This article was published on September 23, 2012

Eat, browse and prosper: How the Internet is bringing obscure food communities to life

Eat, browse and prosper: How the Internet is bringing obscure food communities to life
Joel Falconer
Story by

Joel Falconer

Joel Falconer is the Features Editor at TNW. He lives on the Gold Coast, Australia with his wife and three kids and can sometimes be found g Joel Falconer is the Features Editor at TNW. He lives on the Gold Coast, Australia with his wife and three kids and can sometimes be found gaming or consulting. Follow Joel on Twitter.

The Internet is responsible for many things. Ubiquitous access to media and information. Instant communication. A scarily short news cycle. We even participate in virtual worlds with thousands of other people, escaping from the stress of day-to-day life with a click.

One of its most amazing qualities is the way it enables us to find comrades with whom to share obscure topics — those hobbies that make us feel alone and isolated in our pursuit of them in the physical world, and often out of luck when we really need help. Group-oriented activities like tabletop roleplaying the popularity of which has decreased in the real world are really saved by the Internet (in many ways the Internet displaces these communities; we’ve replaced tabletop gaming with MMOs, though veteran fans will tell you rightly that it’s not the same thing).

But one thing that has really been reinvigorated by the Internet is a lot more primal than tabletop gaming, and that’s the world of food. Eating it, cooking it, processing it and even growing food — these are all popular topics for online communities.

Just how many of you know hundreds of sausage-making veterans and interested newbies in the real world? Not too many, I imagine. Finding a community to ease you into such hobbies without resorting to the Internet is possible, but it is tough work. And even if you live in the sausage-making capital of the world, you can’t beat the speed with which you can get assistance and troubleshooting via a forum post.

That’s just one example, and I spoke to Andy Freeman, the founder of CoffeeSnobs, an Australian community for those trying to perfect the art of roasting, brewing and cupping their own coffee. This community has been a big help to me personally over the six years since I became obsessed with making the perfect cup, a pursuit that others will tell you leads to constant improvement and yet constantly higher expectations.

“CoffeeSnobs was born and has evolved out of both necessity and passion. Initially a group of home roasters wanted to source small quanitites of raw green coffee beans and a single 60kg bag of coffee was purchased and divided between them,” Freeman says. As more people discovered home roasting and the great results it provides, “the group expanded and the quantities increased.”

Eventually Freeman gave in to the demand from coffee snobs who loved working with fresh, world-class beans but didn’t want to get into the roasting game. “After many requests to get the same green beans roasted, I set up a commercial coffee roaster to do just that.”

Depending on where you are, it can be difficult to get your hands on decent beans, or it can be prohibitively expensive for the home hobbyist. My home in Queensland’s Gold Coast is one example, and the places I trust to give me freshly-roasted, properly-sourced beans on one hand. The CoffeeSnobs operation has expanded wildly and now Freeman is shipping beans right around the country to both home and commercial roasters and drinkers.

“We roast fresh to order twice a week,” says Freeman. “The secret to our sales success are three simple goals of excellent product, great price and amazing service.”

As useful as the CoffeeSnobs BeanBay is, the crown jewel is the CoffeeSnobs forum. Consistently vibrant and active every time I’ve visited over the years, it’s an easy way to get — or dispense — advice on everything from espresso machines to brewing methods to coffee beans and their origins. The Roasting subforum is naturally quite active and one of the best places to get advice on the matter, Australian or not.

“Professional barista associations have existed in the physical world for a long time, but like many other volunteer groups they toggle between being vibrant and dormant depending on who steps up to the committee roles each year,” Freeman says. “Amateur baristas don’t have many opportunities to share and learn from their peers in the physical world and the Internet medium really fills that void well.”

Freeman notes that there are a number of ways to get started as an amateur barista, many of which didn’t exist before the Internet. “YouTube and instructional videos are a great place to start, but being a part of a much wider and vibrant coffee community gives the amateur barista a place to share, learn and hone their craft with likeminded people anytime of the day or night.”

There are active interest groups and clubs in some cities, but CoffeeSnobs provides something you just can’t physically get offline. “Picture yourself walking into a room containing hundreds of different coffee machines and thousands of owners — that’s pretty much what you find online at CoffeeSnobs and that scenario just isn’t practical or possible in the physical world.”

Freeman notes that barista courses are reasonably priced and valuable, but there is only so much you can learn in a single day, or even a longer five week course.

“The real benefit of such a large CoffeeSnobs community is the lifelong learning and sharing environment. A tweak to a process, a fresh idea or a new concept can be thrashed out and explored with like-minded people and as your own knowledge base increases you can give back to the community by answering questions posed by newbies.”

CoffeeSnobs attracted growth primarily by word-of-mouth and other organic methods, though it does well in the search engines, and as with any community online or off, there were some teething problems to figure out. “You need some level of regulation and policing, but primarily want it to be a caring and nurturing environment. We have an amazing team of moderators that discuss policy and any questionable content behind the scenes to ensure our community feel remains the same.”

“Often on large forums content can get overly heated or personal. Such is the feel and personal ownership of our community that nearly all the members will do their best to diffuse volatile situations when they arise so it’s becoming a self-policing environment.”

Couple the goals of providing great beans with reasonable prices to every amateur barista in the country and providing a huge community and digital knowledge base for learning, Freeman says that “we all benefit by improving the quality of coffee everywhere one cup at a time.”

“Maybe one day, the world will be rid of bad coffee.” One can only hope.

There are hundreds of similar communities focused on preparing professional-quality foods and beverages. You can quite easily dive into just about any seemingly daunting process with the Internet: brewing beer and wine, smoking and curing meat and other charcuterie skills, making gourmet sausages or your own cheeses, the list goes on. Another emerging community is that of permaculture and urban farming, where participants look to their own backyards to grow produce, cultivate honey, and even in some cases their own small, suburban livestock.

On the other end of the scale, there are huge communities around the cooking of food, the adoption of challenging diets, and recipe-sharing. Aaron Osteraas, Managing Editor at Site5 (a hosting provider) spends his spare time working on a site called Eat Keto.

The site is about the ketogenic diet, a very effective method of losing weight, and also a favorite diet among bodybuilders looking to achieve very low body fat percentages — known as shredding. It is all about consuming a high-fat, low-carb diet with a good chunk of protein, with a small but rabid following whose flag — if they had one — would be a Ron Swanson-sized serving of bacon.

For example, Eat Keto teaches readers how to make an Oopsie Burger (an American-style burger with a low carb bun), a keto-symbolic Bacon Explosion, and a keto-friendly moussaka, a Middle Eastern dish made of primarily eggplant and beef.

For many adherents, the keto diet is a prime example of a community they’d never have participated in, much less known about, if it weren’t for the Internet. When asked if he’d have ever come across it without Reddit’s help, Osteraas had the following to say:

“Absolutely, positively, not at all. There’s just no chance whatsoever. Unless I was a bodybuilder, which of course, I am not. Reddit and the Internet are enablers of this kind of community, allowing open discussion of ideas between people. The fact is the keto community doesn’t really exist outside of Reddit. It’s about to crack 40,000 subscribers. The Facebook group I’m part of has some 30 members.”

Osteraas is referring to r/keto, the Internet capital of all things related to the diet. “The community is very young. When I got on board last year, there was half the current amount of users.”

Because of the need to track macronutrients on the keto diet, smartphones are a big help in addition the Internet. There are a bunch of online tools the community has attached itself to, including MyFitnessPal, which we mentioned in our roundup of weight loss apps.

“The MyFitnessPal iOS app is a very important tool. It’s not geared to keto out of the gate, but there are ways to set it up for ease of use. Overall, it allows you to track your macronutrients (fat, protein and carbs) with relative ease,” says Osteraas.

“I’m on there. So are some real-life friends and even some I’ve made online through the community. It can be challenging to remember to update your food log every time you eat, though.”

Osteraas doesn’t earn a cent from Eat Keto, and it’s not his motivation for starting the site. “I love food, cooking it first and foremost and also eating it. I’ve dabbled in food blogs before — thankfully decommissioned since — and even written some keto recipes on my personal site, before spinning it out. A lot of people who eat keto aren’t great cooks, or perhaps more appropriately, don’t have the confidence to take steps to become one.”

“I want to focus on easy (if occasionally time-consuming) delicious food that I hope anyone can tackle. Everything is easier when someone has done it before you.”

Though r/keto is the hub of ketogenic activity online, the response to Eat Keto — still a young site — has, in Aaron’s words, “been nothing short of amazing.”

“I’ve had many emails from people thanking me, or asking questions about recipes. It’s the best feeling in the world to know you’ve helped someone else. It’s the little things that make it worthwhile. I get big kicks out of seeing people on r/keto try my recipes out, too.”

“I hope Eat Keto stands as a place for people to get great recipes for a long time to come.”

Image Credit: Jay Directo/Getty Images, Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Get the TNW newsletter

Get the most important tech news in your inbox each week.

Back to top