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Coffee Con 2013

Saturday, I had the pleasure of attending the second annual Coffee Con here in the Chicago of the only coffee conventions around for consumers, not a trade show for those in the industry. I was there at the first-ever (free) version last year and enjoyed myself greatly. Even got a chance to hear the great Geoff Watts of Intelligentsia. (More about another coffee buyer shortly.) I debated in my head whether I wanted to go this year. It's about a 30 minute drive from our front door and there was a ticket price this time around. I got a lot of good info last year in brewing, grinding, and other seminars so I wasn't sure how much more I "need" to know. But, fortunately, I Tweeted my hesitation and received a free ticket code in my Direct Messages as persuasion. After all, I was in the market for a quality coffeemaker. What better opportunity?

I've been thinking a lot lately about being any field. I'm not talking "beyond expert" here to the point where there's nothing else to learn. There will always be something more. I just mean that ground between "complete lack of knowledge about where to even begin" and "knowing the things that other people don't which makes the difference." I was struck during a brewing hands-on with a Chemex. (A method where I love the results but find the process tedious at 6am. For those who don't know, it involves two joined glass beakers, a filter, and you slowly pour hot water over the grounds. It creates an amazingly flavorful, balanced cup of coffee for a variety of science-geeky reasons I won't go into.) The woman running the demo, a Head Roaster at a local coffee company, was carrying my exact burr grinder under her arm and had a lot of interesting, esoteric things to say about grinders, air circulation in roasting and brewing, the interplay between oxygen and carbon dioxide in coffee, etc.. And she also very poorly answered a question from a befuddled, older lady in the back who had a question about...well, what the hell is all this about? She was confused. She'd entered the world of high-quality, specialty coffee consumers and it was clear the amount of info for the day was leaving her brain fried.

I know a lot about coffee--enough to follow the complicated conversation about the nuances of coffee production and offer my own thoughts. And enough to want to answer the poor, confused lady's question in a more simplified way. If you don't know the proper temperature for coffee brewing (about 200 degrees) or that your coffee needs to be ground directly before brewing, it matters not that you don't know the difference between grinders or what method will get you the best floral notes in your cup. That, in my opinion, is what has so many ignorant consumers buying the horrible Keurig-type pod systems or buying expensive Starbucks when they could actually be getting better coffee at home...CHEAPER. People like convenience, first of all. But even more, people hate inaccessible, intimidating coffee snobs. I've written some about this in the endurance sports culture as well...being welcoming to new populations joining the ranks. How to be more "come as you are" and less "do what I do."

For what it's worth, I came away with a new coffeemaker. It's simple. I'm unplugging my old drip (wrong temperature, inability to make less than a full pot and have it taste good) in favor of a porcelain pot called the Sowden Softbrew.

All you do is heat water on the stove to the proper temperature, put the grinds in the specially designed micro filter, let it sit for 4 minutes, serve. It produces an amazingly flavorful cup of coffee that gets a nice mix (for me at least) of body and the delicate tastes and smells in the high quality coffee I buy and roast myself. Basically, my old coffeemaker was making flat coffee from good beans. Why ruin the "good stuff" if everyone else in the long process has taken great care to not ruin it? 

Anyway, switching topics, I had the pleasure to listen to Christy Thorns in the afternoon at the convention. She is Director of Sourcing and Quality Control for Allegro Coffee. And she blew my mind. I've had a lot of questions lately about why the coffee farms I normally love have been producing beans that are lower in flavor lately. Even high quality coffee has been hard to find that "spark" of perfection. Whether it's stuff I roast myself or if I'm getting it from a professional roastery. Well, folks, blame climate change. Coffee cherries require temperature shifts and warmer temperatures tend to ripen the fruit faster...producing less flavor. She also had informational things to say about leaf problems in Guatemala. Berry bugs in Kona, Hawaii. And whether all those certifications like Fair Trade or Bird Friendly make a difference. She buys a lot of organic coffee and is also said she's a particular fan of Rainforest Alliance. But she, generally, likes these 3rd party programs because Direct Trade with farmers has less accountability. Then again, Direct Trade also tends to foster long term relationships between coffee buyer and coffee farmer, so that's good. I have previously taken the stance that these 3rd party programs are tedious and spend money and resources in ways that could be better spent in direct one-on-one relationships. But I've maybe come around to Christy's point of view a bit...I can see room for both and see the value of both. I also left with a powerful message about buyers taking the finest coffee from a farmer and leaving the farmers stuck with the majority of a crop that doesn't meet our high standards for excellence. That's a tough problem--we want to improve coffee production quality, but don't want to hurt the growers. Is the solution there an incentive for high-quality coffee? Definitely. Especially, as Christy discussed some, if that money goes back into improving the output on the farm. Essentially, commodity coffee has stayed relatively flat over the last few years...industry growth is in the specialty coffee segment. 

But, back to my earlier point, the more we can educate coffee drinkers about how to drink good coffee, the more we can help coffee farmers with sustainable practices that are good for the wallet and good for the land.