Wednesday, March 4, 2009

How do you take your coffee?

The coffee revolution has not yet begun, according to international coffee expert Stephen Hurst.

Mr Hurst, the founder of specialty coffee company Mercanta The Coffee Hunters, says the future for coffee lies in developing a premium market and highlighting the characteristics of different coffee beans in a way similar to wine.

Even water has been marketed in terms of different flavour characteristics and a premium water market has emerged, he said.

"It's amazing that coffee has not been differentiated in a premium way yet," Mr Hurst told a gathering of coffee lovers at Melbourne caffeine temple St Ali.

"The future will be in flavour discovery: single estate and single varietals of coffee beans."

Despite Melbourne's strong coffee culture, he said coffee lovers often remained uninformed on the origins of the coffee served and how it was selected by suppliers. And the concept of single estate, or single origin specialty coffee, rather than industrial blends, is also new to Australia, he said.

Mr Hurst said the existence of futures markets for coffee has "commoditised" the product and there is a false assumption that coffee is "generic", as if every bag from a single origin or country somehow tastes the same. He said good coffee needed to start from a good basis and that was with the green beans.

"The quality of the coffee is in the beans. Everyone has their own idea of what a specialty coffee is but if you roast good beans well and serve it well, that's specialty coffee," he said.

Mr Hurst founded his company Mercanta The Coffee Hunters in 1996 and supplies fine coffees to specialty coffee roasters around the world. He is also involved with the Cup of Excellence, a competition that selects the very best coffee produced in a particular country each year.

Contrary to popular business wisdom, Mr Hurst believes that the customer is not king when it comes to choosing the best coffee.

"Customers don't have the tools to make a good choice." he said.

"They ask for coffee that they've read about or heard about. There's a lot of things about coffee that are not understood. The baristas should be advising clients what to buy."

Mr Hurst said that fine quality coffee does cost more and acknowledged that it would be difficult to sell more expensive coffee, especially given the current economic climate.

This, to me, was one of the most interesting points of the night and got me thinking about our relationship with coffee: why do we drink it? For some people, it's because of addiction and they need a caffeine hit to start the day. For others, drinking coffee is a social thing to do, a pleasant way to pass the time or something to do while conducting a meeting or catching up with friends. Others enjoy going to new cafes and sampling different coffees.

We're fortunate in Melbourne because we have a strong coffee and cafe culture. In general, Melburnians are quite knowledgeable about coffee and we're fortunate that it's not hard to find excellent coffee. People are quite particular about their favourite type, whether it's a skinny latte or a macchiato, and more dedicated caffeine fiends have favourite cafes, and even favourite baristas.

But coffee is also a drink that's often consumed on the go, in take-away cups, or slurped down in a hurry before catching a train or rushing to the next meeting. It's not always savoured in the same way a glass of fine wine might be.

Is there a market in Melbourne for more expensive coffee? Would the average punter, despite our good coffee knowledge, be able to discern the difference between their usual flat white and one that's made with a single origin coffee bean? If you can get a good cup of coffee for $3, are you likely to pay $6 or $8 for a coffee that uses so-called superior beans?

I love my coffee, and I've learnt a lot about it through studying a barista course and reviewing for the Melbourne Coffee Guide. But I'm not sure that I would be persuaded to pay double the price for a coffee made with single origin beans - and definitely not for every cup of coffee I consume. I haven't yet tasted any coffee made from these specialty beans, and I may change my mind once I do so - perhaps it really is obviously superior to the blends currently offered. I agree that you often pay a price for a premium product but do we want to be drinking premium beans every time we grab a coffee? It's like drinking Grange at every meal.

There's also so much more that goes into a coffee than just the beans - the machine, the temperature, the milk and especially the barista can all make a difference. In fact, the barista's talent is the biggest variable of them all and even the best green beans in the world will not save a poor barista from making bad coffee.

Still, anything that increases our knowledge, and our choices, about coffee is a good thing, so it will be interesting to see how the concept of single origin beans slots into the current market.


Ali-K said...

Interesting points. Whilst there are many variations that go into wine, as a consumer there aren't many that would make a particular wine bought from two different bottleshops any different. A coffee on the other hand? It may be the same beans but what about the barista, the water, the grind, the tamp and so on. I'd feel quite ripped off if I bought an expensive specialty coffee only to discover it tasted different to the fantastic, and supposedly identical, coffee I'd had 2 weeks earlier.

Melinda said...

Hi Ali - you raise some good points. I think the barista is the biggest single variable and it is their skill that will make or break a coffee, no matter how good the beans are.

Rosscopico said...

Single origins are an interesting animal, especially when pulled as an espresso. Some roasters opt to roast a SO to 2 or more different profiles & then blend to give more complex characteristics to the end result, as opposed to a "one note wonder". A good example of this is Intelligentsia's Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, which has a bright citrus start, which then deepens though the shot down to an anise finish, as opposed to some that are like being smacked in the face with a box of lemons! (They shall remain nameless!)
However, as you said, there are many variables from the farm to the cup & you are absolutely right that a barista can either make or break any espresso, especially a SO.
I personally find that adding milk to espresso usually mutes alot of the flavours, especially citrus, fruit & berry notes. So in the case of a SO, I would offer it only as a straight espresso & perhaps a macchiato.
Also I have found that as a coffee ages post-roast, the flavour profile also changes. For example my favourite espresso has very nutty flavours highlighted at 3-4 days post-roast, which later become more chocolaty at around 10-12 days post roast.