BeanScene Magazine

To fear or not to fear the future?  That is the question.

From the February 2016 issue.
To fear or not to fear the future?  That is the question.

St Ali Owner and Sensory Lab Founder Salvatore Malatesta is a proud father of three, a hip-hop enthusiast and an aspirational philosopher. He speaks to BeanScene about the over-saturation of Australia’s café market.

I began my coffee career in 1993 while studying Arts/Law at The University of Melbourne.

My first venue was aptly named Caffeine. My own self-actualisation in coffee resulted in a deep entrenchment in the third wave coffee movement.

When I first entered the roasting business in 2005 I could count the number of specialty roasters on one hand, many of whom are still around and have become great friends.

It was very much a grass roots movement, with the traditional coffee power structures questioned, and decisions being made bottom-up rather than top-down. A select group of emerging roasters rejected the idea that coffee was a commodity, that dark roast was the only way, and that blends were inevitable.

I did (and still do) celebrate the subtle characteristics of single estate and single origin micro lots. Coffee was championed as a seasonal fruit to be celebrated, and roasters became the custodians of the farmer’s toil. As such, direct trade relationships were born.

Many of the larger established roasters were in denial that this movement would take off, and continued with the status quo. Thankfully, they were wrong. Today, there are hundreds of small roasters, and by some accounts even thousands. These figures exclude home roaster enthusiasts.

I have deliberately chosen the word “small” rather than artisan, specialty, or craft. It is important to agree on a common lexicon, and the idea that small is by default better is fundamentally flawed.

About eight years ago I watched Geoff Watts of Intelligentsia give a talk about the idea of “out-smalling” each other in the race to be the best or coolest, and how often this did not result in anything much except perhaps a whole lot of under-utilised roasters and resources. If you look up the word “artisan’” in the Oxford dictionary it describes it as being “made in a traditional or non-mechanised way using high quality ingredients”.

A brand such as Hendrick’s gin started as a small family distillery and has won countless awards for its quality product, but it’s not small anymore – it’s an internationally recognised brand. Does that still make it artisanal?

As the dictionary suggests, being artisanal has nothing to do with size. Perhaps we need to agree on common terminology to avoid such confusing perceptions that can be harmful to our industry.

In any case, for the past 12 years, Australia has positioned itself as a coffee country with Melbourne (and later Sydney) leading the world’s coffee renaissance. In many respects this has been true. The coffee gold rush now needs to deal with a new threat: over-saturation and the wake that comes with it.

The squeeze on the specialty coffee space needs to be understood in the context of the global financial markets.

One glance at any newspaper masthead, and it is clear the financial markets and the world’s economies are experiencing tough times. Money has a tendency to try and locate better returns, and apparently it is nestling itself quite firmly in the coffee segment. This has meant large corporate coffee companies, who are investing in specialty brands to compete in the current market space, or are repositioning themselves (albeit very late) as companies who are committed to the revolution.

This article features in the February edition of BeanScene Magazine. To read it in full pick up your copy here.

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