This is meant to be a tribute to Skip Finley, an exceptionally beloved member of the worldwide specialty-coffee community who passed on yesterday after a two-year battle with a particularly aggressive, vicious cancer.
Those closest to him knew that this was the week, that it was coming soon, though you wouldn’t know it from Skip himself—Skip, who from the first was positive, inspiring, always working to build a better future for his family, friends, and coffee peers. He radiated that optimism and joie de vivre until the very end.
Yesterday afternoon, the news surged bleak and heavy through our community in texts and phone calls, and we gathered on social media to mourn. There was a strange comfort to it. “I’ve never felt so far away yet so connected to so many people that I love than I do right now,” Colleen Anunu wrote on Facebook. “That’s the kind of man that Skip Finley was.”
In these sorts of written remembrances, one typically lists a person’s accomplishments, and Skip had many. Please see Ric Rhinehart’s thoughtful tribute to Skip on the Specialty Coffee Association’s (SCA) website. What really sets Skip apart though, is the purely altruistic nature of the work he did. He was a Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) and Europe (SCAE) volunteer like no other, contributing not hundreds but thousands of hours. He was a director for the SCAA since 2011, but you wouldn’t know it from all the grunt work he did. Skip showed up—for people and for the industry. He showed up like no one I’ve ever seen.
Skip served on committee after committee for the SCA. He wrote and implemented some of the association’s most important legislation about technical standards, regulations that will last and guide coffee professionals for decades to come. As an accomplished professional, a veteran of specialty coffee for many, many years, Skip had the wherewithal, confidence, and insight to deftly navigate even the most bureaucratic of specialty-coffee business at the highest levels. People at the top trusted him.
But you know where Skip really flourished? It was when he was teaching young people, or introducing a newcomer to the community. Just look at the Facebook and Instagram feeds still rushing like rivers today: Those mourning him represent all groups in specialty coffee, from the youngest baristas to the most seasoned business owners, from the roasters who hung on Skip’s every word during classes at Retreat, to trainers who learned to certify alongside him; from importers who valued his deep understanding of the green side, to competitors remembering his patience and kindness as he walked them through an Art Bar round during a regional latte art competition. Skip did everything. He had his hands in every aspect of specialty coffee.
There were some things he was especially passionate about, though. For example, along with his close friend and colleague at Dalla Corte Espresso Systems, Sevan Istanboulian, Skip advocated for the establishment of the United States and Canadian Latte Art Championships. I remember almost forcing him to take a break during the practice sessions for the exhibition latte art contest in Toronto in 2014—he’d been working one-on-one with novice baristas for seven hours straight. He finally agreed and took a five-minute recess. And then he worked another six hours.
From my perspective, he appeared happiest when he was teaching, when he was helping, and when he was taking someone under his wing. I think he lived for that stuff, because it’s essentially what loving someone is, and Skip loved hard. He loved many, so many.
Here at my desk, everything stopped yesterday when I got word from Tracy Allen that Skip had passed. Ken and I sat with the news and stared at each other. We’d known it was coming, right? Why did it feel like such a shock, like the air had been suddenly pulled from the room? I turned to social media and spent the afternoon reading your recollections of Skip, your best, funniest, sweetest tales of this man whose penchant for generosity of spirit was so vast. As soon as I opened my eyes this morning, I reached for my phone to read some more. What Colleen said is on the mark: I’ve never felt so far away yet so connected to so many people that I love than I do right now. That’s the kind of man that Skip Finley was.
I dreamed of Skip last night. We were on a train in Bern, Switzerland, headed to some ridiculous party being held at a casino in conjunction with the World Barista Championship in 2006. This really happened, in fact. On that night, we were with John Sanders, and I was kind of in awe. I’d only been in coffee for four years, and here I was with two legends, both of who were kindly welcoming me along for the ride. And then the three of us got off the train, and we climbed atop a snowdrift with giant steins of beer, and Marty Curtis jumped out from behind a Dalla Corte Evolution, and Matt Milletto started pulling shots. That was in the dream, though, but if you know Skip, and you know the joyful effect he had on people, it’s something that could have happened pretty easily in real life.
Skip was a man who wanted to do anything, everything, and until that bastard cancer came along, he could and he did. We miss you, Skip. Man, do we miss you. Our community will never—it won’t ever—be the same again. But the lessons you taught us about coffee and water and equipment, and about living and learning and experiencing joy, that guidance—your truth—will be with us for our lifetimes.