Since Perfect Coffee at Home #3: Remarks at the National Coffee Association

This is part three of a four part series on what we’ve learned and what we’ve been up to since publishing Perfect Coffee at Home. Previous articles are listed here:

Since Perfect Coffee at Home #1: Starting a Roastery and Cafe
Since Perfect Coffee at Home #2: Compass Coffee and a Lucky Break

Talking to the media is a steep learning curve, and it’s a very different experience talking to a print journalist than on live television. In print, you have time to reflect and express your thoughts just right. On air, things happen much faster. It all feels like a blur, but the good news is that any quirky mannerisms you may have are painfully apparent and preserved online forever.

Fortunately, from our awkward first radio interview, we’ve gotten a lot better, but of course, we’re still learning. We had to figure out how not to step on each other while talking, how to speak concisely, how to avoid filler words, even simple things like where to look and when. (BTW, apparently you’re not supposed to look at the camera on morning television? This would have been really nice to know beforehand.)

In any case, since the National Coffee Association’s conference was held in New Orleans this year, we got on the morning show circuit as spokesmen for coffee in America. Visiting Good Morning New Orleans and Eyewitness Morning News was a pretty cool experience, and we brewed some great coffee on live TV.

We also got to present our story to the convention. We talked about how we became friends over coffee, how at the time we were helping each other master navigation with a map and compass, and how our experience reflects the broader American trend of getting into better coffee.

We’ll conclude this post with a full transcript of our remarks. It’s not perfect, but it’s close enough. We alternated back and forth, each covering different paragraphs, but for ease of reading and simplicity, we’ve combined everything here.

The series will conclude in part 4.

Transcript of Our Remarks at the 2014 National Coffee Association Convention in New Orleans, Louisiana

Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez before speaking at the National Coffee Association

Before speaking at the National Coffee Association.

Our story, and our coffee adventure, really starts in the fall of 2009, at The Basic School in Quantico, Virginia, where all newly-commissioned Marine officers are trained. We had joined the Marines out of college looking for three things: service, self-improvement, adventure, and The Basic School would be a six-month crash course in what it takes to lead a platoon in combat.

It wasn’t an idle concept. With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan raging, we had joined with a pretty good understanding of what we were getting into, and The Basic School would be where we learned things like how to shoot, how to lead a convoy, and how to fight.

Marines call it brilliance in the basics, and one of the most important skills we learned is land navigation. You have to know where you are and where you’re going, and since you can’t always rely on GPS working, we train with a map and compass.

It’s at this point in training that our friendship really starts. We’re waking up early going to the field, we’re staying up late studying tactics in the library, and as the sleep deprivation sets in, we really start drinking coffee to stay awake. First thing in the morning when we wake up, during class, after class, at night—it becomes non-stop.

As the training progresses, we start doing more and more cool things. The guns get bigger, the explosions louder. And what powerpoint presentation about coffee would be complete without a picture of tanks?

When we graduate training, we end up assigned to 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. This infantry battalion is colloquially known as “The Walking Dead” because it participated in some of the bloodiest fighting in Vietnam. Obviously, our parents were thrilled to hear about this.

What’s particularly cool about this assignment is that again, we’ll be together. We’re each about to be taking command of weapons platoons of 48 Marines. We’ll be responsible for teaching them many of the tactics that they’ll use in Afghanistan, and it’s great to have someone there to bounce ideas off of.

One of the first things we do when we arrive in North Carolina is take our platoon sergeants, our seconds in command, out for coffee to begin developing a strong working relationship. It’s a piece of advice that we had been given back in Quantico, and what we find is that the military—or at least the Marine Corps—runs on coffee. We have an old percolator in the office that makes this thick, black, burnt, bitter, coffee that tastes like motor oil. But it doesn’t matter. We drink tons of it.

It’s the same in the field on training exercises. The weather is terrible, we’ll be caught in a blizzard, but as we discuss plans for the day we’ll take these little packets of instant coffee that come in our rations and just chew on them straight. It’s disgusting, but it’s perfect.

The fact that we’re eating coffee crystals—that instant just isn’t fast enough—is really a reflection of the pace of training. And within just a few months we’re on helicopters deploying into the Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

It’s a completely different world, and we’re assigned a completely non-standard mission. Michael and his Marines embed with the Afghan Police, Harrison and his Marines embed with the Afghan Army. And what that means is that in Afghanistan, which is mostly a tea culture, we’re going to be drinking a lot of tea with our Afghan partners to build up a rapport.

It also means that we’ll be doing just about the opposite of our training. As infantry officers, we’ve been trained to destroy things, but on embedded training teams, the idea is to build small pockets of community, join them together, and hopefully spread safety throughout our area of operations.

On the ground, the patrol bases we command are separated by about five miles. The roads aren’t very good, they’re often filled with IEDs (improvised explosive devices), but every so often we get a chance to meet up, discuss the mission, come up with plans, etc. And just like always, it’s over coffee.

Which begs the question: where’s all this coffee coming from? And the answer is care packages from friends and family. They’re a reminder of home and a much-needed break from realities of life on the ground.

It’s after one such meeting that we run our first major mission together. We receive intelligence that there’s a Taliban IED-making cell operating in our town, and the idea is that Michael, his Marines, and his Afghan Police partners will come from the east; that Harrison, his Marines, and his Afghan Army partners will come from the west; we’ll surround the compound under the cover of darkness; and at first light kick in the door and detain the enemy.

The mission goes off without a hitch. We’re elated. And even better we’re really proud of our Afghan partners. They coordinate seamlessly together and they professionally and successfully detain the enemy.

But before we know it, our deployment is over. The days drag on but the weeks fly by, and pretty soon we’re on a cargo plane back to America in the middle of the night, the green lights of the plane just adding to the surrealism. We’re very fortunate to have brought all our Marines home alive and without serious injury.

In one of our early weeks back in America, we’re in the car and we hear a radio show on NPR about America’s growing interest in gourmet coffee. At this point, as guys who can easily drink eight cups a day, we have to find out more.

So we start experimenting. And just like in the Marines, there are no half measures. We go at it with the same intensity. From a single French press, our coffee collection grows until it takes over the entire kitchen counter. With each new method we get sucked deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole, to the point where we’re buying all sorts of books from Amazon, we’re scouring the internet, and we’re tracking our experiments in a notebook.

It’s a fun hobby, really unlike anything we’ve ever done before. It’s this rich, multi-sensory experience, and the difficulty of learning about it is an enjoyable challenge. As our collection of coffee tools expands, we become obsessed with chasing the perfect cup, so much so that we head to the metal shop to grind off the spouts on our portafilter and make it bottomless.

The results are amazing.

Like anything, it’s fun to share our progress as we get better. And it comes full circle: we’re preparing to head to the field one day on a training exercise, and instead of just resigning ourselves to awful instant crystals, we get the bright idea to make a military-grade coffee kit.

We think this is pretty cool—we’re using a jetboil to heat water, a pour over cone, even a hand-crank grinder—until later we’re reminded that earlier generations of Marines would have used C4 plastic explosive and a canteen cup to make their coffee. Theirs is certainly a much more impressive way of making coffee, but at least ours tasted really good.

And then our time in the Marines is up. It’s 2013, the war in Afghanistan is drawing to a close, we aren’t going to deploy again, and it’s time for us to start figuring out what we’re going to do next. We start making visits to our hometown of Washington, D.C., sitting in coffee shops, and reconnecting with friends we haven’t seen for a while.

It’s one day while we’re up there that a friend who runs a design studio tells us he wants to learn how to make coffee for his customers. So we teach him a simple process to make a really good cup of coffee, and what we find is that it’s immensely fulfilling to teach him.

That feeling inspires us to write a book about what we’ve learned. For all the difficulty of learning how to brew great coffee, at this point we’ve finally figured it out. And what we decide is this is going to be a fun project and a good way to give back to the coffee community. Our goal in writing Perfect Coffee at Home is to make really good coffee simple for people. So originally, it’s a step-by-step explanation of the most common methods set against the story of our own discovery.

But it quickly becomes more than that, and as we write, we realize a couple things.

First, the military and coffee are inextricably intertwined. We aren’t the first American servicemen to write about coffee; it’s actually a tradition going back as far as the Civil War. And second we realize that coffee is really about special moments across the table with family and friends. People want really good coffee, but even more than that, they want connection. The same way coffee was a ritual for us and the backdrop for our friendship, is the same way that it is for many people.

In the end, our book is a celebration of how really good coffee creates moments for human connection. And while that’s the conclusion to the first chapter to our coffee adventure, we think it’s also the future.

To us, that’s what makes coffee so exciting — that it has been, and will continue to be, a drink that makes life better in so many meaningful ways.

Thank you to the National Coffee Association. Thank you to the members in the audience for helping create those moments. And thank you very much for having us here today.