Afternoon Coffee: A Conversation About Approachable & Inclusive Coffee With Umeko Motoyoshi

Hi there! Geana here again with the second of three conversations about social justice. If you’re new to these conversations, Afternoon Coffee is a Live series on Instagram that I started back in May of 2020. In the beginning, these live interactions were more about having coffee with a fellow friend-business owner, and about staying with touch with our customers by offering you all some fun coffee recipes to try at home since we were all so new to spending so much time at home during the beginning of the pandemic.

This new series is a crash course into several topics that have always been important to me, and are becoming even more critical as the year goes on. I have experienced a lot of privilege even as a South American immigrant. I have and do experience white skin privilege everyday. With that said, it is my goal to carve a space for growing awareness especially where it connects to fiber and coffee. Our first conversation was about environmentalism and racial justice with Teju Adisa-Farrar. Each conversation informs the other in beautiful ways so I encourage reading all three conversations.

Thank you for being here–for broadening the scope of your perspective. We are all better for it.

With gratitude for Umeko and our communities, let’s jump in to the second conversation in this series…


Geana
Hi Umeko, Thanks for joining me today. 

Umeko
Thanks for inviting me.

Geana
I’m going to start with some quick introductions. For those of you out there that don't know me, I’m Geana, founder of GDS Cloth Goods. Umeko, do you mind introducing yourself? 

Umeko
Sure, my name is Umeko. I am the founder of umeshiso.com where I sell rainbow cupping spoons. It's a specialized kind of spoon used for coffee quality evaluation. Also, I'm a coffee writer and social media consultant and I kind of stay busy and do a few different things. 

Geana
I want to start by laying out two things about the industry and break into this conversation about inclusivity in coffee. What I admire about the specialty coffee industry is the sourcing practice, the attention to quality, and that it is rooted in better values than the larger coffee industry. 

What upsets me about the industry is that it’s so focused on white men. Through elitism and supremacy, it alienates many people who would otherwise align with those values. It alienates everyone else, Black, indigenous, people of color, disabled people, women, and people whose gender is non-conforming.

Is that a fair foundation for this conversation? I want to make sure that if at any point you feel I’m speaking for myself, that you can just say so. 

Umeko
Yes. Coffee loves white men. I think that's a great foundation for our conversation.

Geana
Can we start with the obvious? Why is this a problem? It’s not like the world “needs” specialty coffee, but what are some of the negative effects of specialty coffee being so alienating? 

Umeko
What's the problem with coffee being so terrible? 

Geana
That's what I mean! It could be kind of obvious, but I wonder if we could go over that a little bit. 

 

Building on that, I think the industry was basically never meant to serve people who are “not white”. The industry was built by white people to serve white people—the global coffee sector was built that way.

Umeko 
So, coffee comes from a colonial economy, originally from Ethiopia, and it was stolen from Black and Brown people who were growing coffee and consuming it, by Dutch spies. It became a crop that white Europeans were extremely interested in enjoying the benefits of, but they didn't want to grow it themselves, and couldn’t grow it themselves. And so, they were like, “well, we have all these colonies, let's enslave people and force them to grow it for us”. So that's the history of the global coffee economy. And today, the coffee industry still very much functions along the same structures as before; those structures never went away. They sort of got updated with new language placed upon them, but it still is a very exploitative supply chain. The people who are growing coffee are still Black and Brown people who are being seriously underpaid, who are being subjected to poverty under really "un-OK " conditions.

Meanwhile, the consumer of coffee is typically in the Global North and enjoying this coffee without any understanding of how much exploitation it takes to bring that coffee to us at an affordable price point. Building on that, sorry, it's kind of depressing...

Geana
It’s our history and reality. It’s a foundation we should all know.

Umeko
Building on that, I think the industry was basically never meant to serve people who are “not white”. The industry was built by white people to serve white people—the global coffee sector was built that way. There was never any intention for the global coffee economy to serve people of color. We see that clearly in the coffee industry in terms of all the hiring bias that exists. It's a lot harder for people of color to get promoted into leadership positions. We also see that in terms of specialty coffee consumers. They are white people. The people who consume the least specialty coffee are Black people in the US. It’s a very unwelcoming industry for people of color and especially for black people like the kind of cafe racism that exists is a very real thing. For many black people, it is a really uncomfortable experience where they're getting stared at, questioned, accused of stealing like in the famous Starbucks case where there were two black men who were waiting at a table for a business meeting to start. Starbucks called the cops on them. It's not ok. Those are some examples of why it's not OK, because coffee is something that really should be for everyone, and not just for white people and white men.

If you are a person of color, getting hired isn’t as much of a hurdle. But when you want to apply for promotions, that's super hard. It’s difficult for people of color and especially Black people, to get promoted in coffee jobs.

Geana
Yes, that’s so helpful to hear because it makes sense to us, right?  I can feel it in my gut. It's unfair. It's wrong. To further list examples of how it affects people's lives around the world, including here in our city, there's so many specialty coffee jobs here but maybe people of color and black people aren't the ones being hired for those jobs. It's really impacting people's lives around the world. 

Umeko
So, yeah, absolutely. I also want to surface that there's a lot of disparity in terms of who gets promoted. So, if you are a person of color, getting hired isn’t as much of a hurdle. But when you want to apply for promotions, that's super hard. It’s difficult for people of color and especially Black people, to get promoted in coffee jobs.

Geana
Interesting.  So, you've been in the coffee industry for many years, over a decade now, closer to 15 years. Right? You even helped me out with some products early on when I was first developing the Ebb filter.

How have you seen the industry change over the years in the way that they deal with customers? This question is a little bit more about communication to consumers, less about what's happening behind the scenes in the industry. Have you seen any significant improvement in the industry in the last few years?

Umeko
In terms of how the specialty coffee industry interacts with customers; I think there have been overall improvements in terms of the language that is used and the way that coffee is being presented. This is changing and becoming more accessible. For example, instead of every single coffee company trying to be the "fanciest" with the "most obscure information" listed on the coffee bags; there is a lot more diversity. In terms of branding, coffee companies are saying "hey, we're fun". The message is more like, "hey, we want to make coffee that you like". Any kind of a move that makes the coffee world more approachable, accessible, and understandable is really positive.  Because that kind of “upwardly” striving alignment within this “unspoken” class dynamic used to be super prevalent in specialty coffee. It was all about being the “fanciest” and the most "inaccessible", basically. All of that is very aligned with white supremacy.

I think the thing to understand about white supremacy is not solely about the very apparent ways such as "I do not like people of color" or "white people are better". It's not 100 hundred percent about consciously thinking like that. White supremacy is privileging a culture of whiteness that is hugely problematic and built on a history of violence and subjugation. When we talk about class and specialty coffee, it has been very classist while we're also talking about race.

When we talk about, the accessibility of language and the rules of "taste", of what's considered "fancy", and what's considered "amazing and very classy,” we’re talking about whiteness. We're talking about white supremacy. 

If we continue to have only white men occupying leadership roles, we're not going to see very real change.

Geana
I often feel like we don't talk about classism enough, and of course, it's connected to all of it, especially to racism. It's a huge topic. Another conversation later... 

We had a comment earlier. "Bringing diversity and diverse perspectives will also benefit everyone, including all of white people in the industry." Do you have anything to add to that?

Umeko
I agree. That's why I bring up the issue of it being really tough for people of color to get promoted. If we continue to have only white men occupying leadership roles, we're not going to see very real change. I think we can see that right now. The specialty coffee industry had this moment where suddenly everyone is getting "woke” and saying, “OK, we're going to do better now”.  But we haven't actually seen a leadership team turnover and diversify. So, it's kind of like if there are white men still in charge, we're not going to make the kind of progress that I would like to see.

Geana
Switching gears, a little bit, do you have a message for those who are curious and want to explore making better coffee at home but don't know where to start? It can be intimidating.

If you are happy with how your coffee tastes, just keep doing what you're doing. You don't have to buy a two-hundred-dollar electric kettle unless you want it, but it's not required to make a good cup of coffee.

Umeko
Yes, it can. I think about this a lot. I can imagine not knowing where to start with coffee because there's so much information out there. And everyone has their "number one thing that that you have to do" and it's all different.

Geana
It’s also very technical and really overwhelming.

Umeko
Yeah, I think of it like wine. I don't know anything about wine because I didn’t drink until I was in my late 20s.  I still don't know where to begin. I wish someone would say, “here are the most important things”. So, I'm going to take that approach. 

First of all, don’t worry about not knowing. I think there can be feelings of embarrassment like you're supposed to know. But you're not supposed to know. So, the first thing I would say is, if you don't know, that's totally OK and that's totally normal. That's where everyone pretty much is. I would say think about the coffee that you are drinking now. Do you like it? And if you like it, then keep making it that way. There are a lot of products out there that people will try to sell you. They’ll make you feel like you must buy this product to make your coffee taste better. That's not true. If you are happy with how your coffee tastes, just keep doing what you're doing. You don't have to buy a two-hundred-dollar electric kettle unless you want it, but it's not required to make a good cup of coffee.

If you’re not totally happy with your coffee and want to branch out a little bit, I would recommend coffee subscriptions because you can try different things and they're often set up so that you can give input on the kinds of coffees that you like. It will give you suggestions based on what you like.

There's a subscription called Trade and they have a quiz that you can take, and it'll set you up and send recommendations for you. If you're not into that, then I would say go to your local coffee business - that you like and want to support - and ask for recommendations and start there. Tell them what you want and what you like and allow them to match you with a nice coffee. Ask them for some brewing tips for the kind of coffee equipment you have. If they're rude to you or make you feel bad, then go to a different place.

Geana
Totally! What about people who aren't sure what kind of coffee they like?  Maybe they're not even at the point where they can articulate what they like, for example, “I like fruity medium roast” or “I like strong coffee”.

Umeko
Usually when people say strong, they mean dark roast. You should be able to go to a coffee shop and tell them you like strong coffee and they will understand what that means or ask you questions until they do understand. Again, if they make you feel bad about asking questions, then go somewhere else. But I think it's completely fine to have a starting point like, "I like strong coffee", because that likely means you want a dark roast.

If that's not what you mean, then maybe it's espresso or a coffee that has a noticeable textural component, like a French press that feels very robust, gritty and adds a pep to your step. So, yeah, I think that starting with a word like strong is totally fine.

Geana
We just received another comment. "Everyone has their favorite brewers, favorite filter's, favorite tools, etc., It's so intimidating for newbies."

Umeko
Whatever brewing method you have is probably fine. You don't have to buy a bunch of new things. Whatever you have, you can probably make a few tweaks to however you're preparing it, to make your coffee taste a little better, if that's what you're wanting. If you're using an automatic drip, that's fine. You can still use an automatic drip, upgrade your coffee to one that you like a little bit better, that suits your taste a little bit better. Or maybe if you grind your coffee a little finer or a little coarser or something like that.

Geana
Maybe choosing one thing and playing with that one little change.

Umeko
That's why I really recommend (whatever method you have), that you go ask someone who knows a lot about it, like how you can optimize whatever you have - and if they try to sell you stuff then say no.

Geana
What do you think got you interested in focusing your work on inclusivity? Will you share a little bit more about what got you interested in this topic? 

I basically became "coffee famous" so that people would listen to me about very basic normal things. And it shouldn't be that way. I have been able to build a platform and a brand, but you shouldn't have to do that!

Umeko
Yeah, what got me interested in inclusivity in coffee is that my experience working in the coffee industry was so hard for such a long time. I had to go and do a bunch of things to get people to take me just "baseline" seriously. When I could see that all that white men had to do was walk into a room and people would say, "oh, you must be an expert".  And I'd think "well, I paid a bunch of money, I got a Q grader license, competed and jumped through "every single hoop" you can think of. I know so much about coffee yet I'm being treated like I'm invisible and that I can't possibly know anything.

So eventually, I basically became "coffee famous" so that people would listen to me about very basic normal things. And it shouldn't be that way. I have been able to build a platform and a brand, but you shouldn't have to do that! It hasn't been easy, but it's been "doable" for me because of all these privileges that I have. I'm speaking as a woman who’s half white and white passing and conventionally attractive. That goes a long way in this industry; way further than it should. Again, it should not be that way. That's why I care about diversity and inclusivity.

Geana
Thanks for sharing that. For me, it’s infuriating to see unfairness and to see people being treated as inferior. We're similar in that way. But specific to the Ebb filter, coffee was my “personal experience” before it became something I thought about as part of my business. Coffee is part of my heritage. In Brazil, where I’m from, there’s a meal named after it. And I’ve been drinking café com leite since I was a child. So, the first time I walked into a specialty café and was made to feel inferior because I lacked their “exclusive knowledge”, it was insulting.  I say all of this because I remember the experience of being made to feel like coffee wasn't a "thing that was mine." I felt terrible and found it extremely unfair. I want to make sure that anyone buying an Ebb filter can enjoy it however they want. We have tips to set them up for success, but they can do whatever they want. I also communicate that it's not about the “preciousness” and it's not about doing it perfectly.

So, there is my motivation.

Umeko
I don't think I knew that about your story. I really appreciate you sharing that, and I think that's really such a beautiful motivator. What a beautiful reason to come into the coffee space! I really appreciate that the Ebb filter, that there’s nothing on the packaging or the marketing that says you need this to become a better person. There’s nothing about it that says you need it to align yourself with whiteness and class. Whatever brew method you’re using you can get your cloth filter for it and it’s more sustainable. And it's very simple to use.  That's such a great way of approaching this market.

Geana
Thanks. I'm glad that comes across. I’m not always intentional about that. So, it's nice to hear you say that. Is there anything else that I missed that you want to share with us. Anything exciting going on in your world? 

Umeko
There's always something going on.  I guess this is the spot where I should “plug” my projects, but I can't really. I have so much going on... ok, buy my spoons if you would like to have a cupping spoon that is rainbow colored. You can purchase one of them from me and my website is linked in my bio, but you don't have to and you are still valid and an excellent person if you never purchase my spoons. 

Geana
I will say, and would like to add, that your Instagram content is totally enjoyable. One of my favorite things about your feed is that it's educational. I appreciate following you, seeing you and feeling that “yes”, there are women that are leading out there, being super brave, and inspiring other people to be brave as well.  Thank you for that and I encourage others to check you out.  I realize that you are Nonbinary, and I did not mean to categorize you there... 

Umeko
Yes, I'm Nonbinary, but I understand what "woman" means in this context. So, right back at you!

Geana
Thank you Umeko!

Umeko
Thank you so much for having me.

Umeko Motoyoshi

Stay in touch with Umeko!
Instagram: @umeshiso_
Website: umeshiso.com
Photo by Valorie Clark