By Geoff Watts
A new decade is arrived. Are you ready for it? Is the world of Specialty Coffee ready for it?
Just to help ease the transition I put together a little list of things to look forward to in coffee, along with some things I hope get left behind as artifacts, as we flip the pages of the calendar.
Things I hope become historical footnotes:
- The near-fanatical obsession with dry-processed coffees. Increased risk for the farmer + significant loss of varietal/terroir nuance in the cup + likelihood of current trend reversing at some point = probably not the kind of coffee we want to promote.
- The rapid proliferation of poor-tasting varietals. During the last couple of decades, various Catimor types have overtaken coffee fields worldwide. While there is good reason in some cases, it has nevertheless meant a measurable loss in quality potential over 90% of the time. There are surely better options.
- Super-sizing it. Got to get rid of the big urns. At our own coffeebars, we killed the 20 oz size and it caused a bit of a stir. But it was a good decision; another step in the noble pursuit of quality over all else. Single-cup, brewed-to-order coffee should become the new standard for those seeking a great coffee experience.
- Blind devotion to certification bodies. Don’t get me wrong, most existing coffee certifications have some kind of purpose and some role to play in the coffee world. But they often fall way short of delivering the intended benefits to either producers or consumers. Like all things in life, they ought to be treated with some scrutiny and expected to perform as advertised.
- Kopi-Luwak. The lamest gimmick in the history of the coffee. Ever seen how this is done? You don’t want to, believe me. What bad fortune for those little cats—locked up in cages, partially starved, fed coffee all day—just because they happen to like to suck on sweet coffee cherries. Cosmic injustice on display.
- Empty sloganeering and outdated mythology. Go to the coffee aisle in your favorite store and you will be overwhelmed by vaguely good-sounding terminology that doesn’t really explain anything. Specialty Coffee is still in the process of establishing its identity, and the minor chaos you see in labeling is the result of hundreds of companies with vastly different approaches to coffee scrambling to convince you that their coffee is somehow more sustainable, more fair, more green, more interesting, more exciting, or otherwise mo’ better than the next. Unfortunately there is a lot of Wizard of Oz-style blustering and very little substance to most of these claims. Also it may be time to put Kaldi and his dancing goats, Gabriel de Clieu, Juan Valdez, and all these characters back into the box for a while. These images are cute but factually inaccurate and extremely worn out. It’s time for something new.
- The Myth of the Golden Tongue. Any taster worth his/her salt will acknowledge that the human sensory system is an imperfect instrument. On top of this, coffee is also one of the most chemically complicated beverages known to mankind, making it hard stuff to measure. Every coffee taster is fallible, prone to relativistic interpretation, vulnerable to bias, impacted by environmental or emotional variables, and likely to make inconsistent or incorrect judgments once in a while. We know how dynamic and volatile coffee is…any particular cupping or tasting is really nothing more than a snapshot in time and may or may not be a truly accurate reflection of the true nature/potential of a given sample. With coffee we need to teach ourselves to be circumspect, to have patience, and to avoid instant judgment. Instead, we must be contemplative, willing to second-guess ourselves, and willing to listen and debate. It is at that point that we gain understanding. Unilateralism or deference to one tongue at the cupping table causes blindness. Overconfidence can easily stifle a cupper’s accuracy, and we’ve got to remember that we are all students…and always will be.
- French Roast. In a fascinating marketing coup, the Old World method for covering up defects and masking bad flavors in poor-quality coffee is turned into a high class, premium quality designation. Time to change this.
- Single-serve pods. Wait a minute, I’ve got an idea. Let’s package 15 grams of mediocre quality pre-ground coffee into little plastic and foil cups, wrap it all up in plastic, put it in a cardboard box and sell it as Specialty Coffee. That way we can make it more convenient for consumers to prepare stale, over-extracted coffee at home while generating at least 20 times the waste material they otherwise would. The K-cup and Nespresso frenzy that has taken the world by storm really does feel like a monumental step backwards.
Things I hope become potent parts of the coffee scene:
- Exploration of new (old) varietals. Everything old is new again. Ethiopia is home to thousands of native coffee tree varieties that have yet to be really investigated for quality potential. Seven completely different species of coffee were recently discovered in Madagascar. There is a lot of potential out there, and the next “Geisha” phenomenon is sure to come along eventually. Most research and hybridization programs in the past have focused more on physical traits, productivity, and resistance when studying coffee performance and recommending cultivars to farmers. But taste is steadily becoming a more important aspect of research as farmers living in a world of over-production are learning that they can differentiate themselves through quality and earn higher premiums than ever before.
- Anti-corruption efforts in local coffee economies. Corruption is one of the most powerful obstacles standing in the way of smallholder farmers who seek to improve their economic livelihoods. It exists at every level—government, local industry organizations, farmer cooperatives, multinational trading houses—and permeates the industry. Until some of this fundamental corruption is weeded out, many well-intentioned efforts to help farmers move ahead will continue to spin their wheels in the mud.
- Farmers becoming Roasters, Roasters becoming Farmers. To really have any hope of understanding coffee, you’ve got to see it from all sides. Roasters who understand the complexities of coffee growing and processing are more careful with the coffees they roast and better equipped to interpret tastes they encounter, as they can connect the tastes to the things that caused them. Farmers who know how to roast and cup are in a great position to perform necessary analysis on their crops each year and apply a degree of finesse in their approach to coffee that gives them better control over the outcome. They can also take advantage of growing domestic markets to sell some of their coffee to local coffee shops and restaurants.
- Slow Coffee + the re-discovery of drip. Someone asked me recently what slow coffee is, and my explanation was simple: it is what you get when coffee is handled with meticulous attention to detail at every step from the farm to your cup. It is the triumph of quality over quantity. It is handpicking and hand-sorting to create nearly flawless micro-lots. It is the choice to avoid shortcuts in husbandry, picking, processing, drying, milling, roasting, and brewing. It is the acknowledgment that coffee quality is fragile and needs to be treated with a delicate touch in order to reach its real potential. Espresso machines were originally created as an expedient way to prepare a cup of coffee in a very short amount of time. They have come a long way since then, but never forget that there is something unmistakably beautiful about drip filtering, and many of the most obsessive coffee geeks I know still consider drip filtering the most exciting way to experience coffee.
- Science Science Science Science. It has long been suggested that coffee roasting is part art and part science. This probably extends to growing, brewing, and even tasting coffee. But I submit that there is a major imbalance in the current industry that seems to lean too heavily on the art and comes up more than a little short on the science. There is a lot we need to understand about roast chemistry, extraction chemistry, the impact of fermentation and drying on coffee quality, the respiration of green coffee and the influence of water activity on volatile flavor components…the list goes on and on. Art must and will always be part of the coffee quality formula…but it should be balanced with some serious science that will help get our industry improve and gain credibility.
- Acknowledgment of seasonality as a factor in quality. Like Doug Zell often says, coffee is not like a box of breakfast cereal. It is much more alive, like fruit, in that it is a perishable agricultural product and only gets worse with time. Every country and every growing region has a specific time during the year when harvest occurs. Most countries only have a single harvest annually, lasting only a few months. What this means is that some coffees are fresher than others at any given point in the year. Costa Rican coffees are at their best beginning early spring and lasting through early fall. Bolivian coffees are best consumed in the winter months. Knowing when a coffee was harvested can help consumers make better choices about which coffees to purchase during various parts of the year.
- Redefinition of terms and intellectual engagement with the consumer. In an industry awash with buzzwords and phrases, it is deeply refreshing to encounter real dialogue that gets into detail about the topics that are at the heart of the Specialty Coffee sector. Sustainability: what does this really mean in the context of coffee production? Quality: are there reliable signposts for an interested consumer looking to get better coffee? Is it just something you “know when you see it”? How do you interpret the various messages you find on a package of coffee, and what do they really mean? It is time to move beyond slogans and into understanding, and as consumers we all benefit from having the kind of knowledge that allows us to make good decisions and minimize the semi-intuitive guesswork.
- Collaboration. Although it sometimes appears large, especially from the inside, the Specialty Coffee industry is actually still a very tiny niche in the world marketplace. The reality is that the vast majority of the coffee trade is still controlled by a handful of multinational companies, and most Specialty roasters are only a step or two removed from being backyard operations. There is a lot to be gained by establishing some solidarity amongst companies with similar visions and goals, and one of the reasons Specialty Coffee quality has gotten better over the last decade is that organizations like the Roaster’s Guild have succeeded in bringing people together in an environment that promotes sharing of ideas and collaborative learning. This has helped to rally passionate coffee industry people around common standards, and it has been to the benefit of the entire group. I hope that this continues. We all stand to learn a lot from one another, and the companies that fail to realize this will likely find themselves slowly marginalized as time marches on.
- Coffee Corps. Coffee Corps is sort of like the Peace Corps, but for coffee. I’ve had the pleasure of volunteering on many Coffee Corps assignments over the years, and emerged with zero regrets. In every case I’ve learned from the experience and gained valuable insights. The work I did may not have always benefited my company in an immediately measureable way, but in the long term has afforded us some worthwhile currency in the development world, has led to some meaningful relationships with people who we now buy coffee from, and has had a positive impact on local economies in several coffee producing countries. In recent years funding has run dry. I hope that it gets going with vigor again as it is really an admirable idea.
- Affordable and high quality sample roasting equipment. Someday someone will figure this out. (Calling all engineers and entrepreneurs!) If you can build a durable machine with precision controls that can retail for $3000-$6000, depending on the bells and whistles one opts for, you will probably have 1,000 orders on your desk tomorrow and no shortage of work for the next five years. (Seriously.) Sample roasting is a critical step in the quality control/evaluation process of green coffee, and the market is under served. Imagine a surgeon trying to operate using rusty garden tools and you get an idea of what it is like out there.
2009 was an action-packed year in the coffee world. We might remember it as the Year of Precipitation, for a number of reasons. Rain played an especially big role in disrupting the timing of many harvests, most demonstrably in Colombia where excessive and inopportune rains helped cause one of the wackiest crop seasons in memory. The unusual weather patterns caused a lot of people to start thinking more seriously about potential impacts of climate change on coffee production. We saw the abrupt unveiling of Ethiopia’s new ECX trading system that attempts to fundamentally change the way coffee is bought and sold in one of the world’s most exciting coffee producing countries. The Japanese helped make the old new again, re-invigorating world interest in the siphon pot through great design and siphon competitions. New York City, long considered one of the least developed Specialty Coffee markets in the US despite being our largest city, has become a center of attention for many young coffee companies looking to change that reputation. And in the midst of a very unsettling economy, Specialty Coffee kept on keeping on, as more people than ever before decided to improve their lives a little bit by choosing to drink better quality coffees.