Taking place this week in Vienna is Europe’s largest specialty coffee event, the SCAE’s World of Coffee. As I board a flight to head that way, I wanted to leave you with a long overdue recap of the SCAA Event, the USA’s largest specialty coffee event, which I attended in Portland this April.
Apart from being in Portland, arguably the coffee capital of the US, this years Event was full of great coffee, good food, old friends, new friends and a look at the direction specialty coffee is heading. I imagine Europe’s World of Coffee to be much of the same with a European twist. So take this as a preview of things to look for and expect to hear about during the week.
I landed a few days early for a prelude of Portland tourism and a chance to take in some of the stellar coffee shops around town, including Barista, Coava, and Heart (among others) before the impending coffee mobs arrived.
The Event itself began with a standing-room-only talk by James Hoffmann, who spoke about the importance of customer service and the need to change customer’s perceptions of what a coffee shop can be. Hoffmann argued for the need of this shift in order to create a market for higher priced coffee with ever more valuable experiences.
Following James’ talk, the morning continued with the much anticipated United States AeroPress Championship—where I filled a last minute vacancy and performed terribly—followed immediately by the World AeroPress Championship. The crowd was dense and the competition fierce, and Belgium held onto the WAC title for the 2nd year in a row.
The trade show floor stretched endlessly in any given direction. Many booths were of little interest, but the ones that caught my eye were usually displaying heaps of toys you’d like to take home with you. Hario may have won the award for the highest number of desirable products in one place.
My favorites were the redesigned syphon prototype, the electric glass kettle and a new 1 liter Buono. The primary focus of their booth, however, seemed to be the new V60 scale & timer unit—finally integrating two important tools into one device. This will certainly free up iPhones everywhere to post more brewing shots on Instagram.
Baratza also showed off their new set of metal burrs developed specifically for maximizing the consistency of filter grind settings on the Vario-W grinders.
Following La Marzocco’s booth, which was staffed with star baristas on lovely machines, serving a rotation of delicious coffees, the most popular place to be was Alpha Dominche, tucked away in a far corner of the showroom floor.
All of the buzz and the beauty surrounding their machine won them a much deserved award for “Best New Product.” (Nice article & interview with them on CoffeeGeek)
One reoccuring trend that showed up in various booths throughout the event was a selection of new high-end home brewers, with a focus on water temperature stability and improved coffee saturation. From the already released Bonavita and Bodum autodrip machines to the new Behmor Brazen, Technivorm seems to finally have some legitimate competition (however the Moccamaster is still the best looking by far).
I also had the pleasure of meeting Dave and Dave, the creators behind the Kickstarter sensation Coffee Joulies, which I cynically previewed before they were even a commercial product. Dave was delightful nonetheless and gave me a complete and honest walk through of the benefits and limitations of the product.
As long as Joulies work as described (in a travel thermos), I can see a use for their intended market—of which I am not a part. Despite my skepticism, Dave gave me a set to take home. If I can discover any other useful functions, apart from a long commute or miserable days in a coffeeless office sipping from a thermos, I’ll be sure to share my thoughts.
One of the mornings, I also took part in a cupping of Robusta coffee, organized by Andrew Hetzel. I’d never tasted Robusta coffee apart from its use in bitter espresso blends, so I took the opportunity to try something new.
Overall, the experience was pretty torturous to my palette, but I was surprised by some of their sweet and intense aromas. Of the six coffees on the table there was one highlight, a Robusta peaberry, which was surprisingly pleasant—until it wasn’t.
Alongside the fully packed trade show hall, the United States Barista Championship and Brewer’s Cup were also taking place. After months of regional competitions, the most talented baristas from around the country were all competing for the chance to represent the US this week in Vienna at the World Barista Championship.
Katie Carguilo (who was excited to say the least) of Counter Culture Coffee won a very close barista competition and is currently competing in Vienna, along with Andy Sprenger of Ceremony, who won the US Brewer’s Cup for the second year in a row.
Of all the things to see at these gatherings, the most valuable part always ends up being the people. With the proliferation of Twitter in the industry, you can finally meet those you’ve been sharing advice and arguing with online throughout the year.
Jason Dominy greeted me with his infamous bear hug and attempted to convert my opinions of the Clever (sorry Jason, still unconvinced), while Keaton Violet kept me entertained and filled with beard envy. Joyce from Baratza was a joy to talk with, along with so many others. The list of people I met is long, but each person played a role in making the event another one to remember.
I’m looking forward to an equally great week of coffee and friends in Vienna. If you couldn’t make it to either event this year, make one of them a part of your 2013 plans—you’ll be glad you did.
All coffee aside, Portland is an absolutely incredible city to visit.
Over the next 4 days, the world’s best baristas—representing more than 50 countries—will be competing in Vienna for the title of World Barista Champion. The winner will become a global ambassador of Specialty Coffee and a representative of coffee at its best. This year’s champion will become the 13th barista to hold the title, following last year’s winner, Alejandro Mendez from El Salvador.
The competition format is fairly straight forward to watch, but the specifics of judging are a bit more complex. In simplest terms, each barista has 15 minutes to serve three drinks to 4 sensory judges—a single espresso, a cappuccino and a signature beverage.
The drinks from each category can be presented in any order, but all drinks in a category must use the same coffee and be served to all 4 judges before the drinks from a different category can be served. There are also 2 technical judges who monitor bar cleanliness and the proper use of equipment, while a head judge oversees timekeeping and that all rules are properly followed. (Complete WBC Rules)
If you’re interested, you can watch the entire event for free on Livestream. Also follow @Sprudge on Twitter for the best text-based coverage of the event or visit Sprudge’s website for competition schedules and other frothy details.
Three weeks ago, I shared the announcement of Coffee Collective’s new roastery and coffee bar opening this summer in Copenhagen. Since then, I’ve been down to Denmark to meet with Klaus and tour their beautiful new flagship in Frederiksberg.
The new roaster is warming up, the Über’s been installed and a lovely row of stools are lined up at the brew bar waiting for customers to wear them in. As soon as the final permits are received, this incredible new space will be open—for what I imagine will be the most unique coffee experience in the city. Stay tuned.
To finally pick a coffee cherry off the tree and taste the inherent sweetness that should be found in your cup (cliché as it may sound) gives an entirely new understanding and appreciation for the farmers, roasters and baristas who are able to maintain the true characteristics of this wonderful seed throughout it’s long and complex journey. Great coffee should not be unpleasantly bitter, it should not need sugar, and it should not be insulting to pay as much as you would for the cheapest glass of wine on a menu.
I learned so much during this week, but nothing more important than just how little I know. Though I experienced many things on this trip, it was only a few farms, in a couple regions, of one country out of many, that produce coffee in different ways, in different parts of the world. After finally visiting origin, I now feel like I know less than I ever have—which is more of a reason to keep learning.
After five days of immersive education at coffee farms, labs and mills, the remaining two days of my trip were reserved for experiencing some of the non-coffee related highlights in Colombia. To wrap-up a long week of travel and learning, I was excited to relax on the beach with new friends, enjoy a few bottles of Aguardiente & dance the night away in moonlit clubs. I spent the weekend visiting cultural landmarks and enjoying a few restaurants in Bogotás lively food scene—complete with belly dancers, burgers & beer.
At the beginning of the year, I made it a goal of mine to visit origin in 2012, but I had no idea it would be through such an incredible opportunity as this one. I can’t thank the Colombia Coffee Hub and the FNC enough for this experience.
Marcela, Camillo and Michael were incredible hosts, answered all my questions (no matter how controversial the answers may have been) and were genuinely fantastic people to be around. Also the media team—Lina, Jorge and Sebastién who did their best to avoid awkwardness while filming my every move for a week. This journey would not have been the same without all the lovely people who were a part of it.
In the coming year, there will be more origin journey’s featured on the Hub, including another (like mine) to be given to a lucky Hubber. So if you haven’t joined yet—it may be one the best decisions you’ve ever made.
As we continued along the path Colombian coffee takes before reaching roasters around the world, we arrived to a mill owned by Almacafé. In Colombia, coffee farmers sell their coffee with the parchment (a thin crumbly skin) still on the beans. So after coffee is sold, it’s delivered to one of several large mills throughout the country and stored in clean, moisture-controlled warehouses to await the final steps of processing and export.
The parchment coffee is periodically checked for quality throughout its stay, to ensure nothing has gone wrong while it has been stored. When it’s time to be hulled, coffee lots are pulled into a silo through a labyrinth of conveyor belts and tubes, like a loud and dusty version of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
From this point, the coffee moves incredibly quickly through a series of vibrating screens and wind tubes to clean the parchment coffee from debris, sticks, stones and any other foreign objects that may have found it’s way into bags. When the coffee has been cleared of debris, the parchment is milled off and the naked green coffee begins an intense, multi-tier sorting process to separate the coffee into more homogenous groups.
Beans are sorted based on their size, density and weight by a process of air blown up through a series of slanted trays. The smaller, lighter beans become airborne, jostling them into a high position on the screen. The beans are then separated by slats of wood sending them onto designated tracks according to their characteristics. The coffee goes through this process several times to ensure thorough sorting.
Once the coffee has been shaken and separated physically, they zip down a more technological belt where light spectrometers spot and remove beans with color defects.
The coffee then pours onto a moving table where rows of women identify and pick out defects that have eluded all other measures. This finely sorted coffee is then placed in one last silo before its bagged for roasters, cupped again for defects and sent to port.
After leaving behind the drone of the mill, we emerged from the cool shaded warehouse to the immense heat of coastal Colombia. Outside, we were greeted by our fantastic driver, who kept the mood light and the reggaeton beats heavy, as we traveled the last few winding miles to the port of Santa Marta.
As we approached the shipping yard, I eagerly watched the colorful towers grow above the van’s windows. Throughout my life, I’ve lived in several port cities and always had a fascination with shipping containers and their structural impressions left on the horizon of the harbor. But until this point, I had only viewed them from outside the shipyard’s fence and I was excited to finally explore one from the inside.
Upon our arrival, we donned FNC hard hats and began to trek through the container canyons to the central warehouse where coffee awaited export. No matter who is exporting the coffee, FNC requires all of it to be checked for defects and quality. All coffee must meet certain criteria (12-13% moisture level, minimum defects, no insect infestations, clean cup, no foreign odor, Excelso screen size, uniform color) to be allowed to leave the country and maintain a minimum standard for all Colombian coffee.
When the coffee has passed its final round of quality inspection, it’s loaded into a container one of several ways, depending on the buyer and destination. While most green coffee is shipped in 60-70 kilo sisal bags (about 250 per container) it can also be loaded into 500 kilo bags, or giant bladder-lined containers that hold 21 tons of coffee.
While we were at the warehouse, I saw one of these bladder-lined containers being filled. Each individual bag of coffee destined for that container had to be cut open and poured on to the conveyor belt leading into the box. It would take the small team of men about 2 hours to fill the container with 21 tons of coffee.
Following our tour of the warehouse and another Almacafé test lab, we were treated to a better view of the whole operation from the top of a loading crane. After traversing more corridors through the towering stacks, we took turns squeezing into a tiny elevator that lifted us high above the makeshift city below. As I stepped onto the platform, I stopped to gain my balance as the crane swayed and vibrated with the operator, who was lifting 25 ton boxes into position underneath us.
The view was a tremendous one, offering the rare and delightful opportunity to watch ships sail off in the distance, carrying coffee to your favorite roasters.