There are a number of sayings that depict the concept; ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’, like ‘what goes around comes around’, and there is example after example that suggests the same for the fashion world. I recently remember bell-bottom jeans and the colour combination of pink and chocolate, and I was around the last time those things were the hot thing in a Sears catalogue.
The world of coffee is no different. For example, coffee bars all over North America are doing pour over coffee once again, and we can thank Mrs. Mellita Bentz for that simple little invention she created back in 1908. The way coffee bars talk about pour-over single cup brewing you would think that this was the newest thing to hit coffee culture this century. On the note of the pour-over single cup coffee concept, one could even go as far as to say that it was never really ‘out-of’ style.
Another incredibly popular coffee-thing these days in North American is ‘micro-roasting.’ The term itself takes on various definitions, but with the proliferation of macro level roasting companies all looking for their share of the market, small independents are arming themselves with knowledge and high-quality organic green coffees from around the world, prepared to take on the self-professed coffee-loving public by introducing the ‘theatre’ of roasting. These small micro-roasteries are similar in look and feel to the hundreds of small-town coffee roasters that came from the birthplace of coffee, and made their way across Europe for the past few hundred years.
I think coffee is following in the footsteps of the beer industry and I’m not the first person to make that connection. Take for example what’s happening in Portland. There are dozens of micro-breweries, and now micro-coffee roasters. These hipster-feeling coffee enclaves range in level of décor from simple and rustic to sheik-feeling tasting bars that parallel some of the world’s best martini bars. What this resurgence is doing well, is driving home the value of freshness as it translates to value in the cup. As coffee drinkers’ palates evolve, the days of roasting coffee in some plant in an industrial section of town, putting it into a box and shipping it to different points of distribution, hoping someone likes the look of your bag, are done. And I mean DONE. We put too much faith in the teenage stock-person to rotate the coffee on the shelf and all the macro-roasters are still trying to get the large majority of coffee drinkers to believe that coffee can stay fresh for 8-10 months. Quick tip to these roasters… ‘The new-age coffee drinker is far more savvy than that’.
However, with the concept of ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’ comes a new factor in the theme of evolution, a theme that has to stay in-step with the changing environmental ‘signals’ that now exist in our world, without impacting the romance and feel of what retro means to the marketing Gurus of today’s hippest brands. When the pour-over became popular once again, the simplicity of our beloved kettle was not under pressure to evolve, but the traditional coffee roaster was.
Coffee roasting at a basic level is: highly polluting, with high levels of VOC’s (volatile organic compounds) being released during the roasting process, and consumes massive amounts of energy, thus producing CO2 at rates not found with most products we enjoy daily. A small gas-fired coffee roaster that produces 30 lbs. per hour consumes approximately 500,000 BTU’s per hour (including the afterburner), which is equivalent to 10 medium size BBQ’s running on high, hour after hour. Since the turn of the 1900’s, single-pass coffee roasters have not made any marked improvements in how they use the air that’s moved through the green coffee. In fact, micro-coffee roasters use that so-called magic word ‘artisan’ to distract from the fact that their industry has not moved towards greener, and more sustainable technologies. Even worse, the manufactures of single-pass gas-fired coffee roasters want you to believe that improvements made to their highly consumptive afterburners are revolutionary, when in fact, the hotter an after-burner runs, the more GHG (green-house gasses) go up into the atmosphere. Until 2000, nobody thought to ‘close the loop’ on coffee roasting, which leads us to take note of one small Canadian company, Roastaire™ Canada, who has worked to pioneer a way to utilize the hot air (energy) leaving the roasting chamber.
The resurgence of the micro-coffee roaster, and their capability to provide real time freshness will run into barriers set by governments in the form of higher EPA standards. Coffee roasting emissions and energy consumption will be the Achilles-heel(s) of the micro-coffee movement because residents are getting protective of their air quality and how industry mistreats the air they breathe. California was once considered the toughest state in terms of emissions standards, even cars were manufactured to a whole different level in terms of their emissions system. Now, all states and provinces in North America are paying closer attention to GHG emissions, and how much energy we consume in all aspects of our lives.
It will only be a matter of time until someone starts to pay attention to the amount of energy consumed in our daily cup before the hard questions start to get asked. In the meantime, take a few months to enjoy your local neighbourhood coffee roaster, because they will not last long in urban areas without at least a few complaints coming in, and when that happens the local government will be forced to act. Consider it the price of emission.