Game Changers

The coffee industry, in many ways, is the same now as when it first became an industry. Coffee is grown, exported, imported, roasted, retailed, and consumed. But you have to admit that the SPECIALTY coffee industry today is not what it was even 30 years ago. 60 years ago it didn’t even exist. Segmenting the industry into ‘the good stuff’ and ‘the other stuff’ was a game changer in that an entire new market based mostly on the quality of the cup was born.
The definition used for a ‘Game Changer’ for this article is pretty straight forward: A thought, idea, or action that fundamentally changes how we think, create, and act in the specialty coffee industry.
Compiled in the next section are SOME of the Game Changers we have seen so far in the industry. It is not an exhaustive list. If you have a game changer that was missed, please send it to the author. The last section looks at the significant problems to be solved in the next 30 years and what game changers might be coming for that purpose.
Game Changers in the Last 60 Years
The Industrial Revolution – This brought coffee to the masses and created the reality for Americans that the day does not start without coffee. It is a subset of these drinkers that demanded more flavor and spurred the Specialty Coffee Market.
Washed Coffees – When coffee started being washed for a more consistent, efficient, and reliable way to remove the mucilage, a side benefit was the increase in acetic acid that is generated in the process. Acetic acid provided fruity flavors to some coffees and much more experimentation was done. Now there is a ‘master’ in charge of the tanks to not only know when the mucilage is coming off, but to determine how much/little acetic acid is most desirable.
Micro Lots – When fermentation became a craft, individual lots could be manipulated. It is often easier to manipulate a single lot than the bulk of a cooperative’s coffee. Farmers are now taking great care with their crops because they realize there could be a premium for a high quality single lot coffee.
Varietal Creation – In an effort to increase quality, yield, and strength of the coffee plant, labs such as the Kenya Coffee Research Foundation initiated long-term science programs to splice and cross various varietals. The results have generated hybrids that can be chosen for very specific growing goals. Some varietals like Geisha have truly put the coffee world on notice when it began winning all of the top quality awards.
The Q-Grading System – With all of the increase in quality being attempted around the world, there became a need for a common language throughout the supply chain. The Coffee Quality Institute took up the challenge. Just a few years later there are almost 3,000 Q-Graders ranging from Australia to Zambia. Now producers can talk with exporters, importers, and even roasters about their coffee. This is helping improve the quality of life at the farm level, as they become able to realize higher prices for their coffee.
Roast Profile Systems – Now that there are micro lots, a roaster has an obligation to treat that coffee like gold. They learn the Q-Language and then get to work roasting the coffee in different ways to get the best out of that particular bean. Once they have it… they have to be able to repeat it. That is where a roast profile system comes in handy. It records what you did and assists in hitting that same spot over and over.
The One-Way Valve – This small device, when applied to a coffee bag, allowed for the transition from a can to a bag and ushered in a whole new level of freshness. Now small bags of ‘right out of the roaster’ coffee can be found in grocery stores as well as retail shops.
The Espresso Machine – The discovery of this shot of liquid gold that must be manufactured under such high pressure drove a whole new way to enjoy coffee. Many years later, ‘Barista’ is a new workforce category.
All of the game changers above were originally developed to solve a problem. Most were driving quality into the coffee at some level. With the advent of the information age we live in currently, innovation will become much more dramatic and sudden.
Game Changers in the Next 30 Years
Quality will continue to be a focus, but much larger, global issues must be dealt with. Some of these Game Changers are already in final stages of development.
Coffee Rust – This disease of the plant is currently decimating farms throughout Latin America. The current best answer is to chop down your farm and start over. Companies are working on ways to use new pesticides, fungicides, and to improve farming practices to combat the disease. A Game Changer here comes with some sort of treatment that will eliminate the disease and improve the health of the tree.
Poverty / Supply Chain Enrichment – It is getting harder to turn a blind eye to the disparity of wealth from grower to retailer. Groups are developing ways to get the relationship between the consumer and the grower to be more obvious and more personal. First there was Fair Trade, then Direct Trade. Both hold to the premise that the farmer is being left out of the profit model. With the current technology, a consumer can ‘meet his farmer’. With awareness there will emerge a solution. A Game Changer here would be turning the supply chain on its head and allowing the farmer to fully participate in profits.
Food Transparency – Technology is providing us with the ability to trace our food to where it comes from and who touches it on its way to us. With potential outbreaks of diseases and certain threats against one group of people from another it is important that we are able to do this food trace. Think of the e-coli outbreaks where they can trace the head of lettuce back to the farm. The Game Changer for coffee is when we can do this because we can then engage the entire supply chain. There is ZERO chance right now of tracing coffee in certain parts of the world. If we can find the farmer, we can reward the farmer.
Climate Change – There is no question that how the growing seasons and rain patterns change matters to the coffee farmer. Someone will come up with a way to see into the future and predict the new patterns and will allow farming to be proactive to the change rather than reactive. A Game Changer here does not alter the weather, but rather, learns how to accept and work with those things we cannot change.
What are the next Game Changers that we will see over the next 30 years? You should expect to be amazed at the simplicity of some of them like the one-way valve and awed by the ingenuity of others like creating new varietals. The real question is, “What is the Game Changer YOU are going to come up with?”
Rocky can be reached at

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