Seattle; the home of Boeing, software giants, grunge music and...specialty coffee. Well, not quite. Contrary to popular belief, while Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Boeing and Oracle do indeed hail from the Pacific Northwest, modern specialty coffee has its roots much further south.
When Alfred Peet died in his sleep a few weeks ago he was a sprightly 87. He passed away peacefully hopefully dreaming of coffee trees laden with ripened cherries. While most people have never heard of him, Peet is widely recognised as being the father of modern "specialty coffee" in the industry. He was a Dutchman who became an American. He had traded tea for Lipton's in Java, lived in Sumatra, worked in the business in New Zealand before, finally, settling down (somewhat) in the University suburb of Berkeley, California. It was at Berkeley where he founded his roastery in 1966 and Peet's Coffee was born. Alfred Peet was passionate about coffee. His roasting exploits legendary and his ability to commentate, roast and put out fires simultaneously are famous. His experiences while living in Indonesia had given him an affinity with farmers who grew coffee, as well as a thorough understanding of the origin, the place where coffee was grown. This background, combined with his love of roasting, resulted in a place where coffee was not just a cup of Java, but something exotic, living and with a story.
From Alfred Peet's inspirational example came many of the coffee cultures that now are household names today in America and around the world- Starbucks being the most famous of these of course. The original founders of Starbucks- Baldwin, Bowker and Ziv Seigel originally leant their roasting trade from Peet, in fact Peet roasted for them in their early years. Many others in the industry in America today also passed through the Peet's Coffee experience. In fact when Howard Schulz purchased Starbucks, Bowker and Baldwin moved across and purchased Peets Coffee- Alfred Peet retiring to a role of Coffee Mentor for the Industry as a whole.
Today most coffee drinkers, from Surabaya to San Francisco, recognise Starbucks and its logo, but the name "Alfred Peet" often draws draws blank looks.
Specialty Coffee today is at a crossroad- an important junction in deciding which direction coffee will be heading over the next decade. In the last 10 years many new comers have entered the business. It is estimated that the global coffee sector today is valued at over US$80 billion. It is no wonder that with these revenue numbers, the industry attracts a mix of business people with mixed agendas- who often see the potential bottom line rather than education and passion as being the driving force in what they do. Traditionally the specialty coffee industry has been built on the strong foundation of sharing knowledge and experience- with the supposition that by helping each other the industry will be strongly quality focused. However a number of the more recent arrivals in the market are perhaps choosing coffee for the perceived easy profits, rather than for a real passion for coffee or its heritage. As a result many of the traditional methods of exchange are not as effective, or used as frequently as they have been in the past.
Globally Coffee is in a position where consumption is beginning to slow down and opportunities to grow coffee are becoming more difficult to find in the traditional coffee consuming markets- Europe, USA, South America and Oceania. The easy answer if to look at new emerging markets- China, India, Pakistan and Indonesia are prime targets. These countries either have low coffee consumption (Indonesian's, for instance, consume 500gm per person per year vs. Norway's 12kg per person per year), or have reasonable consumption, but historically are tea consumers (India). The new markets are also very suggestible to western branding- in many cases the strength of branding has been shown to be more important than the product itself. This presents a number of opportunities to strong western brands and of course new local brands to emerge. However it does not necessarily equate to long-term longevity of specialty coffee in these new frontiers.
In the more mature markets, the patterns of consumption have changed markedly over the last 15-20 years. The traditional, lower quality coffee products such as instants, are being replaced by roast and ground coffee (drips, plungers etc) and of course Espresso Based Drinks (cappuccino, latte, espresso etc). Fresh roasted coffee has many advantages over the instant coffee. It is more flavoursome and more importantly has a greater link back to where it originally came from. This means that customer awareness is also on the increase- bringing into the spotlight the actual paper trail of where the coffee comes from, who picked it, what price the grower get from it etc. To consumers in countries such as New Zealand this is very important- as generally there is a linkage between quality of coffee and the return the farmer or grower gets. The correlation is the better the return to a farmers, the better the coffee will be. Higher returns means more time can be spent in the origin country looking after the crop, pruning, selective harvesting, proper intensive drying and packing/storing the coffee once it is dried.
The role the specialty coffee industry plays in all this is very important. Retail shops that source and supply only the best coffee help to sustain the industry both upstream and downstream. This means the farmers and workers will be rewarded and the consumers will have access to quality coffee, hopefully growing the business further.
Unfortunately the reverse is gradually becoming more often the norm. Cafes, coffee shops and roasters entering the market all over the world tend to look for short-term cost advantages to try and fuel their business models. To achieve this they either buy poor quality coffee, as cheap as possible or average quality coffee...likewise as cheaply as possible. Cheap coffee equates to, at the best, very average finished product. This in turn means generally a poor perception of the place selling the coffee. This would perhaps be OK if there were not so many cafes now selling poor quality coffee. As it is it means that poor quality coffee is often accepted a being the norm- hence having the result of putting people off drinking coffee.
In many ways the industry can be seen as having come almost full circle back to where it was in the early 1970's when instant coffee and coffee sitting on hotplates for 10 hours were seen and accepted as being normal coffee. This is what pioneers like Peet worked so hard to change. It is also why the crossroads the industry now stands at are so important.
The choices are really quite simple. For coffee to evolve and grow further there needs to be education of the retailer and the customer. The global industry is built around national organisations that play a varying role in providing advice and education to those in retail or wholesale. The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) and the SCAE (Specialty Coffee Association of Europe) are two such organisations. However to become members of these organisations is as simple as filling out a form and paying a fee. Often the motivation of the people joining is just to get a sticker to put on their shop door, knowledge is a secondary motivator. There is talk that membership should involve some form of basic enter test and then continuing education via the internet- which would at least help to provide tools to pass information on to those drinking the coffee.
Looking at those in the industry who do things well, is also a great way of building and planning the future for specialty coffee. In the USA quality roasters and café operators such as Allegro, Blackstump Coffee and Intelligensia have taken industry standards to a new level. Buying quality coffee, hiring quality staff and imparting quality knowledge to customers buying their morning coffee has proven very successful for these companies. So much so that it is an unquestionable part of their corporate culture. All of these companies also practice something unique- they regularly visit their growers in countries such as Indonesia, Guatemala, Kenya, Brazil and Colombia. To take this one step further, they do not just visit and spend a few nights- taking photos of a grower's coffee trees, they maintain regular contact with those growing the coffee. This approach must be seen as the future for coffee in competitive, quality driven markets. It is true relationship coffee where the roaster becomes by default part of the farmers extended family.
Passing knowledge on to those who buy a coffee everyday, and arming them with information on what type of coffee they drink, how it is grown, who grows it, when it is picked, how it gets to them gives all power to the customer. It is a very important, yet lagging piece of the future of coffee globally. Being able to learn the differences in tastes/cupping qualities has some snob quality, but more importantly it helps the buyer to differentiate between good, average and poor coffee. Here lies the problem. A successful café founded on the principles of sustainability and true coffee culture has nothing to fear from education. A café selling poor quality coffee is unlikely, or perhaps unable, to want to educate clients about quality.
A failure to address quality, education and sustainability in the business sector (from the farmer to the retail customer) will ultimately result in consumption patterns falling further. Quality issues- especially over the counter and in the cup, need to be addressed. If not unfortunately those to suffer will be the grower or origin country, rather than the retailer. With current economics a grower in Indonesia receives only around 2-5% of the cost of the average cup sold in America or Europe. If demand drops off, the Arabica business ultimately will fall back into a cycle of commodity pricing rather than specialty pricing that many quality origins now enjoy. Competition from other beverages, and lifestyle choices, compete with the disposable income that coffee comes from.
If Alfred Peet was still alive, undoubtedly he would just carry on doing what he did well and loved, roasting coffee and sharing his knowledge and experience with anyone willing, and wanting to learn and listen- a model to all of us in the industry today.
© Alun H.G Evans, Merdeka Coffee, 2007. The writer reserves all moral rights to this article. May only be reproduced.
Alun Evans is a coffee roaster based in West Java, Indonesia. His company Merdeka Coffee, is pioneering relationship coffee with farming communities throughout the country. He can be contacted day (or caffeine fuelled night) at email@example.com