Not many people are aware that the Boston Tea Party was partly responsible for the U.S. becoming the coffee consuming country it is today. After American colonists threw crates of British tea in the harbor on December 16, 1773 to protest the Tea Act, it was considered unpatriotic to drink tea and coffee became the preferred beverage in the New World.
In 2014, 61 percent of Americans drank coffee daily. And 34 percent of those selected gourmet varieties to get their daily caffeine buzz. With the rise of the craft coffee movement, single-origin beans, terroir, aroma and tasting notes became part of the lexicon; coffee has become the new wine.
Approximately 25 million farmers and workers in more than 50 countries are involved in producing coffee today. Although coffee is one of the world’s most valuable commodities, the majority of farmers struggle to make a living. Production costs are high, the process is labor intensive and the market is unpredictable. And Mother Nature doesn’t always cooperate. The recent coffee rust fungus (roya) in Central America and drought in Brazil have destroyed thousands of acres of coffee farms.
Coffee has evolved from first wave roasters like Folgers and Maxwell House who popularized freeze-dried and ground coffee to second wave roasters like Starbucks who introduced Americans to “specialty” coffee drinks to today’s third-wave roasters who brew artisan coffee. The third wave emphasizes the concept of terroir, the relationship with the farmer, the roasting process and finding the best brewing machines that highlight the bean’s taste characteristics. This certainly isn’t your grandmother’s coffee.
Following the rise of the farm-to-table movement, biodynamic wines and organic chocolate, conscientious consumers are now demanding environmentally sustainable coffee. A certified “sustainable” coffee guarantees that farmers are given a fair price in exchange for meeting certain standards. To meet consumer demand, coffee roasters are increasingly looking to use only sustainable beans.
Companies like San Rafael, California’s Equator Coffee are based on that principle. More than 50 percent of their coffees are certified Organic, Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance or some combination of all three. Equator establishes relationships with growers, offers microcredit loans to their farmers, and their farm in Panama supports the local economy. Blue Bottle, Ritual Roasters and Four Barrel bypass Fair Trade and buy all their beans directly from farmers, also known as direct trade, allowing farmers to negotiate their own prices.
As consumers demand better quality coffee, new innovations and technology are not only changing the way we drink our coffee, but also the way it’s produced.
To achieve quality and consistency during roasting, many roasters are participating in an open source project from Google called Artisan Visual Scope. The software records, analyzes and controls roast profiles. An automated logging system tracks moisture levels and temperature changes on a sample roast. After cupping, roasters can either apply the data to a production roast or adjust the variables to rework the taste profile.
Even high-quality, perfectly roasted artisanal beans are susceptible to imprecise brewing. This has spawned a market for single-cup brewing machines engineered to make the perfect cup of coffee every time. Seattle-based Coffee Equipment Company’s $11K Clover began appearing in several independent cafés back in 2006. Using Clover, baristas could control coffee strength, water temperature and brew time. Coffee geeks raved that the machine brought out coffee’s flavor characteristics. In 2008, Starbucks purchased Coffee Equipment Company, making it difficult for independent cafes to find replacement parts for their machines.
At half the price of the Clover is San Francisco-based Blossom Coffee’s Blossom One Brewer. Baristas can still control variables like coffee strength, temperature and brew time, but the Blossom One also maintains the same temperature throughout the entire brew process, removing bitterness from the coffee. Roasters can create and store recipes using the Blossom app and print corresponding QR codes on coffee bags. Alpha Dominche’s futuristic Steampunk 4.1 ($15K) features four brew chambers, called crucibles, each of which can brew a different coffee simultaneously. Baristas input recipes and can control variables via a touch screen.
Even if you don’t live near an artisan roaster, getting top quality coffee beans is only an Internet subscription away. Craft Coffee, for example, delivers customers a box containing beans from three different roasters or beans from one roaster. Their specialists blind taste 50 coffees each month and deem only three of high enough quality to make it into their boxes. Seattle-based Bean Box offers four bags of hand selected artisan coffee from premium independent roasters in Seattle, including roaster profiles, tasting notes and brew guide. Bean Genius selects a 12-ounce bag of coffee for subscribers based on a palate profile quiz in which users choose four to eight favorite flavor notes. Customers offer feedback on the coffee so the bean genius algorithm can make better recommendations in the future.
To compete against omnipresent Starbucks, the CUPS app for iPhone and Android offers various monthly coffee subscription plans in conjunction with participating independent coffee shops in the New York metro area. Think of it as Netflix for java. Their $120 dollar plan offers unlimited coffee drinks for the month! The only caveat is users must wait 30 minutes between orders.
Beyond black coffee
Consumers are also responding favorably to the numerous new, and sometimes wacky, coffee drinks on the market. The smoothness and low acidity of cold brew coffee has been popular for years, but recently brewers like Stumptown Coffee Roasters and Cuvée Coffee have started serving cold brew from a keg injected with nitrogen. The result is a smooth creamy coffee reminiscent of a hand-poured Guinness. Austin based start-up Coffer has created a fizzy cold brew coffee through fermentation. Cold brew is mixed with cane sugar and yeast. The result is described as refreshing and effervescent. Prefer your latte a little chunky? Visit Korean-based chain Caffe Bene’s in New York for a five-grain coffee latte made with sesame, barley, black beans, brown rice and soybeans. And Dave Asprey’s Bulletproof Coffee, a mixture of coffee, grass fed butter and MCT oil, claims to curb users appetite and boost brainpower. Praised by some and criticized by others, Asprey’s Bulletproof Coffee shop is scheduled to open in Santa Monica, California in February.
Who knows what the future holds for the artisan coffee industry. Coffee delivered by drones? An alarm clock and coffee brewer in one? One thing is for sure; it’s definitely time to put that Mr. Coffee away.
If you’re a local coffee startup, we’d love to hear from you. Bon Appétech Conference will be a great way to connect with industry stakeholders, large brands and influential decision makers. We are hosting a startup expo where entrepreneurs can showcase and launch new products, including coffee innovations. More information available at www.bonappetech.com
Post image copyright 2015 by Steve Harris. See full license for use.