Wednesday, April 26, 2006

third and beyond

so i asked a question at an online coffee forum i haunt that i thought i'd posit here. what is the future of the specialty coffee industry? more to the point, what product or small set of products, or small but significant mind shift is taking place right now in the industry that will reverberate and echo deafeningly, defining this industry in the five, ten, twenty years to come?

here are my humble submissions, in no particlar order.

while one would be tempted to say "cup of excellence" as a major leap forward for speccoffee, coe is the manifestation, not the root. it is the vehicle for a groundswell that, i believe, will overtake and swallow any one such program. that groundswell--maybe ten years off--is the emergence of highly branded coffee, a la the wine industry. the beauty of coe is that it is beginning to begin to shine the spotlight on heretofore obscure farmers and farms for the first time. everyone knows kona and jamaica blue mountain and the cat poop coffee. but now a fazenda santa ines will shine and burn bright for a while, maybe recapitalizing on that new found glory next year and building a dynasty, or maybe not. and then guatemala's winner and honduras' winner and nicaragua's winner will join brazil's in global awakening of coffee as other than commodity and we in the industry will hold our breath and hope for more. because you see, we don't all have to serve a cup of excellence coffee to benefit--even if indirectly--from the fruits of that global awareness. and, unlike fair trade, strong branding among coffee farms/farmers is the ultimate little guy booster.

clover. again, tempting as it may be to trumpet this piece of equipment as revolutionary, it may be more prudent to say that clover has opened the door to a new phenomenon: coffee by the cup. no one thinks twice about paying five bucks for wine by the glass--thinks, perhaps, that five bucks per glass may actually be beneath their standards in many cases and opts for the seven or even eight dollars a glass selections. why not coffee? now, granted, this $8000 machine is currently the en vogue piece of equipment to have to offer such caffeinated delicacies. but more will come. clovers and clover like knock offs will get smaller and, dare i dream it, even faster, and one day coffee bars will be noted for their myriad coffee selections just as haute restaurants are touted for their vaunted, varied and voluminous (consider the alliteration!) wine lists.

exclusive contracts. much as i may be in the minority on this line of thinking, i think coffee companies holding exclusive contracts with specific farms is a bad trend, but a trend nonetheless. there has been much rumblings just beneath the surface about fair trade coffee and the unfairness is begets in some corners of the industry. and recently it was publicly announced that a major player in the indie coffee scene in america, intelligentsia coffee roasters, was opening a third chicago cafe that featured prominently a marketing tool known as 'direct trade.' the long and short of it is that intelligentsia now has a major outlet to leverage its size and clout in the industry by highlighting coffees for which it carries exclusive contracts. now granted, intelligentsia is a major player that wants to use their powers for good and not for evil in the industry. and granted, they source some sick, sick coffees that are just mind blowing. and granted yet further, they are almost certainly paying top dollar--well on par if not exceeding current fair trade baselines--for these 'world exclusives.' those are all to the positive for intelligentsia and the the short term and on the surface. i applaud the step away from communistic mentalities such as fair trade minimums. but a world exclusive coffee going to only one company hurts the industry in the long run. why? because it opens the door to market creating and market creating opens the door to market manipulating and before long we have the equivalent of "c" but with speccoffee. if i walk up to a coffee farm and say, 'hi, i'm aaron, i'm the owner of the brown coffee company from san antonio, texas, and i'd like to buy your coffee;' and at the same time doug zell from intelligentsia comes up and says the same thing (but sub intelly and chi-town for brown and s.a.), who do you think the farmer is going to give preference to? why, intelligentsia, of course, because they have the reputation and the dollars. but what's wrong with that picture? just because i don't have the rep doesn't mean i don't have the dollars and don't intend to use them for the benefit of the community. that's where an open market, even auction, system such as coe is so beautiful. the browns of the world can stand toe to toe and slug it out with the green mountains, or small axes or even big green herself. you got the dollars, you got the coffee. and then the coffee wins. direct trade benefits one party most: the buyer. a level market benefits all parties: growers, buyers (including roasters, retailers) and customers.

i'm not down on intelligentsia. not in the least. their reputation is stellar and well deserved. their bravery to push the envelope and mature the conversation beyond parochial fair trade type solutions is higly laudable and worthy of respect. and maybe their direct trade offerings won't be enough to warp the market. sbux has been making exclusive contracts independent of "c" for a long time...and paying at or above fair trade prices since way before fair trade hit big, too, i might add. maybe they have to do that. and maybe that shapes the market in a way smaller fish like intelligentsia and even little minnow bait like brown can only dream. but i just don't see exclusivity being a benefit, in the long term, for the overall industry. not unless, of course, there were absolute and complete transparency up and down the entire chain; and there were concrete, visible, and superior benefits evident for pickers and farmers; and if the contracts were paying substantially higher than current baseline programs like fair trade. then and only then could this step be considered a good FIRST one toward bettering the overall industry. (and maybe intelligentsia is doing that and i should shut up and not use them as an example.)

there are more industry shaping things on the horizon. and more to come from me, here. but for now, chew on that and give me your thoughts.

for now, i leave you to contemplate that i am contemplating not carrying any sumatras in my meager lineup for the now because i've now sourced two sumatras from two reputable buyers and have been dismayed and appalled at the number of defects i've been seeing in the greens and in the cups. is this residual still from the tsunami? have i just hit a couple bad lots from otherwise spot on buyers? in my short time buying greens i don't recall seeing it that way. something to ponder....

Monday, April 24, 2006

synesso soon enough?

hey so with the resurgence of the itch to open a retail space for brown i have unearthed all the original planning work for cafe work, from business plans to letters of intent to cost analyses to equipment purchase lists. tomorrow we meet with the prop manager of one of the original sites i settled on upon moving to san antonio to do brown retail.

the thing i like about that site is that it is actually away several good blocks from the crush of tourists on the riverwalk. that might sound like retail suicide; but the beauty is that this way we build our kind of clientele: the kind that will seek us out rather than just show up and ask for a frappalatta.

anyways, so one of the big ticket items needed is a synesso cyncra, which, if the plan executes properly, will be ordered this week. that will be much earlier than any retail space opening, which means we will get the water system and set it up probably in the church i am a part of and we can just work away to our heart's content until brown's retail operations are a reality.

the journey begins again tomorrow....

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

i've said this before?

funny how a couple months changes the game. looking again at a retail space for brown. think we've finally settled on our spot on the northern end of downtown san antonio. it's quieter there, has a more neighborly feel and has some lofty type neighbors--as in, loft apts, a good coffee demographic.

reopening discussions with folks we closed discussions with just weeks (that seem like months) ago.

more later.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

one of the best things...

...about writing a blog no one ever reads is you get to say things no one will ever read.

there. i said it.

this blog is about coffee and there are a bunch of things i know about coffee. and sometimes in my little world i get to thinking that there's no one in the world who can touch my passion and knowledge for coffee. and then i start to reach out into the wider world and realize that this is quite simply the dumbest thought i could have around coffee.

there are so many passionate, knowledgeable and interesting personalities in the world of specialty coffee. i know none of them personally. and, truth be told, most of them scarcely know i even exist, save for a few of them who happen to participate in one of the uber-underground coffee forums i frequent. but i've been to exactly one industry trade show and hung low, not meeting anyone really and not seeking any attention. i sometimes vacilate between wanting to make a big name for myself and for brown, and wanting to toil in obscurity, quietly just doing the stuff of passion and perfection that may someday catch someone's eye. the natural thing to do would be to clamor for attention, to try to be one of the gang. but my personality rebels against that. i've always tended toward the latter option: just do your thing and do it better than anyone around you. hone your craft and your skills and your thinking, little by little, day by day.

so that's the precipice on which i stand lately, as brown enters the next phase of its existence. i started this business trying to become a roaster/retail cafe. i retooled into a micro-roaster/wholesaler. and now the opportunity has presented itself--seemingly with spades--to refocus my energies back on the roaster/retailer segment.

i do have some surprises up my sleeve this year that are going to grab some attention. but those will get kept under wraps until the most excellent time to put them into the cup arrives. until then, more glorious toiling in anonymity, doing what i love and trying to thrive at it every step of the way.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

a picture of what's possible

so the united states barista championship concluded this weekend with a new champion being named and sent off next month to the world barista championship in berne, switzerland.

the competition coincides annually with the specialty coffee association of america's big shin-dig and a bunch of ancilary pow-wow's hosted by various and sundry players in the industry.

anyways, the finals for the usbc are an intense affair, watched by a large number of people at the scaa. each barista has fifteen minutes to pull four espresso shots for the judges (one per), four cappuccinos, then create a signature beverage of their own choosing. cleanliness is next to godliness, of course. and of course, all the judges are scoring on a whole range of geeky areas.

here's a link to some videos of the top seven finalists. [hat tip: chemically imbalanced.]

some are beautiful in their presentation. some show very hypnotic, robotic, droll movements. some seem overpracticed and fake in their presentations. some, refreshing. only one had decent music. all have worked countless hours and extrememly hard and are well deserving of the finals, despite the mediocre music.


Sunday, April 02, 2006

irrelevant fair trade?

so i'm a coffee guy. at church everybody asks me all the time about coffee this and coffee that. there are worse things to be associated with, for sure; but still. my life is slightly more than one dimensional.

anyways, one of the things i get asked regularly about is the fair trade movement. now, fair trade items come in all shapes and sizes. but it's fair to say that it is most closely associated with coffee.

the questions are mostly like this...

dude: so, are you like for free trade coffee?

me: uh, do you mean do i like to give away my coffee for free?

dude: huh?

me: oh, you must mean fair trade coffee.

dude: oh yeah, right. fair trade.


dude: so...what do you think about it?

me: what? fair trade coffee? oh not much.

dude [with an ecological sermon brewing in his eyes]: what do you mean? aren't you for helping out the little guy?

me [with a reality check sermon brewing in mine]: well, you see the thing about fair trade is that it's not exactly fair nor trade.

dude: [blankly quizzical look on his face]

me: let me explain. fair trade is a term that is designed to get people to think that the "little guy" is somehow being unfairly treated when they sell their coffee to an exporter. the reality of it for people like me, though, who are prepared to pay top dollar for the highest quality/value is that i'm already paying at least fair trade level prices for coffee and that money is already going to help the little guy. i already believe in paying for quality. so if i'm buying fair trade certified coffee all i'm really doing is paying money i could be paying to the farmer, to the fair trade certifying company.

dude: [eyes glazing]

me: the thing is, fair trade coffee to me is not generally the best tasting coffee, either. i see no reason to pay an artificial premium for inferior quality in the cup.

dude: okay. go on.

me: further, if you talk about helping out the little guy then fair trade may not be the path to take anyways. you see, to be certified as a fair trade coffee a farmer has to belong to a local co-op. by joining a local co-op they may get the security of selling power to fair trade people, but the quality of their coffee that they may have worked exceptionally hard on is muddled by tossing their exceptional coffee in with an inferior coffee and blending them all together under the banner of the co-op. no individual farm/farmer can submit a single-origin, single farm coffee to be certified as fair trade. so in essence, unless you're part of the co-op guild, so to speak, you cannot earn fair trade premiums. and many co-ops are like closed coffee cliques that only allow a set number of farms/farmers in, potentially shutting the door to some amazing small farm coffees. so how do you think this helps the little guy?

dude: it...doesn't?

me: you're right.

dude: so what's to be done?

me: ask your coffee purveyor where they get their coffee. if you hear them wax poetic about sourcing high quality importers or even going directly to the country of origin, then you can feel comfortable that they care about the quality and sustainability of their coffee. if not...well, what can be said about that?

dude: they don't like good coffee?

me: it's a rhetorical question, dude.

dude: oh. right.

so that's the skinny on the fair trade coffee movement from my perspective.

new guat in the house

so i ran out of the first small batch of organic guatemala coban and have recently received a smallish batch of guatemala huehuetenango la maravilla estate. i roasted it the other day and cupped it the following day and it was really solid. nothing spectacular. but a typically strong guatemala: some good acidity balanced by a substantial mouthfeel. movement without being too racy.

i have long contended that sometimes specialty centrals are almost too good for their own good. because almost all are washed and then processed well they eliminate all the guesswork. this is a good thing. little to no defects are definitely desirable. and of course cup of excellence proves that no defects in the cup is a wholly worthwhile endeavor. but i miss the excitement generated by a dry process yemeni coffee, where the "blueberry" notes are likely defects in the cup. that wildness is what makes it so intriguing.

i digress. i'm finishing a small press i just made of the guatemala and i take back some of what i said above. this is an exciting coffee. it's complex and has subtle beauty. it's just constructed so well that you forget all the moving parts that had to execute nearly flawlessly for me to be "bored" with it.