There and Back Again: A Coffee Decade Comes Full-Circle

By Nick Cho

This past decade has been busy for our specialty coffee industry. While reminiscing about the past is a bit arbitrary, there’s a growing sense that we’re entering into a new period within the industry necessitating a status-check. Such changes are evident in the way that many consumers perceive and engage coffee. Likewise, there has been a change in the industry’s leadership and cultivation of those consumers. However, there are observations on the industry-side of things that are worth our effort, and which may be helpful in predicting our future.

One of the most interesting ways to look at these things is to observe the arc that significant factors have taken over the years. While declaring a “renaissance” of any of these individual phenomena is surely an overstatement, when looking at them in sum, along with other such trendings, you may start to see the makings of a certain sort of maturing; of coming full-circle. So to begin, let’s take a look at one of the more attention-grabbing cases: coffee industry competitions.

Competition

If you’re a recent entrant into the specialty coffee world, or if you’ve only now started paying attention to such things, you might think that the World Barista Championship (WBC) has always been the pinnacle of espresso-making on display that it is today. Indeed, the recent competitors at this global contest have been truly impressive by any standard. This wasn’t always the case.

There are a few dozen folks within the industry today who remember that a decade ago, the latte art on the WBC final’s round cappuccinos were mediocre, the espressos were thin and bitter, and the presentations comparable to gag-reel outtakes from the American Idol auditions. At some of the US Barista Championship national competitions and regional feeder contests, dropped trays full of cups seemed a daily occurrence. One of the most common mistakes seen during those early years were nerve-wracked competitors taking the water used to pre-heat their ceramic cups and dumping it onto the top of their espresso machines instead of into the drain trays. It was a miracle that none of those machines exploded in a cloud of 220-volt short-circuiting!

Meanwhile, the organizing bodies behind these competitions were going through their own stresses. After all, we’re coffee professionals, not event coordinators or referees. Those early years were administrated by well-intentioned, but wholly overwhelmed, volunteers and staff. In only one example of administrative oversight, the 2006 World Barista Championship began without awards for any of the competitors! Event organizers scrambled for some sort of solution, and settled on a set of plastic statuettes depicting a local species of mountain goat ascending an equally plastic rock pile, sourced from a local souvenir shop. Spectators and competitors alike may not remember who finished 4th or 5th place, but they certainly remember the goat trophies.

With the proliferation of latte art, it was only a matter of time before competitions emerged around this display of skill. The World Latte Art Championships were one of the first organized competitions, with the latte art competitions held at Coffee Fest trade shows becoming a regular fixture on the competition calendar. It was during the 2007 SCAA Conference at the Intelligentsia Los Angeles Roasting Works that a more informal iteration was born: the latte art “throwdown.”

Since those early days, a bevy of competitions which pit baristas against each other have flooded the industry, from regularly scheduled latte art throwdowns held in various cities and towns, to a World Siphonist Championship held in Japan, where competitors brew coffees on coffee siphons, a popular term for the newest designs for vacuum brewing. The World Brewers Cup is a free-form brewing competition, where competitors display their manual-brewing skills and are judged on taste and presentation. Alcoholic spirits and coffee are brought together for the World Coffee in Good Spirits championship. There are also competitions for making ibrik, or Turkish-style coffee. Various attempts at replicating “Iron Chef” in a coffee context have popped up as well.

Industry competitions aren’t limited only to baristas and coffee-making. One of the most well-known is the Cup of Excellence (COE), now taking place in nine countries, where coffee producers submit green coffees to be cupped and scored in progressive rounds, culminating with the best lots being automatically tendered to an online auction with buyers from around the world. Despite the oversimplification of the comparison, consumers continue to see the COE as the Oscars of coffee, and as designator of the best coffees in the world. The SCAA Coffees of the Year, Roasters Choice, Best of Panama, Crop of Gold, and various Taste of Harvest cuppings also serve as competitive events for green coffee producers, awarding top scorers with prestige and attention, important commodities that distinguish them from a crowded pack.

For both barista competitions and green coffee competitions, the events themselves are only the tip of the iceberg in their value and impact. The early years of competitions produced winners who did not actually have a clear picture of why they had won. Never before had anyone asked them to produce results of such high quality, so the corresponding skills and processes were not yet clearly defined. As competitions progressed, variables were explored, and the wealth of knowledge developed at the various competitions trickled out to the industry and pushed the boundaries of how we define coffee quality.

WBC score sheets have been adapted to serve as training tools for baristas worldwide. The dominant success of coffee from Hacienda La Esmeralda in Panama at the Best of Panama and SCAA Coffee of the Year events inspired a rush of research and experimentation with heirloom coffee varieties. The Cup of Excellence introduced many small holder coffee farmers to roasters and coffee buyers, leading to strong and lasting relationships that extend far beyond the commerce of green coffee trading. Recent events such as the World Brewers Cup have already motivated manual-brewing enthusiasts to revisit assumptions and rediscover the fundamentals established over 40 years ago. Next year will bring the debut of a roasting competition to the world stage, which will surely bring forth a new awareness of the skills and disciplines unique to the craft.

But beyond those triumphs is another circle of influence that has enriched our industry in lasting ways. The very existence of these competitions makes the presumption that there’s such a thing as “excellence” in coffee at all, and a necessary function to define what “quality” means in relevant circumstances. The width and breadth of our diverse coffee industry has made defining quality a complicated (and often contentious) task. What these various coffee competitions have achieved, somewhat subversively, is to propose these criteria as best practices, subject them to public scrutiny, and then establish them as true standards for the industry. We can easily take this for granted today, only because they’ve been so successful.

But not all industry standards are born from competitions.

Standards & Certifications

The dictionary defines “standard” as 1. A level of quality or attainment, and 2. An idea or thing used as a measure, norm, or model in comparative evaluations. Both of these meanings are critically important to the business of specialty coffee, but while some have been harder fought than others, all of our industry standards have seen their ups and downs. Also worth exploring are the various certification programs in our industry, most of which pertain to green coffee imports, but with a growing number of professional certifications and credentials that individuals can earn.

People in the specialty community often mention “C” quality coffee as some sort of pariah, as the low-quality antithesis of our high-quality specialty coffee. The fact is, “C” quality certification and its “European Prep” standard counterpart from the Old World, while indeed falling below SCAA standard, still represent a standard that pertains to a large percentage of the total coffee market, and a corresponding large percentage of coffee production from farmers and cooperatives.

Beyond those, a score of green coffee certifications dot our industry landscape. Bird Friendly or Shade Grown, Starbucks C.A.F.E. practices, Rainforest Alliance, and UTZ certification all try to address sustainability issues in the growing, cultivation and processing of coffee. Organic certification also addresses sustainability and traceability from the farm to the roasting plant. Fair trade certification has popped up in the news again recently, this time for Fair trade USA’s resignation from Fairtrade International (FLO).

Fair trade has been a fascinating and controversial topic in the specialty coffee sector, particularly at the leading edge of micro-roasters. Fair Trade USA certification establishes minimum prices paid for green coffee, and historically required the coffee to come from a cooperative. In a fast-changing market and eager for differentiation, many roasters chose to reject Fair trade as doing too little and focus on developing an alternative. As a result, the term “Direct Trade” emerged to describe this new and improved way to purchase green coffee. As quickly as it emerged, however, the Direct Trade concept suffered from a lack of established and recognized standards, co-opting from companies eager to jump the latest bandwagon, and general confusion about what it did and didn’t mean.

Interestingly, Fair Trade USA’s departure from FLO could be seen as a long-overdue response to the demands of the domestic marketplace. Free from the constraints of FLO’s standards for fair trade, Fair Trade USA (now called “Fair Trade for All”) followed the resignation with news that their first change would be elimination of the cooperative requirement. This addresses one of the major complaints that many specialty buyers have had with the FLO standard; the requirement that coffees come from cooperatives excluded many smallholder farmers, in producing countries with smaller marketing budgets.

The SCAA has a standard for specialty coffee (free from most defects and cupping at a score over 80 on the SCAA cupping form), but it’s a standard for green coffee quality alone. Look “across the pond” to the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe’s (SCAE) definition of specialty coffee and you see a mission statement instead of a coffee standard. Beyond those of the SCAA and SCAE, your search for a specialty coffee standard ends.

There is a SCAA standard for water, critically important when a cup of coffee is over 98% H2O. There are also standards for brewed coffee, also known as the Gold Cup, for both the SCAA and SCAE, which involve standards for coffee brew strength and the amount extracted from coffee grounds, but neither describes what a cup of specialty coffee is or tastes like. Not that such a description is necessary or even plausible, but it is the sort of thing a new entrant to the industry or a coffee consumer might look for from the leading trade associations for specialty coffee in the world.

Only a few years ago, people learned by reading the few books available out there, reading each other’s blogs, and debating the issues on online discussion forums. The arbiter of the truth was he who could outargue and outlast the crowd in the consistently male-dominated sandbox. Even those who stayed out of the fray would still read the discourse, mainly because it was one of the only ways to learn anything for the average newbie. Around 2009, those forums lost their cachet and activity declined for most, just as Twitter and Facebook were growing in popularity, but the dust seemed to be settling from the rough-and-tumble culture of the last decade.

In its place, a new generation of coffee professional is entering the industry, much less interested in debate or squabbles. Curiously, what newcomers seem to seek more than anything is an honest-to-goodness education. While in the prior decade it was trendy to reject entities like the SCAA as being the “establishment,” SCAA education today is more in-demand than ever before, and the recent development of Roasters Guild and Barista Guild certification programs is all the more timely.

The SCAA Instructor Development Program, or IDP, is a professional credential program developed by Ellie Matuszak, SCAA Director of Professional Development, and Ildi Revi, SCAA Education Manager, that equips participants with useful skills like managing classrooms, designing and leading presentations, and applying principles of adult learning and instructional design—all vital tools for anyone who trains or teaches others as part of their job. This course has been one of the most popular that the SCAA offers. While not directly coffee-related, it has been profoundly useful in the progress of the SCAA education programs, as well as for people to take back to their companies.

The Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) has its Q Grader program, which involves certifications for both individuals and green coffee. After successful completion of a week-long series of exams and classes in cupping, sensory acuity, green coffee grading, and roast analysis, certified Q Graders are qualified to grade samples seeking a Q Certificate. While the Q Coffee System side of the program is still in its early stages, over 1,000 Q Graders have been certified through this program, with hundreds added each year.

Our industry standards are indeed experiencing a resurgence, fueled by a desire and demand for foundational education and training, and the growing participation in professional certification programs. This has followed a period where we expended a great deal of energy seeking to define ourselves and our industry segment, into one where we rediscover what’s truly important to us and to our businesses.

People

The specialty coffee industry has changed much in the past 15-20 years. As we’ve been learning, we’ve also been using our customers as an ongoing test market. As our understanding about coffee quality changed, our message to our customers has also changed. Often, if their response to our message didn’t fit our expectations, we’d dismiss them as “not getting it.” (Though we might end up eventually abandoning that idea for something new a few months later anyway!)

But things are starting to steady. The upgrade fever that would lead us to buy the latest and greatest espresso machine or roasting control system every few years has faded away for most. And now that most of our equipment performs the tasks we want, we simply want them to be reliable and durable. Novelties like cloyingly fruity coffees are giving way to more balanced and complex coffees. The newest trend in espresso tamping techniques is a simple single straight tamp, a departure from the complicated 12-step tamp-and-tap-and-twist-and-tamp of the past. The more that we learn, the less we seem to need to worry ourselves, and the more we can focus on applying our knowledge to produce excellent coffees.

As making excellent coffee is becoming more straightforward and our movements more simplified, our eyes look up to meet the gaze of our customers, and we realize that we’re in a different place than we were a few years ago.

We’re able to refocus on providing our customers with not just the most amazing coffees they’ve ever encountered in their lives, but with a renewed interest in providing them the best service and personal experience we can.

Recently launched specialty coffee companies are hatching with a new message for their customers to distinguish them from other established brands; “We will be accessible and attentive, never pretentious or rude.” A renewed attention back to our customers, seeing them less as potential converts and more like real people, helps both our day-to-day business and our engagement with the buying public.

Our specialty coffee community is indeed showing signs of maturing. Coffee industry competitions are past their novelty phase, and they’re now seen as critical vehicles for development of coffee professionals around the world, as well as the place that industry standards are born and tested. Standards and certifications give a cornerstone to our industry, allowing us to build upon that foundation.

But my favorite development over the past few years has been the global community that is specialty coffee. While our industry’s past decade seemed chock full of scandal, strife, turf wars and egomaniacs, those seas have calmed, and the community now seems stronger than ever. New arrivals to the industry are always amazed by the passion and heart of those in our community. It’s heartening to see so many in the specialty coffee industry—those who grow our coffee, those who drink it, and all those in between—working together toward our collective calling: to add to the lives of everyone we touch. While watching cable news makes me nervous about current events, I’m glad that there’s so much goodness in the specialty coffee industry!

Nicholas Cho is the brewing, barista training, and retailing specialist for Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters in the San Francisco Bay Area. Over the past few years, Nicholas served as a director on the Barista Guild of America’s Executive Council, on the SCAA’s Board of Directors, and on the World Barista Championship Board of Directors. He currently serves on the SCAA Standards Committee, and hosts a podcast for coffee industry professionals at Portafilter.net.

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