Coffee is evolving. The way it is grown and processed is evolving. The way we roast, extract and drink it is evolving. Most importantly, the general public’s interest and appreciation of specialty coffee is evolving.
As you can then imagine, it was with a dose of shock and horror that I read a comment on a social media platform recently where a respected industry old timer proclaimed that he could not think of a single improvement in the world of coffee since the 1990s. He went on to say that the more the coffee industry descended into mumbo jumbo and alchemy, the less the public would listen.
In my view, an incredible amount has happened in the past two decades; new machines that deliver far greater control over extractions, new technological developments, enhanced processing methods, improved conditions at origin thanks to development schemes such the World Coffee Organisation (ICO) Coffee Quality Improvement Program and International Coffee Agreement, improved auction formats, better access to premium beans than ever before – my list could go on. But more than anything I believe coffee appreciation has greatly accelerated in the past decade.
Every day I witness ordinary consumers choosing to reach out for heightened coffee experiences, and it’s proved. In the past 30 years, Australian consumers have gone from spending 53 per cent of their consumption dollars on services to 65 per cent today. We’re spending so much on coffee that even financial commentators have coined the term “barista economy” to describe how quality services can attract more spending dollars. The result is a booming coffee sector with general public coffee appreciation at an all-time high.
This essential progress is not only boosting Australia’s economic growth but is bringing hope and aspiration to an industry characterised by poverty and low wages at origin level. The demand for specialty coffee is creating more jobs and providing a better income for millions of coffee folk as more artisanal roasters pay a premium for high scoring green beans.
The opinion that coffee should forever remain stuck in the rut of a by-gone century’s ideology, with the joy of coffee flavour appreciation locked in the selfish clutch of a handful of coffee geeks, is frightening. Coffee snobbery and arrogance by industry professionals at any level can be intimidating for the curious customer, and potentially rob them of a truly wonderful experience. Treating the public as inferior know-nothings will ultimately hurt the very people we are seeking to uplift – coffee growers in the developing world labouring tirelessly to earn a meagre living.
I firmly believe that the specialty coffee industry of today is not like this. We are here to share our love for the bean with an enthusiasm, energy, and passion that is outgoing and contagious. We need to build confidence in our patrons to pursue their interest in coffee as a sensory adventure rather than a deadpan ritual. We must continue to build bridges between the genuinely knowledgeable industry professional and the inquisitive café customer through sharing our knowledge, sharing our experiences, and infecting them with our genuine passion for the product.
So whose role is it to make specialty coffee more approachable? Ultimately we all have a role to play, from the baristas who interact with the customer over the counter to green bean buyers who source and select the finest beans. However, there’s no one better placed to ignite the passion than us, the roaster. We get the opportunities to travel to origin and see the “back of house” of this fascinating industry. We see the wizened coffee hands deftly plucking the ripe red berries from the stalks. We watch the mesmerising rhythm of men pushing newly pulped beans through narrow washing troughs. We witness the meticulous labours of dedicated sorters and hear the eerily beautiful voices of women singing in unison as they patiently pick through the harvest. We feel the emotion as we’re surrounded by innocent smiles of hundreds of coffee kids. What’s more, we have the privilege of slurping through countless cupping bowls of a kaleidoscope of delicious coffee offerings.
It’s us, the roasters who get to open the heavy hessian sack of a new microlot and hear the beans clicking magically as they brown to perfection. As roasters we’re exposed to the incredible depth and beauty of the coffee industry every day and it’s our duty to share it in every way we can.
But how? During the past couple of years Zest has attended a number of trade exhibitions where a good proportion of the attendees are wide-eyed, curious and appreciative members of a coffee-loving public. These experiences have given us the drive to dig deep in innovation and provide engaging activities that cater to the obvious thirst for that specialty coffee knowledge and experience.
For instance, at the recent Melbourne International Coffee Expo we borrowed heavily from the wine industry and set up a Flight of Flavour experience. Seated on leather chairs around a rustic wooden table, the game of sensory analysis was explained to each eager participant. Five select microlots from estates across the globe were brewed through shiny copper V60s then dispensed with a flourish through a wine aerator into five delicate stemless wine glasses. The challenge was to try to match each glass to a microlot postcard with brief tasting notes. The participants sniffed, slurped, sipped, pondered, and, most of all, enjoyed the experience. In my eyes this activity was a great success as it achieved just what we intended – to share those gustatory wonders of special coffee with more people, and break down the barriers between “them and us”.
Rod Greenfield is the Director of Zest Specialty Coffee Roasters.