The challenge: The highest quality coffee is produced by large, technically sophisticated companies which do a much better job at delivering fresh, consistent, good-value coffees than do most of today’s smaller specialty roasting companies.
I find I need to parse this lengthy and loaded sentence in order to comment on it.
Quality in coffee is a multifaceted thing, in large measure because of what I called “the broken chain of custody” in my book Coffee Basics. The grower, who puts in the lion’s share of the work, can do everything right, only to have the coffee ruined during shipment. The roaster then optimizes the coffee’s potential – or ruins it through over- or under-roasting, blending, incorrect packaging or grinding. Even if all of these steps are done optimally, is the coffee sold fresh, brewed at the right dosage, in good equipment with soft water heated to ideal temperature, and if so is it consumed immediately? The chances of a given coffee reaching its full potential do indeed remind me of salmon swimming upstream!
Starting near the beginning of the seed-to-cup path, sourcing the best quality green coffee depends on having extensive training in cupping so as to be able to recognize it, and then having sufficient funds to secure it in a competitive marketplace. Small start-ups typically are long on passion but short on both expertise and cash, while large, publicly-traded corporations have plenty of both but usually use them in the service of supplying coffees of consistent mediocrity.
Freshness is something that needs to be defined, and it’s one of the biggest areas where small and large roasters alike tend to cut corners. If excellence is the standard – and it should be – then only whole bean coffee at room temperature within 5-7 days of roast deserves to be called “fresh,” and certainly only such coffee deserves the designation “freshly-roasted.”
To preserve freshness beyond this very short time frame requires a large investment in technology and packaging and rigorous, consistent use thereof. One needs not only oxygen-impermeable bags with one-way degassing valves but also vacuum-packaging machine costing in excess of $50,000 to get the oxygen content within the bag below 1% before sealing, as well as an oxygen headspace meter to test packaged coffee and other equipment. Whole bean coffee thus packaged can be indistinguishable from freshly-roasted (as defined above) coffee for 2-3 months, but many roasters cut corners, either by just buying pre-formed bags and sealing them without drawing a vacuum or back-flushing with inert gas (in which case the shelf life is the same as unprotected whole beans), or by packaging their coffee correctly and then shooting themselves in the foot (and screwing their customers) through ridiculous “best by” dates of 6 months, a year, or even longer. The first practice is pervasive among small, “boutique” roasters, the others endemic among the larger players.
As for ground coffee, if you are Nestlé you have the ability to take coffee from roasting all the way to a pressurized Nespresso capsule in a sub-1% oxygen environment, preserving almost all the coffee’s aroma through precise grinding on a state-of-the-art water-cooled roller mill grinder that by itself costs more than many craft roaster’s entire roasting plants. If, on the other hand, you’re buying great coffee but grinding it for your wholesale accounts on a well-worn Grindmaster or Ditting, quality for you is basically a fantasy, not the process with clearly defined and monitored parameters that is the definition of quality in a manufacturing context.
Overall I would say that clearly the peak experiences in coffee are offered by roasters who employ experienced buyers with good access to capital and established buying relationships and who either roast and deliver their coffee on a purely local basis or have invested in (and know how to use) the equipment essential to preserve freshness. As for consistent quality, that is clearly the province of medium-to-large sized companies who buy in large enough quantities, understand the art of blending and, last not least, have made the investment in personnel and roasting, packaging, grinding and quality control equipment to deliver coffees of consistent quality. The Scandinavian countries, Germany and Japan have many such companies, Illycaffè in Italy is rightly revered for its standards, and of course here in the U.S. there are numerous mid-sized roasters who also deliver very good (and occasionally great) coffees of a consistent standard at prices consumers are happy to pay every day.
In conclusion, being small, groovy, microlot-oriented and employing staff with the right number of piercings (and selling high-priced coffees) doesn’t guarantee quality, anymore than being medium-to-large sized and driven more by bottom-line considerations than raw passion guarantees mediocrity. As with most else in coffee, it’s much more complicated than that.
For another perspective on this challenge, click here to see how Kenneth Davids responds
The Challenge: Coffee buyers for roasting companies should be doing much less travel and much more cupping, quality control and customer education.
Kevin Knox writes:
I’d put this another way. The most important tools for buying great coffee are a well-trained palate, a well-equipped cupping room, relationships with the best importers and – last not least – sufficient capital to afford to buy top coffees in season and keep them in inventory for extended periods.
I think it’s great that people in the trade want to know where coffee comes from, but I do see many small roasting companies allocating large sums of money, relative to their size and volume of coffee bought and roasted, to extensive origin travel that is clearly in lieu of – or at least at the expense of – much-needed attention to things at home.
Wanting to have, or claiming to have, a personal relationship with every farm you buy coffee from makes for great marketing but it isn’t good business, nor is it actually possible unless one limits one’s buying to a handful of farms in a couple of countries.
More important, if the goal is having the best coffee from each origin, the way to get there is to cup samples extensively and intensively in season from as broad a cross-section of farms as one can access, rather than limiting purchases to farms you bought from in previous years. In other words, “relationship” coffee or multi-year exclusives and having the best coffee are antithetical ideals. A more open approach also delivers much better value, allowing one to reward new and unknown farms doing a great job rather than over-paying for “name” coffees from farms bent on using the roaster as a vehicle to build their own brand with consumers.
Cupping, QC and customer education are the responsibilities of roaster-retailers, while producing high quality coffee at origin is the domain of farmers and agronomists. From the point of view of delivering coffee of high quality and value as well as that of being environmentally responsible and minimizing one’s carbon footprint, I would suggest that buyers for all but the largest companies would indeed be much better off spending much more time doing their jobs while letting their partners at origin do theirs.
For another perspective on this challenge, click here to see how Kenneth Davids responds
The Challenge: The latest roaster emphasis on offering high-priced microlots without also offering a core lineup of good-tasting origin coffees at decent prices is a disservice to consumers.
Kevin Knox writes:
I agree with the sentiment here but think one needs to define some of the terms in order to flesh it out and make it meaningful.
Even among the purveyors of “microlots” there’s no consensus on what the term means. It’s rather like “roasted in small batches,” which has been used to refer to roasts ranging from a few ounces to a thousand pounds or more.
A core lineup to me means excellent single origin coffees representing the four primary types of origin-derived (as opposed to roast-imparted) flavors: mild Latin American coffees, washed East Africans, dry-processed coffees from Ethiopia and Yemen, and the classic semi-washed arabicas from Indonesia. In recent years we’ve seen several well-regarded and influential “third wave” roasters restricting their offerings to a handful of washed Central American and East African coffees. Certainly cupping for clarity and refinement of flavor can lead to strong preferences in that direction, but in my extensive experience sampling coffees for both retail customers and highly-educated food and wine professionals the wine-like complexity and richness of a great Yemen Mocha or Ethiopian Harrar and the infinite depth of a first-rate Sumatra typically receive far higher accolades than the more familiar washed coffees. These are also coffees of great historical and commercial importance without which none of the newer types would exist, and I feel that their distinctive flavor and heritage make them essential offerings.
“Decent prices” is clearly an elastic concept, but to me it certainly does not include pricing 12 ounces of coffee at a full pound price (a pervasive bit of trickery that has no place in specialty coffee and evokes the famous 13 ounce and smaller “shrinking can” and brick packs from Folger’s and the like). Alfred Peet used to mandate that at least 5 coffees be retailed at prices no more than $1 a pound over average supermarket whole bean prices in order to make sure customers knew Peet’s offered good value and wasn’t snobby. I wish more roasters thought this way.
Kenneth Davids writes:
I like “micro-lots,” if what is meant by that term are coffees that 1) are small, distinctive lots that have been purchased with particular precision and care by the roaster; 2) take advantage of seasonable opportunity to maximize quality and distinction; i.e. are not limited by the need to be repeatable from season to season, and 3) are described with precision on the package, particularly in respect to botanical variety and processing method.
Whether that same roaster is obligated by industry tradition and consumer expectation to also offer a familiar lineup of fine coffee standards, i.e. a Kenya AA, a Sumatra Mandheling, a high-grown Central America, etc. is of no consequence to me. I think consumers speak for themselves through their patronage, and if a successful business can be built on nothing but fine microlots that take advantage of seasonal opportunities (and the roaster’s own taste in coffee) then I can only admire the savvy and persistence of whoever pulls that strategy off. Down the street or at another URL we can be sure that another roaster is competing on the basis of traditional coffee naming and sourcing. If a one-location roaster opens in some small market and succeeds with primarily microlots then we can be sure that there is Starbucks and other biggies like Peet’s or Green Mountain or Caribou lurking somewhere else on main street or a nearby strip mall offering the traditionalist the usual choices.
It’s hard to say whether micro-lots typically are “better” than coffees offered with under traditional, more general nomenclature by larger roasters, mainly because some roasters specializing in micro-lots are much more consistent with their quality than others, just as some larger roasting companies are more consistent in quality than others. But I can vouch for the fact that the flexibility of the micro-lot concept – run across a smaller lot of great coffee, print a label, put up a paragraph on the website, roast it and sell it fresh until it’s gone – allows for considerably more freedom to experiment with unusual coffee types than allowed by the often ponderous, slow marketing systems of some larger roasters, where marketing departments may insist on literally months of notice to prepare marketing and packaging for some new offering. Meanwhile any opportunity to sell thirty bags or a hundred or even a container of a really exceptional or different coffee has vanished and that coffee is buried in the stream of more conventional products.