There has been lots of scary news lately in the coffee world: environmental changes, economic instability, a volatile coffee market. It’s easy to focus on what’s wrong in the coffee world. But there’s a lot right too. Good things are happening all over the place, and I am filled with hope and optimism for coffee.
There’s a saying among musicians. They say that when playing is the hardest, when you feel like it takes extra effort and focus to play well, THAT’S when you’re learning the most and when you’re actually making progress toward being a better musician. I think that’s the situation in specialty coffee at the moment: it might feel difficult, but that’s because we’re getting better.
Every coffee professional who begins to seek out good coffee research discovers the same thing: there is very little useful available research in the realm of quality coffee. This is because, in general, coffee is grown and consumed in different places. Whereas the University of California is willing to invest in wine research—since it is grown, produced, and consumed there—there has been a less unified approach to coffee quality research, partly because it’s been harder to find large entities for funding.
This is beginning to change, and fast. The past decade has seen coffee researchers and industry professionals mix on an unprecedented scale, and this interaction is leading to the beginnings of true collaborative research. The clearest and most exciting manifestation of this phenomenon is the Global Coffee Quality Research Initiative (www.gcqri.org), which represents a paradigm-shifting approach to research: collaborative funding of research from those who are quality-focused in the industry, with the results shared openly throughout the coffee supply chain. This approach, which features collaboration between industry and researchers, has tremendous potential to make a significant impact on our understanding of coffee. Already, the GCQRI has made progress against the dreaded East African Potato Defect, has published a useful and interesting literature review, and has laid out an ambitious and inspiring plan for cutting-edge coffee research in the near future. One of the major points of research is understanding existing and developing new coffee varieties—which is conveniently the next thing I’m excited about!
A personal highlight for me during the past decade was discovering the link between coffee variety and flavor. The link was most dramatically made for me in 2003, the first time I cupped coffee from the Kilimanjaro farm in El Salvador, which tasted to me like a Kenyan coffee. When I later found out that the farm had been planted with varieties from Kenya, I was floored. It wasn’t long after that the Geisha variety grown on Hacienda Esmeralda in Panama, made a similar impact by planting Ethiopian varietals. At that point, the vision was clear: many of the flavors that make true specialty coffee really distinctive are related to the genetics of the plant itself, and therefore understanding coffee variety was a key to developing coffee flavor.
Recently, I have been hearing about more research into this particular topic than any other: a week does not go by when I don’t hear about progress towards a greater understanding of coffee genetics and variety. At the same time that cutting-edge farmers are more organized than ever about selecting and planting heirloom varieties on their farms, breeders are developing better and better hybrids that include delicious flavor in their attributes. I reckon we’ll see some amazing progress in this field in the next decade, and taste some amazing things.
The Consumer Experience
Another thing which seems to be on everyone’s mind lately is the transformation of the consumer experience of coffee beyond what we’ve come to deliver at coffee bars everywhere. Some of the best and brightest baristas in the world are thinking about amazing new ways to present delicious coffee to consumers in ways that delight and surprise. The advent of more and better consumer-facing events along with paradigm busting coffee services promises to bring excitement and drama to coffee consumption over the next few years. I’ve been part of more than one inspiring conversation where coffee service professionals are thinking deeply and seriously about how to take coffee service to the next level. This is itself inspiring, and it leaves me eager to see where this will go.
These are only three of the myriad things to be optimistic about. The changes that are coming down the line, the positive element of this thing we call coffee is ever changing and full of hope. We’re using technology to bring better coffee information to more people, delving into social networking to link coffee people together, and testing new and different retailing modalities with particularly interesting results.
Coffee attracts smart, passionate people, and these people are driving us to a brighter future every single day. I can’t wait to see you there.
Peter Giuliano is director of coffee and co-owner of Counter Culture Coffee, a specialty coffee roasting company based in Durham, NC. He has worked with fine coffees since 1988. He is the immediate past president of the Specialty Coffee Association of America.