Tag Archive for 'Specialty'

Symposium, Imposium, Opposium

I have always had mixed feelings about the SCAA Symposium. And in my inimitable style, I have had them in absence of any actual experience: I never went to Symposium. It is the 2 day event before the SCAA Exposition that is billed as a meeting of Industry Leaders, and features a stacked bill of various personalities, consultants, a couple scientists, market researchers, financial experts, and interpretive dance. Okay, strike the last one.

In any case, it is an orchestrated series of presentations and panel discussions that comes with a high price tag (over $1k to come), but also high value. I had always thought it drew away from the general show,; it represented a retreat from investing in the quality of the educational discussions at the low-cost weekend event. I might still feel this way, but having just sat through my first day of Symposium, it undoubtedly has great value. And I am not just saying that because I got in free, in exchange for blogging it. There, full disclosure.

The core members of SCAA that plunge their hands into green coffee every day, the roasters, don’t get to poke their heads out of the backroom often enough. Along with the Roaster’s Guild Retreat, Symposium definitely offers a rube like myself who is always absorbed intensely in the issues of my own business to consider the broader picture … how the same issues are affecting everyone else. Even if the discussion isn’t speaking directly to me and my struggles in coffee, the benefit of Symposium can be experience tangentially. Just allowing myself to absorb the information, let it wash over me, and consider how I address whatever the speaker’s topic may be, has a certain distinct value.

We have had a lot of alternative names for Symposium, and I think some of them are pretty expressive. To a yokel like me, much of the lingo sounds like somebody went and got themselves one too many MBAs. And the results can be a bit comical too. “Where are the hotspots in your supply chain?” Or “How can we blow apart our assumptions, and make money in a whole new way?” Sounds like revolution-talk to me.

But when do you get to hear multiple perspectives on what is driving instability in the commodity market from people who focus entirely on that? How about some solid criticism of romantic notions about coffee varietals and cultivation from people with 40 years experience in a producing country? How can that not be enriching? When I consider my paltry experience with market watching, hedging coffee contracts, or on the other hand, a week or two in a producing country trying to understand all the complexities of quality and production, can that meager experience not benefit from listening to the folks on stage? Hell yeah.

So that’s part of Symposium, seeing the value in listening to other perspectives, whether you agree or not, whether you think they are relevant to your daily experience in coffee or not. We all know coffee is incredibly complicated. We all know we can’t “do it all” nor can we “know it all”. Coming together is a good humble admission of this fact. Plus, people say some hilarious things. -Tom

Bookmark and Share

Coffee Research – What is next?

I reported before on our involvement in the Global Coffee Quality Research Initiative. This is a project funded primarily by coffee roasters to advance research into improving coffee quality, and improving the volume of quality coffee produced in the world. It’s not as if there is a lack of great coffee out there, but we are definitely on the threshold of seeing production of really good arabica drop, given greater consumption and agricultural issues with pernicious pest and disease. And, despite the nay-sayers of global warming, everywhere I go farmers are commenting on changes in their local climate and how it impacts their crop.

I am lucky; I am sitting on the preliminary Research Planning Committee for the GCQRI and the nascent projects I am hearing about are intriguing. Quite a few projects involve scientific collaboration to bring new technology to the old methods of the coffee industry. NIRS (Near Infrared Spectrophotometry) is a newer tool for analyzing chemical markers and has already yielded breakthroughs in coffee research. Under GCQRI, one possible project is to form an open NIRS Database of Quality Coffee samples from all growing areas. New samples could be submitted by roasters for cost-effective and complete analysis of all the complex factors that contribute to flavor and quality, and then the sample would be indexed among all other known samples from that region, providing a global context for understanding differences in coffee flavor. It ties right into another project, described as such “Identify Main green coffee candidate molecules strongly impacting quality.” Yes, it is true. We don’t know what it is in coffee that makes it taste good. Using older techniques, we have some pretty good ideas, but many things have been left. Coffee is just so darn complex. The project design would involve rapid screening techniques on the thousands of metabolites in coffee and then set out to correlate and identify those related specifically to cup quality. When we know that, we know how to test for quality components in future studies.

Another project along the same lines involves sensory evaluation, cupping as we call it. The project is called NextGen Coffee Sensory Evaluation. Traditional descriptive cupping has it’s place; it’s how we find coffee we like, and describe it to our customers. And some biochemical screening techniques have come along lately. (Everyone recalls the press for the “electronic nose” a couple years back). But what about relating the two in order to form a broader understanding of coffee quality. In the current methods, humans do not reliably attain repeatable results in sensory analysis (I am talking about the kind of cupping that can be a basis for scientific study of coffee quality, not the kind of cupping for someone to find and describe flavors). On the other hand, current chemical evaluations might tell us if a compound is present, but doesn’t tell us what that means … and there being a lack of understanding of which core compounds relate to quality, how do we know what we are looking for? So this new technique would involve a panel of tasters that would calibrate and agree on levels of quality and flavor attributes, then run the sample through a battery of these new, rapid techniques to validate the finding.

Repeat this, and you find out exactly what chemical components are behind flavor attributes that coffee roasters find valuable. When these findings are informed by the other two project approaches I already mentioned, you form a much greater understanding of exactly what it is we find desirable in a good cup of coffee, which can then be used to discover ways to grow higher quality coffee in the producing countries.

You might ask yourself, why doesn’t all this exist already? It might, but it would be locked in a vault at Nestle in Switzerland. And nobody else has had the means to define and fund research that centers entirely on coffee quality. Producing countries focus on fighting disease and pests, and on higher yields. Both of these are important, but in the absence of a buyer’s regard for taste quality, we end up with hybrids that have robusta genes; Catimor, Sarchimor, CR-95, Ruiru 11, Castillo, Etc. It’s only this type of collaboratively funded research that can pool resources to address the concerns of quality-oriented coffee business, and by extension, all those who drink coffee because it tastes good.

Those who lift a cup of coffee to their lips and think “Boy this tastes like an economically-produced large-scale agricultural product” or “Boy, this Insant coffee is awful but I saved myself 11 minutes I would have wasted grinding and brewing a good-tasting coffee” … well, we just can’t help you. That’s the coffee experience of the ’60s and early ’70s before the rebirth of the small roaster, and we don’t want to go back to that! You can find the GCQRI site here.

-Tom posted at Sweet Maria’s Weblog

Bookmark and Share

Pay Up, Coffee Guy.

… I would write Gal to be fair, but I am referring to myself, because that is what’s happening as I travel to origin countries right now. With the NYBOT coffee market at historic highs, things have become very difficult when sourcing coffee at origin. We are paying at least $1.00 more at origin than last year, in some places as much as $2-$3 more for a pound of export coffee. You may ask yourself, “Wait, if you buy through direct relationships AKA Farm Gate, and prices are not pinned to the market, why is the market driving your prices?” Well, that’s because even the smallest producer has the option to sell the coffee to a local cooperative or multi-national mill that is buying at local market prices driven by the global coffee market. If the small grower owns their farm and picks their own coffee cherry, their real costs haven’t really gone up, but still they expect a premium price over what is paid in the local market. If they don’t own all their fruit, if they buy some of their coffee cherry from neighbors, then they are competing directly against the multi-nationals. And in many regions, Tarrazu in Costa Rica where I was last week for example, the prices for coffee cherry are very high. It’s a winning situation for the farmers, in a sense, the complete opposite scenario from 8 years ago when coffee prices plummeted to the point that abandoning a farm made more economic sense than actually tending to your harvest. The problem is the market is being driven by forces outside of the coffee trade, by speculation, by those looking to park their capital in a commodity rather than other investments or international currencies that are seen as having to great upside right now. All coffee will be more expensive as a result. But what I think we will see is that there will be a greater distinction made between hum-drum specialty coffee, fairly generic pooled regional lots that once passed as “special coffee” in the 1990s and early ’00s, and those that are produced on a small scale, with great care, and much greater costs. It’s 90% of what we buy. And until green coffee hits $10 a pound, it’s still a very reasonable deal, I think.

When I travel, I often am reminded of one idea that seems brain-numbingly basic. I thought about it a few years ago and I keep repeating it to myself when traveling to farms. It’s this: COFFEE is a word used for way, way too many things. The work, the craft, of coffee growing, processing and drying on a really small scale is so fundamentally unlikeĀ  how coffee is bulked and processed on a large scale, that using the same word for both seems inane. The differing levels of scale, and the difference in hand-work and care tendered to each, results in 2 completely different beverages as well. One is sweet, clean, aromatic and attractive. The other would be useful as a degreaser or paint stripper, if only it actually DID that, or anything else besides smell pungent and taste bitter.

I would like to officially state that I reject all terms to describe “good coffee”. Sure I use them. How can you avoid it? But I don’t feel good about myself in the morning either, writing things like “Micro Lot” or “Boutique Coffee” or “Small Batch” or “Gourmet” or what have you. Any time you take a word like Coffee and modify it to make a claim of specialness, it’s ends up cutting a fart in your face. I am sorry, that was crude. But it’s true. I mean for heavan sake’s, look at any can of coffee at the supermarket some claim of specialness is made; gourmet, for connoisseurs, special roast, etc.

So given the higher prices coming, and the greater incentive for the marketplace to conflate levels of quality and confuse people about the differences between such and such, and this and that, we’ll try to call our coffee “COFFEE”, and let all the other descriptors about the cup qualities, and the biography of the farmers, and the description of the process all stand by itself. Expect green prices to be a dollar more. Really good Kenyas are going to be around two dollars more. That’s the gist of it.

Bookmark and Share