Thursday, December 31, 2009

   from Nick

The Decade's Top Ten in Specialty Coffee

The internet has been flooded with decade retrospectives, but I haven't seen any involving coffee so I thought it would be fun to try to put one together myself. Here's my list, in no particular order, of the ten most significant things in leading-edge specialty coffee in the decade from 2000 to 2009. I welcome your comments, edits, questions, criticisms, or outrage. The standard disclaimer about "This is mainly to inspire dialogue and discussion and not to make any definitive claims or declarations" applies. Enjoy!


In 2000, baristas from fourteen countries competed at the very first World Barista Championship competition. Created to be an educational tool as much as it was a showcase of talent, the WBC has emerged as the decade's most significant vehicle in spreading the message of quality specialty coffee throughout the world.

With over 60 participating countries from Argentina to Zambia, the WBC and its standards inspired the barista world to start paying attention to factors like consistent dosing and tamping, taste balance, and station management. As videos of the competitions started to find their way onto the internet a couple years ago, the specialty coffee industry had a showcase like none other.

In more recent years, the barista competitions have been able to promote ideals in coffee roasting, processing and cultivation, in addition to preparation and presentation. The icing on the cake is the development of the global community that has emerged surrounding the WBC and its enthusiasts around the world.

Capsule Coffee

Nespresso, Keurig, Senseo, Tassimo, Flavia, iperEspresso, ESE… though the first capsule coffee machines debuted in the 1980's, the 2000's, revenues from just the top four companies now total over $3 billion USD annually and represent one of the most accessible ways for consumers to engage specialty coffee.

As the leading-edge of the coffee industry began promoting specific origin coffees and a variety of roast profiles, the capsule-coffee makers followed suit, albeit in a pre-ground format of varying quality. The impact of this consumption category is undeniable, and the ease-of-use and consistency of these devices makes it a strong competitor to other brew-at-home equipment for many years to come.

PEARL Project

Birthed in 2000 at the Michigan State University Institute for International Agriculture, Drs. Dan Clay, Emile Rwanasirabo, and Timothy Schilling, aided by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) the PEARL Project (Partnership for Enhancing Agriculture in Rwanda through Linkages) took the fledgling coffee industry of Rwanda and, with the help of specialty coffee buyers and traders, developed the vital infrastructure towards a world-class coffee origin country.

The reverberations have been felt throughout the specialty coffee world, and while Rwanda continues to develop its coffee industry with the SPREAD Project ("Sustaining Partnerships to Enhance Rural Enterprise and Agribusiness Development," which is focused on developing access to international markets), other developing economies with nascent coffee exports have found great inspiration by the successes in Rwanda, who just announced $50 million USD in 2009 coffee exports, more than double the 2000 export total of $22.4 million USD.

Intelligentsia, Stumptown, Counter Culture

There are certainly larger and more famous coffee companies out there, but it's hard to deny the effect that these three specialty roasters have had in the U.S. and throughout the world during the second half of this decade.

Often referred to as Intelli, The Stumptown, and CCC, the rise to prominence of these roasters ran parallel courses. So much so, that they appeared alongside one another as characters in Michaele Weissman's book, "God in a Cup." Commitment to the highest standards coffee quality, tireless promotion of their ideals, and a dedication to development work with producers at origin helped redefine what it means to be a specialty coffee roaster.

Of course, as in the 2008 book, the companies are celebrated for their personalities as much as their coffees. The reputations of Geoff Watts, Duane Sorenson, and Peter Giuliano had new entrants to the industry quickly saying, "When I grow up, I want to be a green coffee buyer!"

The impact of these three companies has only begun, and apart from their continued work in their respective markets, they have inspired a growing number of inspired offspring and emulators. Vancouver's 49th Parallel, San Francisco's Ritual, New York's Cafe Grumpy, and others started out as wholesale customers of the "Third Wave Big Three" before starting their own roasting operations.

Cup of Excellence

Utilizing a one-two punch of quality assessment and market trading, the Cup of Excellence program took the model of Kenya's Nairobi coffee auctions to eight Latin American coffee producing countries, and more recently back to east Africa.

The Cup of Excellence (CoE) awards quality scores to submitted coffees in each participating country, then awarding the top scoring coffees by selling them in an online auction. Hundreds of coffee lots have been auctioned to date, and thousands of coffee producers, traders, and buyers have reassessed their understanding of coffee quality, as well as the monetary value of coffee excellence.

The first CoE was in 2000, and ten years later, the brand is synonymous with the absolute highest ideals of specialty coffee: superb quality, rewarding excellence, and facilitating relationships.

Online Blogs and Forums

The power and influence of the internet continued its exponential growth this decade, and specialty coffee was not spared its impact. So much so, that in certain circles, it would seem that the importance of knowledge and information about coffee is in danger of outshining the importance of coffee quality itself.

The source of so much of the hoopla are the numerous online coffee forums and web-blogs that have popped up this decade. was the grandaddy of online coffee discourse, leading the way for sites like and Australia's Coffee Snobs for consumers and Coffeed and the Roasters' Guild forum for professionals.

Blogs gave enthusiasts and professionals alike a medium to share perspectives and information about coffee. This created an interesting and dubious phenomenon of the coffee-blogger, with the associated coffee-celebrity status bestowed upon the most prolific writers.

Forums and blogs have indeed created or fanned the flames of many of the controversies in the industry this decade, but they have unquestionably helped spread the lasting ideas and ideals vital to the development of specialty coffee.

The Coffee Wars: Starbucks vs. Dunkin Donuts vs. McDonalds

It was simmering for years, but in 2008 and 2009 the media couldn't get enough of the "Coffee Wars."

Starbucks' growth this decade was hitting full-stride when McDonalds and Dunkin Donuts decided to take on the Green Mermaid head-on. Both McD's and DD were founded around 60 years ago, and while Dunkin Donuts had already established itself as a major player with reportedly about half of its $5.5 billion dollar (in 2008) business coming from coffee sales, McDonald's has in its arsenal the sheer mass of its 31,000 locations (roughly double the number of Starbucks cafes).

Print and television commercial campaigns, bolstered by media stories about taste-tests and store closings and openings, had consumers worldwide choosing sides and declaring their allegiance.

Starbucks has been widely credited as being a significant gateway for consumers to later engage higher-quality specialty coffees. As more companies get involved in mass-market lower-end specialty, the future for the top-end specialty coffee market only looks better.


Perhaps the most misunderstood force in the specialty coffee industry, the 27 year old Specialty Coffee Association of America continued to mold, shape, and lead the global industry through the decade. Scarred by over-dramatized politics, financial scandals, and being the target of misconceptions, the SCAA's positive effects on the industry often go unrecognized.

The Roasters' Guild, Barista Guild of America, the Coffee Quality Institute and its numerous projects, the World and US Barista Championships, annual Symposium and Exposition, regional training events, and various certification programs have provided professional development for tens of thousands of coffee professionals.

Nowhere, however, do you see the fingerprints of the SCAA more than at coffee producing countries, through its various programs and standards, as well as the work of its staff and many volunteers. As the industry and global landscape changes, the specific work of the SCAA will change as well, but its continued importance and relevance is a certainty.

Roast Dates

Perhaps a small blip on the past decade's radar, the next few years will solidify the significance of the imprinting of the roast date on retail whole bean coffee packaging.

The inclusion of roast dates is a clear indication of a roaster's philosophy concerning freshness. Certain roasters measure "freshness" in months, while others measure it in days. While other considerations, such as roast degree, processing method, varietal, etc. do provide some indication of coffee quality, freshness standards influence how consumers and retailers purchase coffee in a unique way.

A huge hurdle for the industry and consuming public to overcome is treating coffee more like fresh produce instead of a shelf-stable product. Roast-dates and the resulting buying and consuming patterns are the most significant way to continue to address this.

Kopi Luwak

Whether you love it or hate it... or rather, whether you hate it or just dislike it, everyone working in specialty coffee has had to answer questions about Kopi Luwak coffee dozens of times.

It certainly wouldn't make anyone's "best coffees of the decade" list, but it certainly got people thinking and talking about coffee quality who might otherwise not. In a decade that popularized "a five-dollar cup of coffee" as a derogatory phrase for something that's unreasonably-expensive but commonplace, Kopi Luwak was a nice target for everyone's disgust… something that we could all comfortably poo-poo. (sorry).

Coming soon: Coffee of the Decade, Coffee Personality of the Decade, Roasting Device of the Decade, and Coffee Preparation Device of the Decade. Your nominations are welcome!


Blogger trish said...

that roast date thing is gonna cause a controversy. how dare you, nickcho!

1/01/2010 05:09:00 AM  
OpenID 6p00d8341c0ee253ef said...

If it's "leading edge" coffee, then including Kopi Luwak seems a stretch.

Unless we missed it, the rising consumer awareness of certifications (FT, USDA, Rainforest, Shade Grown) are missing from the list. While the average consumer may not understand the inner workings of each, more and more are specifically looking for those labels.

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