Half the U.S. population drinks some type of specialty coffee beverage—cappuccinos, lattes, macchiatos, iced coffees—and 30 million Americans consume these types of drinks daily, according to E-Imports of Vancouver, Wash. Specialty coffee sales account for nearly 8 percent of the total U.S. coffee market—similar to the craft beer segment of the total U.S. beer market—and sales are growing by 20 percent per year.
And as with the craft beer industry, quality is paramount in providing the experience customers are looking for in specialty coffees.
“Throughout the farm-to-cup supply chain there is a lot of quality control that takes place through the normal transactional process, by exporters, importers, roasters, private label brands, and retailers,” says Spencer Turer, vice president of coffee operations for Coffee Analysts. His firm, based in Burlington, Vt., provides independent analysis of coffee and coffee products for all of the above stakeholders.
(A word about terminology: The Specialty Coffee Association of America defines “specialty coffee” in a specific way, referring to the quality of the beans and their preparation. For the purposes of this brief discussion, “specialty coffee” means espresso-based beverages such as lattes and cappuccinos.)
“Coffee is an exotic item,” Turer says, with green coffee coming predominantly from outside the U.S. “We talk about a global industry, but it’s not one industry. Definitions for terminology may be different from country to country, from one producing origin to another. Understanding the language of green coffee allows buyers and sellers to communicate more effectively, without ambiguity.”
Canned coffee in the grocery store is usually a blend of coffees designed to produce a specific flavor profile of taste and aroma. The quality emphasis for manufacturers is to make sure the coffee looks, smells, and tastes the same way every time, Turer says.
While the quality of the beans and their production is important, water quality is also a high priority. The standards for quality of brewed coffee established by the Coffee Brewing Institute in 1952 by Dr. E.E. Lockart, Food Science professor at MIT, still holds true today, Turer says.
“When you’re brewing coffee, you want to extract 18 to 22 percent of the materials from the ground coffee during the process. The final beverage should have 1.15 to 1.35 percent brew solids. The rest is water. So with such a high percentage of water in the beverage, it is important for the water to be the right vehicle,” he says. It is essential to establish a system that can maintain the level of dissolved solids, neutral pH, remove any impurities or aromas, and eliminate components such as sodium that can be harmful to the extraction process and affect the flavor of the final product.
Another level of complexity is added with espresso-based drinks, he says. “A single espresso has a much higher ratio of brew solids to water than a drip coffee. The process happens so quickly, with such small amounts of coffee and water, that any variation in any of the attributes of the grind-dose-tamp-extraction process get magnified dramatically in the beverage.” Add to this the variations introduced by the use of steamed or warmed milk and other ingredients, and “the amount of quality control for baristas making espresso drinks is much more detailed than with drip coffee,” Turer says. “It takes one skill set to be able to do it well, and another skill set to be able to do it consistently.”
Turer likens the barista to “a coffee chef or a highly skilled bartender.” The skills of baristas are part science and part art, and employee development is essential for the retailer. Many of the functions on the scientific side can be supplied by automation, however, and some retailers with multiple outlets lean in that direction.