’s what I think: the roasters should be held accountable for their ethical decisions because they are.
To get what we need to get done, customers need to spend more money, but they also need to want to spend more because it makes them happy. I don’t think we should be burdening people who want to drink and enjoy coffee. In what I do on YouTube, I try to show that everyone who is passionate about something is a little crazy, but that’s OK. This is the part that people seem to like the most. It’s hard for us to get along because we’re both passionate and serious. Once in a while, it’s OK to do things that aren’t good for your health.