Nearly 85% of the adult population in the US drinks coffee. In fact, we are the largest coffee consuming nation in the world. Americans drink roughly 400 million cups a day or 146 billion per year. These are astonishing numbers for an industry that less than 25 years ago was considered unexciting by most consumers. Then came Starbucks and the rest is history. We’ve gone from drinking mass-produced coffee to specialty coffee. Consumers today are more educated about coffee than ever before. In my case, and like many coffee drinkers out there, I know what I like, but my knowledge about coffee is limited.
During a recent trip to Los Angeles, I had the opportunity to meet with my friend Jorge Ruiz from Cerro Grande. He and his wife Sandra are both masters in their industry: master tasters, and walking encyclopedias on anything that has to do with coffee. Their expertise spans coffee farming to B2B to direct to consumer. Over a cup of coffee, we spoke about the industry and some of the latest trends:
What do you enjoy the most about your job and being involved with coffee?
I enjoy the conversations that coffee sparks in people. Every day I hear some unique stories that make me love what I do even more. From the novice consumer, to the farmer, to the expert roaster, all these stories have different perspectives, but they are all linked by a common thread of admiration for the beverage.
Who are the key players in the coffee industry?
Like a rope that is used to tighten something, each end is equally important. In the case of coffee, from the farmers whose life purpose is to look after their “Cafetales”(coffee plantations) like they are their children, to the consumers who find joy and comfort in their coffees, both parties purpose must be met to maintain the coffee continuum. This sounds basic, but it is a profound thought.
In between, there are a series of enablers that take care of the integrity of the aroma and flavor of coffee, and here’s where another key player: the coffee roaster, play a critical role.
What is the role of the coffee roaster?
Like an alchemist, the coffee roasters carefully study the green coffee’s origin and characteristics to develop the perfect formula to obtain the best flavors and purest aromas. A combination of fire (or hot air) and time transforms those seeds, from green to different brown tonalities. The colors and flavors vary based on the origin of the green coffee and the roast. Each roaster develops their secret blending and roasting style and thus, the coffee develops a full range of individual flavors and aromas.
Many people don’t know that most of the quality coffee consumed in the US, and other non-coffee producing countries for that matter, comes into the country as green coffee where it gets roasted.
Could you explain what green coffee is?
Once the coffee cherries are harvested, they go through a wet and dry milling station to extract the seed. During this process, the coffee begins a transformation by which that seed turns into what is known as green coffee. Green coffee is the result of processing a cherry fruit from a coffee plant, each cherry has 2 seeds, the taste is greener like chewing grass. And yes, green coffee has caffeine in it.
These days I hear a lot of talk about “cold brew”, “nitro brew”, etc. What do you think of these coffees? Do you think the trend is here to stay?
My perspective is that all these trends like cold brew, nitro, and infusion coffee are just scratching the surface of their full potential. I really believe that they are here to stay. Coffee is food, and it should be treated as such. In my opinion, there is no limit to its use. I like that the coffee industry is always evolving because this keeps consumers interested and engaged.
What do you think is going to be the next trend in coffee?
Coffee is an emotional beverage, and the idea of home roasting and creating a coffee beverage by transforming greens to browns is a pretty cool experience. In the US, a country where the Do It Yourself (DIY) ethos is part of the culture, the idea of home roasting can easily become popular. I don’t know whether you call it a trend or not, but I’m sure that in more kitchens and garages around the country the smell of freshly roasted coffee ready to be brewed will fill the air. The beauty of roasting is that there are a range of techniques, blends, and overall experimentation that people will get into.
What are some of your recently re-discovered profiles? From which regions, countries?
Let me see. There is Tolima, Huila and Bucaramanga regions in Colombia; The Copan region in Honduras; Veracruz, Oaxaca in México; Cajamarca, Junin in Peru; Kaffa, Sidamo, Kembata in Ethiopia, Matagalpa in Nicaragua.
Tolima has an interesting story behind it. This region used to be FARC territory, and the Colombian government is empowering the farmers in the region to start a new lifestyle. Honduras is a major producing region of high end coffees that still is pretty much unknown to the average coffee consumer. Each one has its unique flavor profile and individual journey in a cup.
How does the average person expand their knowledge of coffee and discover those unique regions such as Tolima? Where to start?
One of the best ways is by visiting local coffee roasters around you. Start a conversation and ask them about the coffee they are sourcing, and what’s special about it. Another great way to discover new coffees is by joining coffee enthusiast communities, like Long Beach Coffee Club here in Los Angeles. Finally, you can also discover new and exciting coffees at home by joining premium clubs like the LA Coffee Club. My recommendation is to taste these new coffees without sugar or milk to better appreciate their unique characteristics.
I recently read some articles about the California coffee growers industry? Have you tried the coffee? What are your thoughts?
Yes, I’ve tried it, and so far, so good. I think the main reason it is that good is because of the people who are behind it. A group of growers have enlisted a celebrity roaster to develop the style and character for the region. Credit must be also given to the one California grower who decided to bring some coffee seeds from Salvador to start harvesting it. He is also encouraging other California growers to follow his lead by giving away some of his coffee plants. I think we are about to see the birth of another US region to grow coffee besides Hawaii.
What are the biggest challenges these Californian growers face to compete in this overcrowded coffee industry?
Unveiling the uniqueness of its profile and the sustainability for the production. US consumers enjoy romanticizing about coffees from remote regions, however if California coffee can develop their own unique story, quality and authenticity I believe they will succeed.
Stay tuned as I dig deeper into this fascinating industry with Jorge, Sandra and friends.