Adaptation: A Brief Look At Changes In Specialty Wholesale Roasting

By Steven Lee, Director of Coffee Quality and Education, Groundwork Coffee

Not too long ago, the world of coffee was simpler. Coffee was coffee back then. It came served in nondescript cups. It came from one of those little glass pots that sat on a hotplate for hours, or it came out of an urn. It was hot, it was caffeinated, and it was coffee. It was not treated like a food item and there were very few people extolling the virtues and nuances of the perfect cup.

Even the world of specialty coffee seemed simpler back then. African coffees were “fruity or floral”, Indonesian coffees were “earthy or nutty”, and Latin American coffees were “clean or bright”. That was that. Cafés lured people in with their new fangled espresso machines and fancy drinks. They were introducing Italian into our vocabulary one drink at a time, and they were selling coffee grown in far off places like Sulawesi or Yemen, further challenging the average consumer’s geographical awareness. Coffee was a business, but it wasn’t necessarily “business” back then.

Those were my impressions, however skewed, of coffee and coffee culture in the 1990’s when I transitioned from being an art school student with no utilitarian job skills to becoming a part-time barista in the Bay Area in order to support my record buying habit.

Where did most of those cafés and restaurants get their coffee from back then?  Chances are, they got it from a wholesale coffee roaster. At the time, they seemed few and far between, and for most people, they were not in their neighborhood. You couldn’t drop by a coffee roaster to sample the product or inquire about what they did and why. Most café owners had probably never even come into contact with green coffee at that point in time.

Today, there are a lot more cafés lining the urban landscape, neighborhoods, and even strip malls. These days, not only can most baristas eloquently describe the subtle nuances in my cup; they can also tell me the appellation in which the bean was grown, the varietals grown on the farm, and the name of the farmer, in addition to which brew method works best with this particular coffee. And where are these new cafés getting their coffee? Most likely, from your local specialty coffee roaster.

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