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Coffee at the Moment by Mark Prince
10 Years Ago Today
Posted: December 19, 2011
Article rating: 8.5
feedback: (24) comments | read | write

December 18th, 2001, very close to midnight, we flipped the switch. We turned CoffeeGeek.com from a private-access testing site that required a password gateway to get in, into a nearly fully functioning, public website for anyone to visit and anyone to become a member of.

10 years ago today, this site went publicly live in a very beta-testing format. We came out of beta in February, 2002, but on December 19th, 2001, people started finding the CoffeeGeek website and for the first time, coffee and espresso lovers from around the world had a full blown web-based community they could read, join, and interact with.

It's been a long ten years, and while CoffeeGeek is nowhere near to what I want the website to be today, it still is pretty special and its core membership and wealth and abundance of content are what makes this website special. We've had so many people come through this website and make use of (and participate in) its community. We've had World Barista Champions get their virtual start in our forums. We've had innovative company leaders begin their coffee journey right in our forums, and as readers of our varied articles, guides, and how tos. We've had people who started with CoffeeGeek and move on to have their own successful websites involving coffee and espresso. We've had every type of person involved in coffee - literally from seed to cup and beyond - contribute articles, offer expert (and enthusiast) advice, and participate not only on the website, but in public events this website has been involved in. This website has over 60,000 members, 3,000 articles, over 6,000 reviews, and has had well over a half million forum postings (actually a lot more, but many are lost to time and bad servers), and we believe this is only the tip of the iceberg as far as the next ten years are concerned.

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Judging at 2003 USBC
One thing this website has allowed me to do personally is provide the opportunity to train to become a barista judge, eventually reaching the WBC level. I feel very fortunate because my knowledge on coffee and espresso grew exponentially during this time. This picture is my fourth judging gig, the 2003 USBC in Boston.

For me personally, this website has opened so many incredible doors. I've met and become friends with some of the most inspiring and fantastic people in the world of coffee. I got to meet (and have a nice discussion with) Dr. Ernesto Illy because of this website, for gosh sakes! I've had the opportunity to try literally the world's best coffees. I've been able to experience coffee and espresso from the best baristas in the world. Heck, I even met the love of my life because when I first met her, she liked me because I smelled like coffee ;)

I have so much more I want to write on the personal interactions, the influence, the exposure, the broad scope of what CoffeeGeek has meant for me personally and for a few choice people who have been kind enough to be interviewed regarding the CoffeeGeek website and its community, but I am saving this for another - and special - time early next year when our full launch anniversary comes up. However, in keeping with this beta-launch anniversary, I'd like to provide some perspective on how this website came to be and what kind of Internet world existed at that time, especially for coffee and espresso lovers.

Coffee and the Internet in 2001

Prior to 2001, the main interactive zone online for coffee lovers was the usenet group alt.coffee. There were coffee-related websites at the time (including my personal site, CoffeeKid, but there were no community websites around then for coffee and espresso lovers. There were no product review websites that featured a serious list of coffee and espresso tools. There were no forums. No photo-centric websites. No audio and video oriented offerings for coffee enthusiasts. No visual how tos, or interactive, visual guides for people wanting to make better coffee and espresso.

CoffeeGeek was designed and launched to change that, and to bring community to the online world of people with a fascination for coffee and espresso and to present a plethora of coffee and espresso related information in a way that was approachable to the more general population of the Internet at that time.

A core group of seven people helped with the design and build of the original website. They worked for me in a web design company I owned back then. We had no work in the fall of 2001 (because of 9/11, we lost all four projects we had signed up to work on); instead of laying people off, CoffeeGeek, a back pocket project I had in my head for almost 2 years, became the focus. We worked very hard on it, long hours, in September, October, November and December of that year, and I am still to this day so proud of the work everyone did to get this project off the ground.

The inspiration for what CoffeeGeek could be was derived from a few sources. Derek Powazek was one of the Internet's leaders in "community" online, running the Fray and a few other community oriented websites at that time. I really took a lot of queues and inspiration from him on how a community oriented website should run. Another big focus was the Digital Photography Review website, which even back then had the most fantastic and detailed product reviews for digital cameras. I remember being blown away at the scope and breadth of these reviews, and I wanted to emulate them (which became an Achilles Heel for me).

To really put things into perspective, the concept of being able to comment, inline, on a published article on a website was novel back in 2001. Not many websites had commenting systems in place for articles, editorials, how tos, reviews, etc. Heck, DP Review didn't have comments built in back then and wouldn't for some time. A lot of websites with commentary had a one-way, "like a newspaper" mentality: the articles couldn't be directly commented on, but there was a "feedback" portion of the website where people could write their thoughts down after reading an article. It worked like a "letters to the editor" section of a website and the commentary was never directly tied to feedback discussion.

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One of the First How Tos
One of our first How Tos on CoffeeGeek was the first version of a siphon coffee how to (since replaced with an updated version). I shot the siphons in action with a simple white back drop and a lot of lighting; this is also one of the first "all digital" photoshoots I did for CoffeeGeek; most of the early photography was film I then scanned.

Visual How To style articles were still in their infancy back then; there were some really good examples of how to websites, but they tended to cover building web pages, or other technical / computer oriented things. Sites like Make didn't exist back then. I was always fascinated by step by step visual articles in magazines and instructional books, so I wanted a website to do that for coffee and espresso as well.

Another thing: the concept of being able to vote on the quality of an article was also almost non-existent back in 2001. I remember quite clearing wanting to include a "rate this article" feature on the first version of CoffeeGeek, and my design and programming team thinking it would be dangerous to do so. I can't quite recall the specific argument they had against it, but when we went into a closed beta test with about 50 coffee nerds, everyone loved the idea of rating articles for their reading quality, so that idea has been with the website since launch.

We really, really wanted to launch forums software with the beta launch (and if not then, when we took the website out of beta in February 2002). There were three problems with doing that at the time. First, we couldn't use off-the-shelf forum software because we couldn't get it to work with the rest of the website's content management system (which we built from scratch) and its membership database. Second, we had to code forums software from scratch, and this was throwing up a gazillion hurdles. Third, and probably most pressing (but also short sighted when looking back), most of my initial stable of writers and beta testers didn't want the forums. They felt these newfangled CoffeeGeek forums would kill off the alt.coffee usenet newsgroup.

Little did they know that it would be a few human beings who ended up killing alt.coffee, but that's a completely different story. Regardless, I ceded to the wishes of my writers and early testers, and we put off incorporating forums for the first six months of the website.

When we finally launched the public beta of CoffeeGeek, I was blown away by the reception it got, and how quickly it got it. I think we were a "Yahoo site of the week" in the first week or two after launching. Our membership gained something like 7,500 signed on members in the first two months; for a low budget, no advertising, no SEO website, it was pretty impressive.

I have an email I have kept since the launch of the website. It's from a person who has since become my friend, and unfortunately passed away in 2007. In some ways he was a mentor for me in both photography and in life in general. I don't want to share his full name, but I do want to share some of his words because it puts the Internet in perspective back in a time before blogs existed (well they did, but they weren't called blogs), and before there was a YouTube or a Facebook or a Twitter. Warning: it is full of compliments, platitudes, and kind words, mostly directed at me. But I've always kept this email, not to stroke my own ego, but as a reminder of what we tried to do, right from the get-go, with CoffeeGeek and its community; I read it once in a while to remember what the website is supposed to be really about: connecting people around the world who love great coffee and espresso. I also started calling all the people involved in CoffeeGeek (writers, site readers, and members) a community after getting this email.

Here goes:

(CoffeeGeek has) managed in a few short months to make some -- previously unfathomable -- connections with people around the world on their discovery of supreme coffee and the techniques that come to make it. This website allows people the ability to really interact in so many ways that didn't exist last year. We can see pictures of what they're doing. They can share videos and powerpoints if they want as well and this one fellow in Australia that I met through the website is just a wealth of knowledge! I dont know how I could have met him otherwise if not for coffeegeek.

It is a true visual treat whenever a new article or review goes on the website. My main interest besides coffee is in rebuilding wood musical instruments and we also have a small community forming around usenet groups but no easy means to share information or step by step things. Before coffeegeek and coffeekid came along the same was also true for coffee and (this website) changed that. Just this way alone (the website) has revolutionized coffee for so many people. Take my brother for example: He never had the patience for me teaching him how to steam milk. He was able to read your guide on milk steaming and with the help of the short videos he was able to knock one out of the park! Now he considers himself a latte artist and is pouring blobs he calls latteart!

I've introduced all my friends and neighbors to coffeegeek and you may even know a few of them since they wrote you for advice and you so kindly answered. That too makes the website and the community so special. How many times can you write the editor of a newspaper or magazine and get a response back? And your writers do the same thing: I had a question regarding Alan Frew's article and he responded within hours. You call coffeegeek a community and this is a prime example of what community is!

Oh and the photography work! This really makes the website for me. As you know the photography sources from alt.coffee leave a lot to be desired what with the bad lighting, poor staging and back overall subject matter. I've been a professional photographer for over forty years and the quality level of the photographs associated with coffeegeek bring the professional levels up to 11. Please keep this effort up! I cannot think of another website associated with coffee that comes remotely close to what (the website) is doing with visuals.

Mark, please keep up the good work. You may not think of this yourself but you are helping build a community here in the new world of the Internet. Coffeegeek is that community and it allows me to meet (in that Internet way) an Alan from Australia, or a Ramon from Mexico, or a Stephen from my birth home of Richmond, VA. These people aren't Internet geeks like us from alt.coffee but instead are just regular people enjoying the Internet and friendly approachable pretty websites with lots of good content and they would have never been on alt.coffee and because of that probably would have never known about how to pull a good shot of espresso from the $250 machine they bought from Zabars.

Thank you for everything you do for great coffee and espresso!

No, thank you Jim for taking the time to write that, for helping me to continue to really work at and build the website back in the early 2000s, and for being my friend since then. He was a helluva nice guy.

Concluding thoughts

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Last Major Redesign
The last major redesign of CoffeeGeek came in 2005, with some additional design tweeks for the next three years. Site's a bit overdue, huh?

It was letters like this one I got from Jim in 2002 that really put me (and my small team) into hyperdrive on the website in the next few years - from 2002 to 2004, CoffeeGeek got four major upgrades. We introduced the forums in 2002. We revamped the entire website design in 2002, 2003, and 2004 (the current design is mostly the 2004 design). We've done some major behind the scenes retooling of the website, including complete, from-scratch rebuilds in 2002, 2004 and 2007.

In all that time, I kept to several core promises I made to myself regarding this website:

First and foremost, this is a community, and not my own personal play area. For that reason and that reason alone, I don't really use CoffeeGeek to air any especially dirty laundry in the world of coffee, nor do I try to excessively influence people to do certain things or buy from certain companies (and avoid others). Yes, I do write controversial articles and heavily influenced personal opinions from time to time but we also provide a public venue for opposing opinions to be expressed and we not censor opinions just because I or our website's moderating team disagree with those opinons.

Second, I made a (poor, financially) strategic and community oriented decision since our launch to only sell advertisements to coffee and espresso related businesses. With the exception of some minimal Google adwords banners in our forums (which very few people click - sigh ;)) we've held true to that community oriented goal to this day.

As a side note, please keep this in mind as you read and participate on CoffeeGeek: this site would not exist if it weren't for our advertisers. We don't push them down your throat like many websites seem to do these days, but fortunately, a few of you do click the ads and make our advertisers feel like they are supporting something good and getting a good return from their support. If we are going to keep our coffee and espresso only advertising policy intact, more of you will have to do the same: support the companies that support this community, and if you do buy from them, tell them you came from CG, and appreciate their support of our community!

Third promise, which I've been struggling to keep and hope to work better on in 2012, our second decade, is this:

I want to continue providing you, our community members, with better content, better functionality, and better community options for this website. This means more fresh content on the website from wider variety of contributing writers. This means getting the website back to a state of the art for how people expect a website to be in 2012. This means trying to up the game again, and deliver the community standards you expect from a modern website.

To try and keep these promises, a lot is happening behind the scenes right now. I can say we've hired a new Content Editor who is working hard right now to line up a lot of fresh content for this website, and I'll be introducing you to her and the new stable of writers early in the new year.

As for other elements to come, I want to say this: our first decade was amazing for our team, our moderators, our writers, our membership, our overall community, and definitely for me because of this website. I believe the second decade for CoffeeGeek is going to be even brighter and more far reaching. It will be because we'll try to deliver the tools, and you, as the community, will make it happen.

Thank you so much for all the fantastic involvement in this first decade. I look forward to so much more. Happy holidays to all of you!

Article rating: 8.5
Posted: December 19, 2011
feedback: (24) comments | read | write
Coffee at the Moment Column Archives email author
Mark PrinceColumn Description
Whether it's up to the minute, happening this day, this week, or in the recent past, this column's goal is to present coffee and attempts to make the experience truly culinary. You'll find short reviews about past events, interesting coffees coming on the market, new and different ways to enjoy espresso and other brewing methods, and give an insight into efforts around the globe to make coffee a truly culinary thing. Column written by Mark Prince.

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