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Coffee Common at TED2012: Or, What $7,500 Buys You, Besides Priceless Inspiration

Coffee Common at TED2011
Coffee Common at TED2011

The annual TED conference starts this week at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center for the lucky and the monied who can afford to spend $7,500 to hear inspirational talks by amazing individuals whose titles belie the impact of their work (i.e., "Vulnerability Researcher" Brené Brown; "Expert" John Hodgman). And to drink while receiving this wealth of information? Coffee, natch, but not just any cup of Joe poured by any regular Joe. Rather, the caffeine fix will be provided by Coffee Common, a collaborative project where roasters who are otherwise competitors on the field play together on the same all-star team to bat for the product itself. No marketing, no sales, no gimmicks. Just exceptional coffee.

Conceived by Stephen Morrissey of Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea, Coffee Common is a philosophical outgrowth of Alex Bogusky's collaboration-is-the-new-capitalism ethos, Common. If the medium is the message, a united front of high-quality coffee companies promoting the same values -- ethical, transparent sourcing practices; direct trade with coffee farmers; and sustainability -- speaks volumes.

"We wanted to highlight the best qualities and talent and practices by roasters and farmers," Coffee Common's co-founder Sean Bonner says. "And give people the opportunity to see all that somewhere other than within a commercial context."

That Coffee Common works outside this commercial setting is key. By creating this independent space, consumers can listen to useful information without hearing it as a sales pitch. "We just want to serve really good coffee and talk about really good coffee without the brand behind it. It makes that education legitimate," Bonner says.

Coffee Common successfully launched at TED's 2011 conference, and nearly a dozen roasters applied to participate in this year's event. Of those, eight, including Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Intelligentsia Coffee, Heart Coffee Roasters and Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters were chosen based on a blind taste test and their commitment to Coffee Common's basic principles. The roasters each donated 200 pounds of coffee that will stock the five coffee bars at TED's main Long Beach conference and at the concurrent TEDActive event in Palm Springs. All bars at both locations will brew the same coffee at the same time, with beans swapped out of the grinders between breaks in the program. For attendees, this means the coffee brewed between Session 1 (theme: "The Observatory," sample speaker: "Space archaeologist" Sarah Parcak) and Session 2 ("The Parlor" with "Filmmaker" Andrew Stanton, among others) will be different from the coffee served after "Writer and radio producer" Julie Burstein speaks in Session 3.

Making and serving the coffee are 30 baristas carefully recruited for their coffee and hospitality skills; they're flying in on their own dime (some from as far away as Australia and Sweden) to participate. Five are from L.A.-area coffee shops, including M'lissa Muckerman (Intelligentsia) and Katie O'Shea (Primo Passo Coffee Company).

For the 99% of us who will not be going to TED, the more salient point is that Coffee Common has its sights set far beyond the golden doors of the Performing Arts Center. While influencing the influencers has its place, the group's first public event in New York City in January was, Bonner says, "much, much closer to what we originally envisioned for Coffee Common."

This vision included a far lower price point for entry: $5, to be exact, or $7,495 less than the price of admission to TED. Ticket were all-inclusive; once inside, everyone was free to roam and explore what essentially was a coffee shop combined with a science center. There was, for example, a Taste Bar that featured "flights" of coffee where one could sample different coffees side by side. Another station let participants play with cream and sugar and explore how the flavors of mass-market and specialty coffees change with these additions. And maybe the most fun part was the Method Bar, a completely DIY station where budding Alton Browns trialed and errored with grind settings, brew methods and other coffee tools.

"Overall," Bonner says, "the event gave people a whole lot of information they could take home with them." There are preliminary plans for a similar event here in L.A.; given last year's explosion of specialty coffeehouses, the timing couldn't be better.

For now, however, Coffee Common is focused just on TED. And while a cup of coffee might not be as inherently inspirational as a lecture from, say, a two-time U.S. Poet Laureate, it is almost certainly enough to fuel a lightbulb or two. Or, to quote Malcolm Gladwell: "Give a man enough coffee, and he's capable of anything."