Regardless of Size, Only the Passionate Rule

by Kenneth Davids

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.

Neither size nor technical sophistication assures quality. Only the obsessive and unrelenting commitment of a company’s leadership assures a steady output of high-quality, distinctive coffees. Some companies, regardless of size, produce such exceptional coffees on a regular basis; others produce good coffees always and exceptional ones now and then; far too many produce little but mediocrity.

The original model for specialty coffee came courtesy of Alfred Peet in 1966, which is roasting fine, distinctive coffee at the back of the store and walking it up to the front to sell it fresh out of the roaster. Today there are small companies that have successfully revived this model, in some cases successfully updating it by selling via the Internet. They buy small lots of very fine coffee, roast them skillfully using skillful hands-on artisan roasting, and ship them fresh. Some of these companies have produced coffees that without a doubt are among the most memorable coffee experiences of my life, and rank as genuine triumphs of almost transcendent artisanry stretching from small producer through boutique importer to boutique roaster. On the other hand, second-rate versions of the archetypal boutique roaster abound, companies that buy mediocre green coffees on the bad advice of an importer and roast ‘em ‘til they’re brown – or, more usually, black. These companies are on the wane or changing, as they are pushed by the latest generation of smaller coffee roasting companies that buy with more precision and roast with a more careful and lighter hand, but there still are many of them around.

And even the good boutique roasters face the challenge of growth. At a certain point volume increases until the small-scale, roast-and-sell-them-fresh model doesn’t work anymore, and the company either has to start buying expensive packaging equipment to assure a longer shelf life (see Kevin Knox’s excellent companion blog to this one for details), or slow down and stay small, which I can imagine is almost as difficult a business proposition as getting big enough to afford a minimum of about 70K of new packaging and testing equipment.

Or these companies may be tempted to take the easy way out to expansion, which is packaging coffee in valve bags without equipment to properly evacuate oxygen and instruments to monitor it, subsequently allowing it to sit on store shelves or in back rooms until it’s half stale. There is a whole segment of the specialty coffee industry, new and old, that appears to handle coffee this way. These same companies often apply similar carelessness to buying green coffees and roasting them. They produce some of the least impressive whole bean coffees in the country, but you can’t tell that from reading the bags, which may be full of staling coffee on the inside but display a lot of fluff on the outside about buying the finest coffee and roasting it in small batches.

Maybe the consistently best coffee in the country is produced by a handful of companies that are large enough to afford top-end packaging lines and obsessive enough to actually take the time to source top quality, distinctive green coffees. These companies range in size from medium-small to very large. The road to excellence is easier for the smaller ones because their volumes are smaller and they can be more selective in their green buying, but what remains most important, regardless of size, is the commitment leaders make to the demanding, unrelenting attention required to put out well-sourced, well-roasted, well-packaged coffee.

Then there are the big commercial companies that turn out canned roast-and-ground coffees. These coffees are a clear case of garbage in and garbage out. Unless it is a 100% Colombia, the coffees that fill the plastic roast-and-ground supermarket cans are objectively and unarguably bad. But the companies that produce them have amazing technical capacity – for example, they can turn Robusta coffees that literally taste like stinking, two-week-old compost into dull, tasteless brown water. That is a genuine technical achievement. I’m quite serious. It is difficult to pull off, but it lets people on a severe coffee budget get stimulated relatively cheaply and without gagging while giving investors a decent return on their money.

Finally, a word on what are probably the most technically sophisticated coffee companies in the world, the big European espresso roasters. To my taste, the best among these espresso giants is Nespresso, with its intimidatingly good and distinctively different range of espresso capsules. On the other hand, for me Illy Caffè is a triumph of technical sophistication aimed at a regrettably limited goal: a consistently characterless espresso, as technically perfect but as limply elegant as a French academic painting from the 19th century.

For another perspective on this challenge, click here to see how Kevin Knox responds

This entry was written by:Kenneth Davids and posted on Monday, July 25th, 2011 at 1:24 pm and is filed under Coffee Business: Roasting and Retailing, Industry Issues and News, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

10 Responses to “Regardless of Size, Only the Passionate Rule”

  1. frappe says:

    Coffee is an art and no machine can replace, passion and heart is the essential elements for the barista

  2. Nelson says:

    Passion is laways the key factor to make coffee and tea

  3. Emery Coffee says:

    I totally agree with the post. It is the same in any industry. Only those businesses with an unwavering commitment to excellence ever excel. The rest just do business. And in a field were we consume the result of their mediocrity (or worse), well….enough said. Visit us and taste from those in pursuit of perfection.

  4. Lucia says:

    If you have a chance email me. I am in search of who you thin the best coffee roaster is.we used batdorff for years until in our really small town another coffee shop opened up and decided to use the same company. I want to be different and in these harsh times it’s hard to make it so who do you recommend as far as great roasting companies. Thanks for any insight I love reading your reviews

  5. Arjuna says:

    I totally recommend Organo gold. For quality, taste and health –

  6. Carol Krause says:

    your website is not working, most pages give a server error,The server encountered an internal error and was unable to complete your request. and Jrun closed connection, including your contact page

  7. my coffee kick says:

    Im in the process of setting up my own coffee supply business , and after working with and later running the sales side of the for-mentioned italian brand for 11 years tend to agree. Technical art work is what i like to think the coffee is, yet lacking in the choice that the smaller supplier can offer. The problem we (the small people)all face is the commercial deals that the big brands offer like free machines free cups…. looking at the landing prices to resale prices trust me NOTHING IS given FREE….
    Brain washing and creating the coffee mysticism from suppliers has grown quite considerable in the uk over the past ten years. I for one like to deal in ‘fact and not fiction’ by educating people about the reality of coffee and different brewing methods.

    Certain SELF REGULATING bodies have a lot to answer for in not making learning more accessible to people who want to raise the bar in serving a better cup, you need a small mortgage to learn.
    So if we want to create a better bench mark for the general public who are the ones this is all aimed at then the relevant bodies should do some marketing initiatives behalf of the growers. THERES A WHOLE LOT MORE THAN ESPRESSO ……

  8. Consistency is always the hardest part of any small high quality operation in the food industry. Roasting coffee is a challenge to begin with and roasting enough in a consistent manner makes the job harder. It is good to see a few very good boutique shops and online roasters succeeding in such a competitive market.

  9. k-cups says:

    Alfred Peet is amazing. Can you imagine how boring coffee would be if it weren’t for him making his specialty coffee. He truly changed the industry and I love it. Specialty coffee is like buying a luxury suv over a cheap suv. It just spruces up things and gives coffee much more options that are so much better.

Leave a Reply