Substance of Quality
Quality coffee is grown, not roasted. I think this is the underlying principle which guides roasters in the newest generation of specialty coffee. We don’t try to market our roasting skills; rather, we seek out sustainably grown lots of coffee, and constantly hone our ability to fully develop the existing flavor. We focus on the farm, and understand that improving growing & processing methods is the best way to improve quality.
Being someone who subscribes to this principle, it’s amazing the variation of green coffee quality I find through importers who sell primarily to specialty coffee roasters. We have several importers which will reliably send us more samples of improperly dried, past crop coffee which is full of defects than samples of a quality level I expect for specialty coffee. What is disturbing is somewhere, “specialty” coffee roasters are selling this as artisan coffee and people are buying the snake oil. I’m not necessarily accusing any roaster of being misleading, but there are multiple examples of small roasters which simply don’t know the difference between good and poor coffee quality.
This raises the following question in my mind. What is the difference between Nescafe` buying well-processed robusta, roasting it consistently, marketing it as “shared value” coffee, and a small roaster buying past crop, unevenly dried, over-ripe, high-grown arabica and marketing it as “small-batch” specialty coffee? Nothing.
All this being said, what I think needs to happen in the specialty coffee industry is a greater assumption of responsibility within the emerging roasting community. We can rely on marketing, or “anti-marketing” and the title of small-batch roasters, or we can be seeking out knowledge and rely on a consistent cycle of improvement within our craft. Don’t use the phrase small-batch without explaining how this impacts quality; and if you don’t know what it means, don’t use it (Hint: It’s not the same thing as having a “small” roaster). Admit that we are all constantly improving our abilities, instead of presenting yourself as an authority on coffee. Learn about green evaluation and how, on a practical level, proper drying and sorting affects the cup. The best way to know when you’ve found a very knowledgeable coffee authority is they are eager to learn. The opposite is also true.
If we assume the mantle of “specialty coffee roaster” let’s ensure it means something. I know that as more roasters understand that being in specialty coffee carries a responsibility to every person; from the farmer, to the consumer, and visibility to coffee at each level, this industry will make exponential gains. Sepia toned pictures of a tiny roaster and vintage coffee packaging do not a specialty roaster make; constantly seeking out ways to improve your understanding & skill does.