2012

The Natural State of Coffee – A Contemplation of Grounds, Leaves & Fertilizer.

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12_12 3-BI’m getting older. I paid $1.25 for a “nickel” Hershey Bar the other day. Things change. On the other hand, the $4.50 latte appears to be here to stay. Even in these hard times consumers, particularly the young, have determined that they are willing to reach into their pockets for a beverage that brings them joy. That too, is a harbinger of good things to come for the roasting retailer and independent roaster, for our future is cheek-by-jowl linked to the consumers’ interest in the goods we make and sell. The economy is still rough, and I keep finding myself remembering my Dad talking about the coffee business during the Great Depression when coffee sold for 25¢ a pound; 5¢ cup. The plain old nickel cup from the corner news stand is now a buck. The Old Man would have found that funny.

A 36% decline in green coffee prices over the last 12 months has buoyed the spirits of small independent roasters as the cost of raw goods has come back to earth, and accounts payables have come out of the stratosphere to more manageable levels. As I write, the Exchange price for March 2013 is hovering at levels that most farmers and most roasters can accept as livable. The free flow of cash from inventory permits investment in equipment, new products, advertising and personnel that was unthinkable during the last 2 ½ years. It is a well-met asset thaw that bodes well for the future of the community.

There are new roasting businesses in every nook and cranny of the country. Recently an old coffee curmudgeon of my acquaintance mentioned that if you turn over a rock with your shoe there is a decent chance you will find a new roaster beneath it. There are many new entrants for sure, and this is a good and healthy thing. It indicates that there are folks who have the faith, nascent ability, dedication, and strength of purpose to make a place for themselves in coffee. Where there is new blood, there is hope for the future of this stuff we love.

More and more technology is creeping into the roastery. The roasting man is seen more and more often checking the progress of his roast on his iPad. Environmental management of roasting bi-product appears to be taken seriously by a growing number of small roasters who have felt ambivalent in the past about the smoke, ash, and smells that are the byproduct of coffee roasting. This is as much a result of peer pressure, and consumer interests as it is the result of municipal codes. It is good business to run a clean, environmentally sensitive business, and we are learning that year-by-year, which is a good thing.

Espresso is an everyday thing in most parts of the USA now, and it is a rare roaster that does not blend and roast at least one item for espresso use. In an interesting development Robusta, shunned twenty years ago by any specialty roaster worth his salt, has a growing acceptance now in Italian style espresso blends. Interestingly, the American style espressos are identified with pure Arabica blends. There was some talk a while back about the acceptance of Robusta beans as specialty coffee. That conversation will continue, and probably get louder.

The marketing of environmental sensitivity is seen in the choices many roasters are taking in the way they present themselves to their customers. Kraft paper and hand-crafted looking laminated valve bags and packing material has grown in use, as it gives the impression of corporate environmental sensitivity, small company hand-crafted goods, and down-home neighborliness. Many of these efforts are successful. Sadly, few are more than window-dressing to improve the public acceptance of goods offered for sale. Still, awareness of the public’s desire to seek out the goods of environmentally sensitive businesses is a big step away from a callus profit-driven interest and toward a higher plane of coffee consciousness.

The development of green coffee extract as an ingredient in food supplements and beverages will be of continuing interest. This phenomenon of a weight loss ingredient hit the weight watching scene back in April, when Dr. Oz introduced millions of viewers to it on his television show. Green coffee bean extract, which seems to be primarily chlorogenic acid and caffeine, is now being marketed as a dietary supplement by many food supplement and natural vitamin companies. So far Starbucks is the only prominent roaster to have added coffee bean extract to its product mix. It is an ingredient in Starbucks’ new Refreshers beverages and in complimentary VIA instant beverage packets.

Roasters will be watching more than their shades this coming year. Leaves are much on their minds also since Starbucks, owner of the Tazo tea brand since 1998, has opened a Tazo tea store in Seattle’s University Village shopping area. They followed this concept store with the announcement that Starbucks will acquire Teavana, Teavana’s 300 small shops specialize in tea leafs, tea beverages, and tea accessories. The chain, sprinkled in mostly mall locations throughout much of the country, expected to make $220-230 million dollars this fiscal year. Nobody’s betting like Mitt Romney on this, but my nickel is on Teavana outlets becoming Tazo-branded stores before long. Some roasters have been offering loose teas for years, while others offer only tea bags to their wholesale customers. It is a fair guess that we are all going to be more interested in teas of every type and description in the coming year than we have been in the past year.

Among the rare and exotic items that may find its way into North American blends this year is Kopi Luwak, the stercoraceous Indonesian coffee delicacy that has been imitated in Peru and Vietnam after production was juiced in recent years since being featured in the 2007 film The Bucket List. The Indonesian item has taken a public relations hit from the UK newspaper The Guardian, which reported on allegations of animal rights abuses at civet farms in Indonesia. Likewise, the Associated Press has made us aware of Thailand’s Black Ivory coffee (cultivated from elephant dung) that hits the fan this year. At $500 a pound, this exotic adds considerably to the available volume of this type of item which may put downward pressure on the pound price of this class of goods. I have not cupped Black Ivory, but I have pondered if it is good to the last dropping.

12_12 3-AAuthor and Roaster’s Guild founder, Donald Schoenholt, is said to have an unerring sense of coffee, coffee history, and coffee continuity—but no sense of humor. He will deny this. He believes he is quite droll. Mr. S., celebrating his 50th anniversary in coffee, can be found round the roasting room at
www.gilliescoffee.com.

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