Anticipating the Future of Specialty Coffee
Café Mesa de los Santos
By Kate LaPoint
Having grown up in a small farming community in eastern Washington, the importance of a strong bond between consumers and producers is ingrained. My hometown hosts an annual “Farmer-Consumer Awareness Day” in which the town’s residents and occasional tourists are able to learn about local crops from the farmers who grow them. Kids climb on tractors while their parents browse tabletops and learn little facts about potatoes, apples and a myriad other local crops. When I was in high school, we poked fun at the event, calling it “hokey” and caring little about how our butter-laden corn-on-the-cob came to be. But the event, however hokey, has helped provide an important link between farmers and consumers. The more educated end users are about any product, whether corn or wine or coffee, the more invested they are likely to be in its source.
As well, there is much the coffee industry can learn from wine. Specialty coffee and fine wine occupy an equal position at the top of the “finer things in life” list. But why are consumers willing to pay a fair (even high) price for a glass of wine while paying only an average of less than a quarter for some of the world’s finest coffee? Imagine what would happen to the wine industry if consumers were paying only 22 cents per glass!
The similarities between specialty coffee and fine wine are countless. Both beverages create, as described by Mark Inman, president of California wine country-based Taylor Maid Farms, “a taste journey” for the consumer, offering a sophisticated palate with complex aromas and varied mouthfeel. When paired with food, one’s taste experience can be taken to new heights by either beverage. In addition to providing a flavorful, energetic start to the day, coffee, like wine or port, can provide a decadent finish to a good meal. It’s sold in all fifty United States seven days a week and it can be consumed while one drives. Both beverages equally conjure dreams of languid moments in warm, exotic climes, be it Tuscany or Kona.
Okay, back to reality: In order to enjoy the finest selections of’either beverage, consumers must be willing to pay more. Like understanding the importance of paying a little more for fresh local produce, consumers must understand why specialty coffee is worth more of their hard-earned dollar, and they must feel somehow connected to its source.
Education and perceived value are the keys to sustaining our industry, meaning roasters, retailers and restaurateurs have a weighty, sometimes overwhelming, job trying to raise consumer awareness of specialty coffee from seed to cup. The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) provided a sufficient starting point when they designed the 2004 National Specialty Coffee Month promotions, many of which focused on the parallel between the coffee and wine industries. And while annual events are great, consumer education must be a daily endeavor.
Taking the average consumer (who still considers coffee as little more than the hot, brown liquid that wakes him up and washes down his doughnut) from ho-hum to enlightened is more difficult than throwing some facts in the air hoping they’ll take root. If we are to convince end users of the value of coffee, it must come from the industry as a whole, on a consistent basis, and it must start from the ground up.
Meanwhile, as those of us in the industry have been a-buzz devising campaigns to raise general awareness of specialty coffee, this estate that is tucked deep in the Andes has been creating a honey of an outcome. While traveling in search of a truly unique “signature”, Inman discovered this Colombian farm that is forging the path of chateau-style coffee production and strengthening the relationship between consumers and growers.
Founded in 1872, Mesa de los Santos is currently, to this writer’s knowledge, the industry’s only “triple-seal” estate. It possesses the Certified USDA Organic seal, the Certified”“Shade-Grown, Bird-Friendly” seal awarded by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and the Rainforest Alliance seal for sustainable coffee production.
Origin travel can greatly alter one’s perception—and significantly raise one’s appreciation—of specialty coffee. Because I, like Inman, have had the great fortune to visit a few coffee farms, I am willing to pay more for my daily cup—I know, from first-hand experience, what a small miracle it takes to get that perfect beverage all the way from the mountains in the tropics to my mug in the Pacific Northwest. Unfortunately, with U.S. Department of State warnings against travel to some coffee-growing regions, and knowing the hit one’s budget can take, most specialty coffee retailers and nearly all specialty coffee consumers in the U.S. are reluctant to make the trip. In steps SCAA to help bridge the gap between those who grow and those consume coffee. The Association’s new Global Specialty Coffee Map enables anyone with a computer to access origin photos and gain a better understanding of specific farms’ growing conditions, altitude, rainfall and more.
Providing “traceability” [what Ted Lingle, director of SCAA, refers to as “linking a sense of taste with a sense of place”] is an essential step toward elevating perceived value in the minds of specialty coffee consumers. SCAA’s map project, after more than a year of research and development, is helping to establish higher quality standards for specialty coffee worldwide, with flavor profile maps and an appellation system similar to that of the wine industry in the works. Helping customers “trace” their coffee back to the hands of the farmer who grew it is a fundamental aspect of this project, and another stepping stone toward strengthening the bond between consumer and grower.
“Working with very precise origins can help the retailer show the link between her customer’s money and how it’s improving the environment and the lives of farm workers,” insists Acevedo. Mesa de los Santos sends monthly traceability e-mails to roasters and retailers to help them promote their coffees. One example promotes one specific migratory or resident bird species per month that is alive and well on the farm because of “the money you have spent on this cup of coffee”.
Some high-end restaurants are becoming keen to up-selling specialty coffees while their customers are prepared to pay more for the indulgence. One such restaurant near Sonoma prepares its locally roasted coffee French-press style at tableside. Customers love it, and those who are unfamiliar with it immediately want to try it, says Andreas Willausch, general manager of The Farmhouse Inn & Restaurant. The press pot “ritual” lends to a greater perceived value of the restaurant’s coffee service and can provide a valuable opportunity for the wait staff to educate customers about specialty coffee. “It is of tremendous help to take the time to talk to customers,” insists Willausch. “For example, a customer may not be interested in tasting a new cheese but by the time I finish telling the story of, say, the cheesemaker or the milk that is used, almost everyone ends up wanting to try it.” Willausch says it’s the same with coffee or tea. “Involve your customers in the story of your product—your enthusiasm will get them excited as well,” he says.
Back to origin. Inman describes the coffee farm as it relates to vineyards he has visited: “Mesa de los Santos is doing exactly what a high-end vineyard does here in the Napa Valley. They have a very knowledgeable farm manager and they have some of the best soil imaginable.” In other words, they’re not just pondering the wine model as it relates to specialty coffee production—they’re practicing it.
As a winery enlists the expertise of an enologist, Mesa de los Santos has invested in an onsite cupping facility and employs a full-time cupper. The enologist is on a continual mission from field to glass, tasting, fermenting, tasting, blending, and tasting until he has come up with a truly special wine. Similarly, JosÉ Antonio Martinez, Mesa de los Santos’ cupper, evaluates each year’s coffee crop in advance of harvest. Because coffee beans differ in flavor, body and aroma from “vintage to vintage”, Martinez analyzes each crop in order to decide which processing method to use. The farm is able to employ two different methods—dry fermentation and aquapulpa—that create very distinct cup profiles.
The unique vision for Mesa de los Santos and perhaps other coffee farms in the future, explains Acevedo, is to use either method, or perhaps a combination of both, according to which produces the best cup profile for each crop. “It’s a delicate balance—the right process matched to each varietal, each crop, each year,” Acevedo explains. Additionally, the farm utilizes five different drying systems and is researching the results of each method. “The farm’s experimentation with different types of processing and drying is revolutionary,” observes Inman.”“The kind of work Mesa de los Santos is doing will be a big influence on Colombian specialty coffee.”
This is where specialty coffee has a decided edge over fine wine. While wine is generally a business-to-consumer industry, specialty coffee is a business-to-business-to-consumer industry, a factor that is vital in bringing growing and consuming countries closer together. Acevedo believes that closer partnerships between growers and roasters is the way to ensure the future of the specialty coffee industry. “We have the ability to develop signature blends in conjunction with roasters who understand their customers,” he says. “Immersing himself in the process every step of the way enables the roaster to better control the outcome of his product.”
“This philosophy parallels the direction I’m heading as a specialty coffee buyer,” says Geoff Watts, vice president of coffee for Chicago-based Intelligentsia Coffee Roasters. “Roasters are looking for that unique coffee to set themselves apart. In order to achieve that, working directly with growers is the only way to go.” When collaborating with a farm such as Mesa de los Santos, buyers like Watts can play with flavor in the field before firing up the roaster. “This affords me the freedom to push the boundaries of specialty coffee by requesting that a certain varietal be picked at a particular level of maturity, or that it be dried a certain way,” explains Watts.”“Only through partnerships with producers is this level of involvement possible.”
In following the wine model, a few farms are beginning to experiment with different varietals. Mesa de los Santos hosts 58 varieties of coffee in test plots—all in search of an increasingly perfect cup. Bill Siemers, president of Coffee Roasters of New Orleans, traveled to the farm with Inman. “He [Acevedo] is providing a rare opportunity for buyers to consider the particular varietals first-hand before making purchasing decisions,” Siemers describes. “Working with a farm like this gives you more options as a buyer.”
Today, most farms work with one varietal. Mesa de los Santos actively cultivates three: Bourbon, Caturra and Colombia, chosen for quality over high yield. “I think the idea of planting different varieties of coffee is wonderful,” remarks Inman. “The differences are striking—the Colombia is soft, clean and well rounded while the Caturra is bright and clean, bursting with flavors of apricot, brown sugar and cocoa,” he notes. “The Bourbon is soft, chocolaty and elegant, reminiscent of the great coffees of the Caribbean.”
“They [Mesa de los Santos] are cupping continually to track the results of minute changes they’ve made in fertilization or pruning or watering,” Siemers notes. “I was amazed at the absolute care taken in terms of record keeping, soil amendment, pruning, harvesting, cupping and processing. Oswaldo is looking at these slight differences more than anyone I’ve ever seen,” Siemers says. “They’re obviously working hard every day trying to produce the estate’s best possible cup.”
Whether or not it’s the best available, we all have our favorite varieties of wine. Whether as basic as Merlot or Chardonnay or something more exotic, you know what you like. As one’s palate becomes more educated, the same is true for coffee, leading one to choose certain varietals and origins over others. “As a buyer, you choose coffees for different reasons depending on your marketplace,” Siemers relates. “Here in New Orleans, for example, a really bright coffee may not go over as well as a mellower one.”
Because each varietal produces a unique cup profile, Acevedo sees blending, similar to wine, as yet another possibility. “What if we took two or three different varietals and blended them?” he wonders. Parallel that to, say, Cabernet-Merlot. This blend is certainly one of the more popular and often more affordable wines on the market today. Like wine, it’s easy to see that specialty coffee is a product with endless possibilities, for the grower in Colombia all the way to the barista in Seattle.
The industry’s immediate task is to encourage retail customers to embark on a voyage of discovery. As tour guides, we must highlight the many varieties and multiple origins of coffee—showing how each one offers a unique flavor profile. Doing so may just tip the scale of public perception, perhaps even raising consumers’ perceived value of specialty coffee enough to justify charging a fair price for the product. In my opinion, coffee has more of a story to tell than even the best of wines. Let’s get out there and spread the word!
For more information, please visit the company’s web site at www.cafemesadelossantos.com.