The New Coffee Roasting Arms Race

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The coffee industry is in the midst of yet another renaissance. While we first saw a Starbucks-led explosion of customize-able coffee (“medium roast,” “a two-hundred skinny mocha with no whip and an extra shot” in the ‘90s, the small, third wave coffee industry is booming. Last year, there were more than 1800 coffee shops in New York City and, according to what scant research there is, anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 shops in the United States. The other new factor defining the new age of coffee is an attention to detail that takes coffee to a level of fussiness previously only seen in wine circles, which isn’t surprising, given that coffee contains two-to-three times as many flavor compounds as wine. Indeed, every shop and every roaster has business practices and farmer relations unique to them. 

To understand what’s happening in coffee, you’ve got to know a few basic things: a single origin implies that coffee is all from the same farm (or collection of farms); coffees grown at a higher elevation, and thus cooler climates, take longer to mature, allowing for more complex sugars, and so taste better; Arabica beans have more complex flavors than Robusto beans, but contain less caffeine; basically every coffee company, including the ones discussed here, taste beans through a cupping and scoring process as outlined by the Specialty Coffee Association of America and every little thing (rainfall, sunlight, frost, roast time, roast temperature, brew time, brew temperature, humidity, roast date, age of coffee when it was roasted, etc.) can and does affect the taste of coffee. “That’s the amazing thing about coffee,” says Amanda Byron, Director of Coffee for Joe Coffee in NYC. “All of those variables, as frustrating as they can be, make for so many amazing possibilities.”

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And to see the real, nationwide, transformation that coffee is undergoing — you might not believe this — you want to visit a Starbucks. You’d be forgiven if, upon entering the new Starbucks store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, you mistake it for just another run-of-the-mill Starbucks, its neutral brick and natural wood décor some kind of milquetoast sign that Williamsburg is dead. That’s not the case, though, and once you recover from the shock of ordering a sugary drink like a caramel macchiato in Brooklyn’s hippest neighborhood, you might even start to realize that this isn’t your typical Starbucks. 

This location has what the company calls a Reserve Bar. It’s where Coffee Master and Store Manager Brandon Giles and his team brew up Starbucks’ Reserve coffees on all sorts of rotating methods. (Clover, single origin espresso, cold brew, French press, more.) Giles, who has worked for the company for more than nine years, treated me to a single origin Colombia espresso and it was quite good with an easy, bright smoothness to it. To be completely honest, the experience didn’t change my opinion of the place — this is the only one of its kind, after all — but it definitely made me rethink it. 

Let’s be clear: Starbucks is not becoming what is now known as a specialty or boutique coffee shop. It’s too big a beast. Their coffee will always be served months off the roast date. Their stores will not be staffed with a team as well educated as Giles, if only because a nine-and-a-half-year employee is like a unicorn in the coffee industry. But, what must be recognized is that Starbucks is making strides in changing the way a certain segment of their customers approaches coffee — Starbucks is educating them, as they say. And that is key to the furthering of coffee culture in the United States. 

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Of course, there are hundreds of coffee shops that don’t need an education — and are pioneering the coffee revolution. One such coffee shop, which is in NYC-based but roasts in Millerton, NY, is Irving Farm, founded in 1996. Like many of the current roasters in NYC, Irving Farm didn’t roast their coffee from the get-go. They were simply a café, with a goal, as Director of Wholesale Teresa von Fuchs says, of being a neighborhood café — fitting in with their neighbors, getting along with their community, that kind of thing. “When Dan [Streetman] started forming relationships with farmers, they wanted to apply that same neighborly mindset.” Von Fuchs insists on the company’s devotion to sustainable growing practices, which is basically this: ensuring that farmers can actually afford and live by farming.  “As an industry, especially a niche industry, we’ve done a shitty job of talking about the things that are important, and instead are focused on talking a lot about why we’re special,” she says. "And that needs to change.”  

This idea — sustainability — is one that most coffee companies will claim as important. Anthony Carroll, Starbucks’ Manager of Coffee Quality, insists that that company’s Reserve coffee, a line of limited, mostly single origin beans, comes from farms with exceptional stories. When pressed, though enthusiastic, Carroll seemed unable to come up with anything beyond the company’s approved language. This isn’t necessarily a problem: Starbucks is not Irving Farm. It is not a small company with three full-time roasting employees. It roasts a rumored hundreds of millions of pounds of coffee per year (Starbucks wouldn’t release an official figure), and places like Irving Farm roast 300,000 pounds per year. To put it bluntly, no matter how much effort Starbucks puts into fitting in to the specialty coffee scene, it will never be a specialty coffee company. 

La Colombe Torrefaction — a Philadelphia-based roaster founded in 1994 that has since taken over Philly and SoHo —? roasts more than 2 million pounds of coffee per year. La Colombe has brand new cafes in NYC, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., and roasts primarily in Philadelphia, with facilities forthcoming in Chicago. The company tends to roast things darker than most specialty coffee shops — medium-to-light roasts are, to the chagrin of some, becoming the trend because of the light roasting’s tendency to highlight the subtler notes in beans. The cafes also famously spike their iced coffee with a double shot of espresso. 

But, unlike Irving Farm, La Colombe started as a roaster and is now moving forward with more ethically focused practices. James Tooill, who is in charge of the single origin program at the company, spoke extensively of the company’s efforts to rehabilitate the flagging coffee industry in Haiti. For example, farmers there will use holdover crops from the year before and mix it into fresh crops in order to make it appear that the yield is larger than it was. Tooill roasted those beans, old and new, and had the farmers taste the difference. It’s a small example, but it’s proof that, for most of the specialty coffee companies, things are becoming about more than just the end product. La Colombe even has a TV show about it.

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Truthfully, that ethos — or the appearance of that ethos — is perhaps the biggest distinguishing factor in coffee today. Starbucks’ product is always going to be different from the product of small, specialty coffee shops. And yes, some shops are going to have baristas that are better trained than others, and some are going to highlight some flavors over others. Something from Joe will be lighter than Irving Farm, which will be lighter than Stumptown, which will be lighter than La Colombe, and they’re all lighter than Starbucks. Some places, mostly the smaller cafes, will have coffee that is roasted days before it is brewed; some places will not. (A way to find this out is to check for a roast date on the retail bags offered in store. If there’s a “best by” date, such as on La Colombe’s packaging, it’s best to ask a barista.) 

All of the people I spoke to had the same thing to say about their intentions when it comes to roasting: The blends, which are not typically single origin (hence the word “blend”), are often roasted to fit a flavor profile. For instance, most places’ house coffee will be a blend that is comprised of beans that are roasted to taste like what Americans think of as “coffee,” so something like chocolate, caramel, a little nuttiness. Whereas with single origins, those coffees are chosen because of their singular taste, regardless of whether or not it will appeal to most customers. 

A lot of the established players in the coffee scene have mastered their niche, and are moving now to master other aspects of the coffee process, whether that means putting more focus on coffee itself or focusing on farmer relations. Neither of these things is more important than the other — the point is that the whole process must be respected. As far as who has the best coffee? Well, unfortunately, it’s a matter of preference — even if every company and café claims to have the best. 

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