The Future of Coffee: Artisanal Growers, Roasters, and You
Could coffee get more complicated?
There was a day when the only coffee options were black, with cream, or with sugar. My friend, those days are gone.
Today, there are lattes and frappes, cold brews and pour-over drips, single-source beans and artisan roasted special blends.
What’s a coffee fanatic to do?
Learn the lingo, that’s what! Artisan coffee and its ilk doesn’t have to be all that intimidating, not for the initiated. And that is about to be you.
Artisan Coffee: Know Before You Brew
Artisan coffee can be summed up in one word: quality.
The longer definition for artisan coffee is a little more complicated, because artisan coffee growers, roasters, and sellers go through so many different steps and processes to make your beans the very best for you and for the world.
Artisan coffee starts at the source: the coffee bush.
These hardworking and environmentally conscious growers put sustainability at the top of their lists. Their practices aren’t just good for the environment, though… they’re key to creating the best coffees this world has ever seen.
Brew Some Sustainability
Broad strokes: sustainable growing practices make sure that coffee planting, growing, and harvesting processes don’t hurt the earth or the people involved in its production.
But it’s pretty easy to slap a “sustainably made” sticker on anything, whether it’s coffee beans, a jar of pickles, or a package of Oreos.
So before you start buying everything that mentions “sustainable” on the label or in their product description, know what it means and know what to look for in terms of your coffee production. The world will thank you, as will the growers who are committed to a healthy earth.
Most coffee plants thrive in high altitudes on the steep slopes of mountains in Central and South America, Asia, and Africa. As people across the world keep drinking more and more coffee, coffee growers want to expand their farms to keep up with demand. Makes sense, right?
But what doesn’t make sense is cutting into rainforests and slapping down coffee farms wherever just to make a quick buck. Rainforests and jungles are important -- even more important than your morning coffee, believe it or not -- so exchanging those trees for our beans isn’t a good trade off.
And sometimes, coffee growers can’t (or don’t) put very much effort into making sure the land they’re growing on will be fertile for years after their initial planting. Especially on these steep mountain farms, erosion is a corrosive and deadly force that can change not only the coffee growing landscape but the physical one as well.
So what can you do? Don’t blindly believe the “sustainably farmed” label, check it out for yourself! Can the company actually give you examples of how they’re protecting their farmland?
Coffee beans + water = delicious.
Coffee production runoff + water = poison.
Coffee takes a lot of water, and not just in the brewing of your perfect cup. One cup of coffee requires about 37 gallons of water to grow and be processed, and that working water has to go somewhere.
If it’s just sent down the mountain to infiltrate the local river, stream, or lake, it’s bad news, and not just for people who like seeing a clear stream on their way to work.
Water pollution from coffee processing makes that water uninhabitable for fish and other marine life, undrinkable for people who live in the area, and even adds to climate change (because the polluted water releases methane into the air as it evaporates).
Make sure that your coffee growers know what’s up when it comes to water. It’s not just for the fish.
Coffee is a big industry. It employs over 120 million people in areas of the world where jobs are often pretty scarce. That’s great, right?
Yes and no. If coffee farms and plantations aren’t conscious of their employees as well as their farming practices, they might as well throw in the towel.
Think back to the water issue. 37 gallons per final cup of coffee is a ton of water. It’s important to know where that wastewater goes after the beans are processed, but it’s even more important to know where the water is coming from in the first place. Is your coffee grower trading someone’s water source for your morning jolt?
Coffee production is also a growing industry. To keep prices low (and get more people to buy their cheap coffee), some producers are increasingly decreasing their employee’s wages. Everyone wants to pay less for everything, but if your coffee is cheaper because someone is getting paid less for doing a hard day’s work, maybe reconsider.
Wait, How Do You Know?
Even if you can see on their website or label that they “treat employees right” or “don’t pollute,” you might not feel super secure about sustainability. So real quick, look for some of these.
It’s a lot, and your favorite coffee grower might not check all the boxes. That’s okay. The first step is knowing what you’re looking for at all.
Does Artisan Coffee End There?
The growing process is only the first of many steps in an artisan cup of coffee.
It’s about to get hot.
Image by unknown via pxhere CC0
So the beans are grown sustainably -- the fields of coffee plants are happy and not taking the place of any former rainforests, the water from coffee processing is dealt with in a way that doesn’t impact any drinkable water, and all of the coffee farm employees are earning livable fair wages for their hard work. Now what?
Not quite. Artisan roasted coffee isn’t necessarily artistic, and your beans won’t come out in different crazy colors.
But they will be more delicious.
Artisan coffee roasters pay more attention to their roasting processes, use special roasting machines, and employ all of their senses to give you the best-tasting beans on the planet.
These fabulous beans are often roasted in small batches and by roasters who pay lots of attention to the flavor in their product.
So if you’ve got a bag of artisan beans in front of you ready to be brewed, you’re in for a treat.
Who Made This Up?
If you’re in the wrong frame of mind, artisan coffee sounds like an attempt at getting you to pay more money for the same old coffee beans you’ve known and loved all your life.
Did straight-up capitalism build the perfect platform for artisan coffee and its pricey friends (the soy creamer and avocado toast spring to mind), or is there actually something to the trend?
The Third Wave (of Coffee) -- and the First, and the Second
It’s an ancient beverage with a lot of history, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that there have been massive changes over the years in how growers, sellers, and drinkers think of the drink.
As far as the United States goes, there have been three major trends in coffee, creatively termed the first, second, and third waves of coffee. Anyone else seeing a lake of coffee with splashing white-capped waves lapping at the beach? No? Okay.
Even though people had been drinking coffee for centuries, the 1800s is when the official first wave of coffee began.
Not a great time for coffee, tbh.
At least in terms of taste. In terms of marketing and sales, it was an awesome time for coffee.
This was a time of Folgers and Maxwell House, a time of quick-and-easy, ready-to-brew giant tin tubs of ground coffee.
The taste wasn’t excellent, but people started buying and drinking coffee by the gallon. Inventions like vacuum packed tins (removing air from the coffee and making it last longer), instant coffee (it doesn’t taste the same but it’s easy), Mr. Coffee brand coffee makers (giving the masses easy access to drip coffee) and the mass-marketing of coffee (thanks, Folgers) revolutionized the coffee world forever.
The times, they are a changin’.
After about a century of coffee complacency, the people wanted more.
More options, more flavor, more coffee.
The coffee drinking population wanted to know where their coffee was coming from, and they were no longer satisfied with cups of boiling black coffee. They wanted lattes! Vanilla! Specialty blends!
And Starbucks was there, waiting in the wings, ready to give the people what they wanted.
The now-ubiquitous company opened in 1971 and exploded, growing to almost 30,000 locations by 2018.
They weren’t the only ones. All sorts of specialty coffee shops opened during the second coffee wave, giving consumers overwhelming options when it comes to blend, type, and even coffee shop atmosphere.
Like the second wave of coffee, the third wave also wants delicious taste and flavor options.
Unlike the second wave, the third wave is more interested in its coffee’s beginnings.
Starting in the early 2000s, people began asking questions about their coffee. Where did you come from, they wanted to know. How does your production affect what I taste, and how does your production affect my world?
And thus artisan coffee was born.
Some big-name coffee producers were quick to engage, giving consumers proof of sustainably-sourced coffee (like Stumptown Coffee Roasters and Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea) while some third wave-favored coffee makers remain local, independently owned, and roasting out of their backyards or small businesses.
Image by Stumptown Coffee Roasters
You’re ready to take the plunge.
You’ve bought into the hype.
You believe in the magic of artisan coffees.
But how do you know which one of the millions to settle down with? There are so many choices, and you don’t want to spend your life regretting your decision to hastily start a life with a bean you hardly know.
There’s an easy way to select the best.
You just taste it.
And that’s it.
Start off with a bag of beans from a popular artisan coffee roaster. It can be a local business in your hometown or beans you buy online from a well-known company like Portland-based Heart.
While your cup is brewing, do a little bit of research. Where are the beans grown? What type of roasting method was used for your particular bag of beans? Jot down some notes, buddy.
Once it’s ready, start with a sip of pure, black brew. What do you notice? What do you like?
When you’re done, rinse and repeat. Maybe don’t try every single variety of artisan coffee you can find in one morning, but keep a running list of your faves. Artisan coffee has the advantage of strong, specific flavors, so it won’t be long before you have a clear-cut favorite. Or five.
Are All Beans Created Equal?
Yeah, okay, so taste is important. But how can you know -- like, really know -- that you’re getting a high-quality bean when it’s covered in bag?
Wait, didn’t we just do this?
Well, not quite.
Even if you taste a coffee and you love the coffee, there are some things you need to check off your list before you buy your next bag.
Make sure you’re buying whole beans, not pre-ground. Even if it’s the same exact company, roast, and style, it’ll taste way different if it’s pre-ground. When you grind the beans yourself, you control the size of the grind and the coffee beans get to keep their flavors longer.
If you can’t find a “roast date” on the bag, make a different choice. It’s different than “use by” and it’s even more important. The longer it’s been since the roast the less delicious it may be.
Where did it come from? Your tasting tour should have told you where your favorite coffees come from, but make sure you’re choosing bags that explicitly label their source. If it says “single source” and “Sumatra Mandheling,” you know all the beans came from one area, making the flavor of the coffee exactly what you want.
It Can Still Go Wrong?
Don’t force your beautiful, eclectic, artisan coffee to mingle with your nearly-expired skim milk.
The process of making a perfect cup of coffee doesn’t end with choosing the right beans. The ingredients you put in your coffee and the add-ins you use to make it perfect can destroy all of your hard work.
Toast to a Solo Roast
Hoo boy, are you ready for this?
Take hold of your coffee by the beans and start roasting them yourself!
Take a deep breath of that incredible coffee bean aroma and get ready to discover your next passion project, business venture, or the future of your family’s holiday and birthday gifts.
Consider Your Options
If you’re looking to go commercial, you’ll probably want to invest in your own roasting space and a roaster of your very own.
But if you just want to dabble in the roast as a hobby, think before you sign that line.
You could rent a roaster, share a roaster, contract a roaster. Talk to roasters in and around your community (physical or online) to get advice and suggestions. Roasting doesn’t have to break the bank.
Do You Have the Time?
You’ve thought. You’ve talked. You’ve debated.
You’re doing it, for real.
But do you have the time to be a real-life coffee roaster, like for real?
Coffee roasting is a delicate art, and so is deciding where you’re going to host your operations. To get started, you’ll need to have a location and a roaster, and choosing both can take time and money.
Even after you are all ready to go, keys and roaster start button in hand, it might take you a while to develop the perfect roasting method for your beans.
Are you in it for the long haul?
Where to Stick it?
Deciding where to roast your beans is no easy task.
Much of your decision depends on the type of roaster you choose.
Believe it or not, some roasters will fit happily in your kitchen. Other models need way more space (like 500 square feet would do). But there’s more than just base space to consider.
Image by Ken_leqoc via Pixabay
Roasting creates gas, and it’s a pretty bad idea to let it all just build up in your home or new business space. Make sure you come up with a way to let it out.
Your roaster will need to get in somehow… and so will your beans. As a roaster (especially if your endeavors get real big), your beans won’t arrive in little airlocked bags, they’ll come on great big pallets. Do your doors open wide enough for that?
You’ll also need water and electricity, obvs. If you’re not already hooked up, make it happen before you start rolling in the big guns.
Moisture in the air will change the drying process of your beans. Know the humidity of your location going in and be ready to make little adjustments if needed.
As a coffee roaster in the modern world, you’d better have some access. Check those internet and phone plans before settling for sure on a location.
Host a Roast
Whether you’re buying your own, renting one, or double-checking the legitimacy of your pre-roasted beans, the roaster is of ultimate importance.
Roasting can drastically change the flavor of your beans, so take the time to do it right.
The styles of roasters are almost as varied as the types of coffee they’ll eventually produce. Know what to look for if you know what’s good for you.
So What Do You Actually Do?
While you’re choosing a location and a roaster, make the most of your prep time by gaining some know-how. Visit other roasters, take a roasting class, hold your own tastings of beans from various areas of the world and with different roasting styles. The world is your oyster -- your beans can be like no beans have been before.
When you’re ready, start searching for the key component of your burgeoning business: the beans.
Use your contacts, use the internet, use your general business know-how to find the perfect supplier for you. Make sure that when you start your roasting, you’re always up front with where your beans are coming from -- after all, that’s the whole point of artisan coffee.
Experiment with different roasting methods, times, heats, and blends. Make your coffee as unique as you are, and you’ll find your niche even in a world full of roasters.
Just Brew It
So there it is, folks.
Artisan coffee is no joke: when you invest in artisan coffees, you’re investing in sustainable farming practices, fair wages for employees, and delicious, unique coffee flavors.
And, if you’re ready to take your artisan coffee to the next level, let yourself be inspired by the magic of roasting.
The future of coffee is here. Don’t get left behind.