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In February the SCA hosted the event AST Live in Berlin and so our Head of Coffee, Sensory Trainer extraordinaire and Q-Grader Kasia and I decided to fly across and see what all the hoopla was about.

The event was scheduled to run across three days from the 26th-28thof February with key-note speeches from industry professionals such as Morten Münchow from CoffeeMind and Jean-Xavier Guinard from UC Davis including some in depth course workshops for specific modules run by those who had helped create the curriculum which we all teach.

All of the information we received aside, the thing I really took away from the few days was that there is still, according to those at the event, a gap between the specialty industry, namely the roasters and baristas, and the general public.

This leads us to two questions:

  1. What is it that is causing the gap?
  2. What can we do to bridge it?

Before answering I would like to mention that I am speaking by and large about espresso based drinks in mainland Europe here as the specialty scenes in the United States and Australia are different and it’s not where my personal experience lies.

During the module workshop with Dan Townsend we discussed briefly the culinary traditions of countries, especially those who held on with strength to that tradition. For instance, Italian food is influenced largely by big, salty, herby flavours but you will also find plenty of bitterness there as well in food and drink such as roasted artichokes and Campari. Therefore it stands to reason that in their coffee they would also want big flavours and are more than happy to drink it bitter.

The specialty industry, certainly in its infancy, leant heavily on avoiding any bitter coffee which then led to the increasing presence of acidity* coffee. What we have to bear in mind here is that it is surprisingly seldom that acidic flavours really turn up in the food we eat in the west, especially that which we would have eaten as children. We now, therefore, have a predicament, particularly in mainland Europe – by and large, our palates are not developed and educated towards acidic flavours, so why would we want it in our coffee?

The simple answer is that most people don’t and this is part of where the gap is occurring in my opinion. From my experience I have found that customers are far more likely to accept some small amount of bitterness in their brew rather than acidic notes. This is why you will (marketing aside) have people continue to go to the likes of Starbucks and Caffe Nero while in my experience many of the old school specialty roasters who under-develop their roasts, which in part is in an attempt to avoid bitterness, will continue to find their sour roasts undesired by the masses.

This is what I mean when I mention the term “Industry Led Coffee”. Coffee that is roasted and brewed to the specs and desires of the roasters and baristas with very strong opinions how they feel coffee should be made irrespective of what the common desire of the consumer market is. This, unfortunately, leads to the industry remaining quite insular.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying this in an attempt to be negative, the people within the industry create coffee the way they do out of passion and a desire for the work of the farmers and producers to be showcased at its very best. All I want is for us to be able to showcase this work to greater numbers of people.

What I have found during my time working in London however is that those old specialty ideas have been tempered by coffee shop owners and roasters looking to make a decent living out of the product they love so much while still holding to the core value of specialty coffee – providing the highest quality and attention to detail through every stage of the coffees development from bean to cup. Essentially what I’m saying is in order to bridge the gap, we must be willing to listen to those who we wish to purchase our product.

What I mean when I mention “Customer Led Coffee” is that those involved in the process of creating this drink, to an extent, put aside their personal feelings on how they might want the coffee they drink themselves to taste. That they understand what the public wants to drink is as, if not more, important than our personal opinions if we want this cool industry to keep growing. Then, by utilising their knowledge and skills they can create something softer, sweeter and generally more palatable which year on year will bring more people, more interest and ultimately more money into this relatively small industry that desperately wants the world to accept it!

The change has already begun, long may it continue.

Mike O’Riordan
Head of Training, Artisan Coffee School

* When I speak of acidity in coffee in mean in positively, however when I say sour, it is intended to be negative.