Masters of the Bean

Budweiser used to be good enough. Gallo used to be good enough. Even Starbucks used to be good enough.

OK, that last one was a cheap shot. But the point is that it’s now possible to get all Sideways over coffee. Like wine, beer, whiskey, cigars, and olive oil, coffee is now firmly divided into two broad categories: mass and micro. And while Starbucks (a member in good standing of the Specialty Coffee Association of America) does still cling to its position straddling both—a quality-driven West Coast roaster that just happened to get gigantic—it’s only a matter of time until that perception is gone. The cognoscenti already regard a cup of Starbucks as dismissively as a bottle of Mondavi merlot: not bad exactly, just so . . . mass.

Today’s coffee connoisseurs want to be on a first-name basis with their roasters. They want to know not only which country the beans came from but also which region, or even which “estate.” They want to know whether the beans were air or drum roasted. They want to know who roasted them, and where, and how long ago. They obsess over freshness and brew time and water temperature and coffee-to-water ratio. They hold “cupping” parties. They blind taste single-origin coffees and jot down tasting notes like “good clarity” and “ripest cherry; fully developed.”

So what’s inspiring these rhapsodic scribblers? What makes specialty coffee so special? Broadly speaking, it’s the difference between artisan and industrial, between hecho a mano and mass-produced. Of course, microroasters do use machines to roast their coffees. But the machines are small and run by craftsmen, not operators, who roast carefully, one batch at a time. For example, John Gant, the master roaster at Gimme Coffee in Ithaca, New York, uses a quarter-bag Sivetz convection roaster, which can accommodate about 34 pounds per roast. Canned-coffee producers use continuous, or high-yield, roasters that flash-roast at very high temperatures.

But specialty coffee begins long before the roasting stage. Whereas most mass-produced coffee comes from the hearty, disease-resistant, adaptable robusta plant, nearly all specialty coffee is brewed with arabica, a much more temperamental species. There’s also an enormous range of quality within the arabica species (and its subvarietals such as bourbon, typica, and caturra). This is where specialty roasters distinguish themselves. Geoff Watts, chief buyer for Intelligentsia Coffee in Chicago, spends about five months a year “at source,” cultivating relationships with the best growers, coaxing from them the absolute best beans possible, and cupping lots and lots of coffee.

In the same way that the wine industry celebrates its finest growers and winemakers, specialty coffee roasters are trying to turn their best farmers into rock stars. By going directly to the source or purchasing their beans through online auction sites like Cup of Excellence, the top microroasters are starting to eliminate the middleman, the traditional coffee broker/importer who buys coffee in bulk from cooperatives and sells the beans as a commodity. (Coffee, incidentally, remains the second-most-traded commodity in the world after oil.)

Obviously, this is great for the farmers. Roasters pay more than traditional brokers, the auction competition drives up prices, and the whole process builds their prestige. It’s great for quality, too, since farmers know they have to deliver the best beans to be included in these auctions. (Cup of Excellence, for example, blind tastes its farmers’ submissions and invites only the best to participate in its auctions.) And it’s great for the environment, since many roasters place a premium on buying mostly, or even exclusively, from growers who practice sustainable agriculture.