Japanese Coffee Roasters Visit U.S. Roasting Companies

By Meister, Customer Support, Counter Culture Coffee

How many of us in specialty coffee seek out the hippest new café as soon as we arrive at our destination when we travel, or hunt down the most popular local roaster to buy fresh-roasted beans for when we return to our kitchens and Chemexes? There’s no better way to learn about coffee worldwide than to explore the café culture that exists in a new place, or somewhere far from home. Last November, a group of 17 coffee professionals from Japan were able to take the ultimate tour of specialty coffee in the USA, on a trip jointly arranged by the Specialty Coffee Associations of both Japan and America. If they had sent postcards back from some of the places they visited, they might have sounded a bit like these.

POSTCARD FROM: Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, 33 Coffee Lane, Waterbury, VT

Started at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters in Vermont, visiting with Mr. Don Holly, director of roasting and quality. Tasted many different coffees, spoke of the relationships between coffee professionals, and “our mutual passion” and “desire for quality.”

The journey through American specialty coffee started at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters in Waterbury, Vermont. A leader in the U.S. coffee industry, Green Mountain is known for its near-complete dominance in the K-cup market, as the owner of Keurig Incorporated. Since its founding in 1981, GMCR has specialized in organic coffees, and roasts 100% Arabica beans at its headquarters in New England. Don Holly, Green Mountain’s director of roasting and quality, especially appreciated the opportunity to share information about his company’s impact on and place within the specialty coffee industry with the Japanese visitors—and there’s much to talk about, considering GMCR’s public status and nearly 30,000,000 pounds of coffee it sells annually.

“The best part of the time with them was as we tasted various beverages together,” Holly says, adding that they immediately “shared the naturally close relationship that all coffee professionals quickly recognize because of our mutual passion, commitment and insatiable desire for quality.”

Mr. Hidetaka Hayashi, the immediate past president and current director of the Specialty Coffee Association of Japan, emphasizes the trip’s significance in terms of studying the profitability of specialty coffee in the United States, “in order to study why U.S. specialty coffee roasters can expand their sales and enjoy reasonable profit under recent economic climate in USA.” The trip to Green Mountain was one of many stops designed to help unlock some market mysteries that have stumped coffee professionals in Japan, where the consumption of specialty coffee has declined somewhat surprisingly over the last year.

“Recently, under economic contraction, [the] total volume of coffee industry in Japan [has] been decreasing,” Mr. Hayashi says. “Sales competition among roasters in Japan has been getting severe…especially in the wholesale market. Roasters in Japan could not enjoy their reasonable profit from wholesale market.” The Japanese professionals hoped that by being able to speak with a profitable and sustainable coffee company like Green Mountain and its representatives, they will be able to apply some of the strategies and marketing tactics at home to increase sales, awareness, and the overall health of the specialty-coffee industry at home.

POSTCARD FROM: Counter Culture Coffee, 4911 S. Alston Ave, Durham, NC

Learning about “Direct Trade” and transparency in the Tar Heel state. The coffee is as good as the barbecue!

Transparency is the order of the day at Counter Culture Coffee, a wholesale-coffee roaster in North Carolina noted for its annual release of a document detailing the individual interactions the company has with its Direct Trade–certified coffee-growing partners. (Full disclosure: I work for CCC, as an educator and a member of the New York customer-support team.)

Committed to sustainability on a financial, economic, and social level, Counter Culture was a natural fit for the tourists; owner Brett Smith and customer support manager Brian Ludviksen spoke to the dedication that Counter Culture has with creating strong partnerships on both sides of the supply chain, and nurturing those relationships with a combination of professional educational programs, complete customer support, and a reputation for sourcing the highest-quality coffees, sold seasonally. Head roaster and coffee department manager Tim Hill and customer-support-team member (and 2011 United States Barista Champion) Katie Carguilo were also on hand to taste coffees with the group, and to speak about some of the exciting projects and experiments that Counter Culture is able to share with its customers, thanks to the level of trust and communication it maintains with its myriad producing partners through the Direct Trade program.

Mr. Hayashi says that transparency and Direct Trade–style purchasing are two of the things most of the Japanese coffee professionals found interesting: They were curious about how to price these coffees appropriately, both to honor the quality of the beans themselves, but also to remain competitive on the market and continue to make a profit. Additionally, they were curious about how training and support could build not only a strong foundation in the coffee shop, but also eventually lead to increased consumer interest. As a strictly wholesale coffee roaster, Counter Culture is particularly focused on providing support to its diverse collection of accounts—cafés, restaurants, and specialty markets—and has seen the benefit of remaining as active a partner on the retail side of things as on the sourcing side.

“Collaboration, partnerships and combined interests have led to advancement in coffee sciences, induction of new plant varieties and an increased level of knowledge in everything from producing, processing and shipping to buying, roasting and preparing,” Ludviksens says. “I think that the industry, as a whole, only stands to gain from more collaboration, like this.”

By sharing the collective knowledge, passion and expertise about coffee with its clientele—as well as other, unaffiliated coffee professionals through its Counter Intelligence education program—Counter Culture is ever striving to create a population of cutting-edge coffee people in the United States. (Though I think I speak for all my colleagues when I say we’d all be happy to travel to Japan for the privilege sometime, too!)

POSTCARD FROM: The Coffee Tree Roasters, 5524 Walnut St, Pittsburgh, PA

“Service” is the order of the day at the Coffee Tree in Pittsburgh, and it seems to be the main difference between “commercial” and specialty coffee in the U.S.A. (Too bad about the Steelers this year, though.)

One of the largest obstacles faced by specialty-coffee coffee professionals in Japan—and one of the issues on all the visitors minds—is a large degree of competition caused by a murky distinction that exists between different levels of the industry. Visiting Pittsburgh’s The Coffee Tree allowed the tourists to explore some of those distinctions, and how to make them, well, more distinct.

“The coffee industry in Japan has become so ultra competitive, with a blurred distinction between specialty and commercial,” Coffee Tree owner Bill Swoope, Jr. says. “Their ‘commercial’ is a better quality commercial, so [specialty roasters] are competing solely on price and aren’t making a reasonable profit margin.”

Swoope, Jr. has known several of the tourists for years through his work with the Cup of Excellence, and says he appreciated the chance to get to speak with them more formally on this topic in particular, seeing it as a great opportunity for growth, change, and development in the Japanese market. What the Japanese specialty professionals are looking for is an understanding of how coffee roasters in the States manage and overcome that type of competition, and he believes that relationships are the answer.

“The big thing is the service and the training,” he explains. “In [The Coffee Tree’s] case, we really have three separate companies that work together. We have our own retail stores, we have our own wholesale distribution service, and we’re also a service company who does work for other people. They all work symbiotically—product and service. If someone is aware of our stores and they like it they might call us for wholesale, and so on.”

“Trips like this should be very helpful for Japanese Specialty Coffee Roasters who eagerly intend to increase and develop their specialty coffee activities and to enjoy reasonable profit,” agrees Mr. Hayashi, who has himself trained specialty coffee professionals for many years, and who strives to further the industry through education and collaboration. “We could study a lot of issues which Japanese specialty coffee roasters have to find out their better solutions.”

POSTCARD FROM: Intelligentsia, 1850 W. Fulton St, Chicago, IL

The weather in the “Windy City” is perfect for drinking coffee. We met with Intelligentsia Coffee’s Director of Marketing and Communications, Stephen Morrissey, for some delicious beverages and plenty of Midwestern hospitality. We cupped a full lineup of coffees and toured the roastery, and learned about creating direct relationships with our coffee partners.

Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea in Chicago is a great destination for any coffee professional interested in learning about different aspects of American specialty-coffee. Between its Chi-town roasting headquarters and several different styles of cafés in town, as well as its numerous and disparate wholesale partners, Intelligentsia is an example of how a well-oiled coffee company can handle several different business goals at once: From sourcing and roasting high-quality coffee to designing top-notch espresso bars, to building a thriving tea brand to training and supporting its myriad wholesale accounts and a thriving e-commerce element. Additionally, the visitors got a first-hand account of the buying philosophy that drives Intelligentsia, and which has inspired many other coffee companies to adopt more transparent and direct routes to their product.

“Our director of green coffee, James McLaughlin, discussed our buying program and how our team of  buyers source coffee, [as well as] our efforts in promoting seasonal coffee, and our recent Extraordinary Coffee Workshop,” Morrissey says. (The Extraordinary Coffee Workshop is a new venture from Intelly that aims to facilitate quality through education, collaboration, and growth, by bringing coffee producers together and allowing them to learn from one another.) “We were able to talk about our practices at a fairly involved level, and enjoyed answering challenging, industry questions from the group.”

“All of the roasters…with whom we had meetings expressed their commitment to high/excellent/great quality coffee based on the transparency of information,” Mr. Hayashi says. “Especially [regarding] purchased prices from their producers.” As coffee buying practices differ around the globe—sometimes quite significantly—it can be exceptionally insightful for us within the industry to learn from each other and explore how our international peers efficiently (or not, as the case might be) create, maintain, and develop their access to great coffees along the supply chain.

POSTCARD FROM: Coffee Bean International, 9120 NE Alderwood Rd, Portland, OR

It is helpful to learn how American specialty-coffee companies can grow and still maintain their “direct” relationships with producers and high level of quality. The Coffee Bean is a great example.

For another lesson in large-scale specialty, the tour made its way to visit Portland, Ore.’s Coffee Bean International. The roasting company, which was acquired by Torrence, Calif.’s legendary coffee (and now some) Farmers Bros. Company in 2004 and named as Target’s “Vendor of the Year” in 2007, has managed to stay true to its commitment of buying high-quality coffee in the most responsible way possible. In 2009, Coffee Bean International solidified a Project Direct relationship with coffee growers in San Ignacio, Peru, and continues to develop the Project Direct program as a bridge between the roaster and its producing partners. In addition, CBI’s interest in furthering our deeper scientific knowledge of coffee as an industry is clear in its role as a founder of the Global Coffee Quality Research Initiative in 2010. (The Initiative is now called World Coffee Research.)

The ability to expand and achieve sustainable profitability while simultaneously engaging with a dynamic, developing specialty-coffee industry is something that Coffee Bean International has managed to achieve, much to the interest of the Japanese coffee professionals: While a company’s size might initially cause onlookers to classify a roaster as “commercial,” there is the true and deeper understanding that “specialty” is a mindset, not a volumetric measure that can be quantified by pounds per week. Remaining a force in the specialty market might be harder once a company transitions from a local to a national—and even a global—presence, but with the right philosophy, strategy, personnel, and logistics, it’s certainly not impossible.

POSTCARD FROM: Stumptown, 3377 SE Division St., Ste 101, Portland, OR

The West Coast has a very different small-coffee-shop “scene” than the rest of America, and many say Portland is the best coffee city in the country. We will see for ourselves when we visit Stumptown, and some other local cafés!

“We were delighted to be able to represent our evolving coffee market here in Portland,” says Stumptown’s head green-coffee buyer, Darrin Daniel, about the opportunity to open the roasting plant’s doors to the 17 Japanese professionals. “Many of the individuals on the tour are not only coffee colleagues, but are also old friends of Stumptown.”

Daniel says that most of the visitors’ questions were about how they engage in business, and how Stumptown manages to keep its own successful cafés running alongside its thriving wholesale trade. “Much of the interest was in how we take care of our customers; training, service, etc.,” Daniel says. “We also fielded a lot of questions about our new roastery and how we actually engage with our customers. Our hope was that we could communicate our core mission as a company committed to sourcing the best we can find, roasting it as well as we can and delivering it in the best possible ways.”

“Most of [the Japanese professionals], their business model are created on the strategies of sustainable coffee,” says Mr. Hayashi, explaining why issues of roaster management, education, training, and café design were of such great interest to the group, and one of the reasons this type of collaboration and cooperation among people in the specialty-coffee industry is so valuable—a sentiment repeated by almost everyone involved.  Intelligentsia’s Morrissey agrees: “We recognize the shared challenges we face as an industry, and the need to create a clearer value proposition to the consumer,” he says. “Exchanging our experience in this endeavor can only be beneficial.”

Conclusion

Gratitude to the Japanese coffee professionals who were interested in participating in this tour, and whose curiosity and dedication to quality made this unique opportunity to share coffee and philosophy a tangible reality. The list of attendees includes Mr. Kazuhiro Adachi of Adachi Coffee; Mr. Shuji Akimoto of Kyokuto Fadie; Mr. Katsuhiko Hasegawa of Nitto Coffee; Mr. Hidetaka Hayashi of the Hayashi Coffee Institute; Mr. Satoshi Hirayu of Yamatoya; Mr. Toshihide Horiguchi of Coffee KOBO Horiguchi; Mr. Tatsuya Inoue of Inoue Coffee; Ms. Yoko Itoi of Times Club; Mr. Katsuhide Izaki of Izaki Coffee; Mr. Yoshihito Kato of Bontain Coffee; Mr. Go Maeda of UCC; Mr. Kentaro Maruyama of Maruyama Coffee; Mr. Ryo Mikami of Wataru; Mr. Taro Suzuki of Saza Coffee; Mr. Kazuhiro Tashiro of Tashiro Coffee; Mr. Masanao Umetani of Maruyama Coffee; and Ms. Hisaki Yokota of Your Coffee.

The generosity and vision of unity between the Specialty Coffee Associations of Japan, America, and Europe are what inspire us to work together for the good of our industry as a whole. Hopefully, additional like-minded trips will come from the success of this one, and we will have the ability to learn from each other across borders, across cultural differences, and across the coffee table from one another.

Special thanks to the American coffee professionals who opened their doors to 17 specialty-coffee professionals from Japan: Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Counter Culture Coffee, The Coffee Tree Roasters, Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Coffee Bean International, Heart Coffee Roasters, Coava Coffee Roasters, and Clive Coffee. Connie Blumhardt of Roast Magazine was kind enough to host the group as well, and to organize a series of café and roastery visits in Portland, Ore. Collaborations like this are truly in the spirit of specialty coffee, and are what make our industry strong, growing ever stronger.

Meister Leveridge  writes for The Nervous Cook and Serious Eats, and is a customer relations representative for Counter Culture Coffee.

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