Highlights From The Specialty Coffee Expo 2023
The Specialty Coffee Expo, April 21st-23rd, 2023 was held at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, OR and saw 33,000 coffee enthusiasts from every segment of the industry gather in homage to the best coffees on the planet Earth.
When I say every segment of the industry, imagine suppliers to cafes in both edible products and equipment. Sleek espresso machines that remind one of Ferraris, automatic and manual brew systems, glass and cup ware, recyclable flatware, roasting machines, processing equipment, meters to read moisture and TDS (total dissolved solids) in coffee, label makers, sticker makers, printing gear, tents, promo items, as well as coffee growers from around the world, roasters big, medium and small from all over the country. Cleaning products, innovative café tools, and the launch of new products by established brands. Packaging of every shape and size, covers for your coffee urns, alternative milk (oat, soy, almond) producers, and even apparel producers that will brand your company logo on an endless variety of wearable goods. Trainers, lecturers, and industry leaders share information, barista competitions, and of course, meet-and-greet social events to create industry relationships.
In this gathering of people who have dedicated their lives to quality coffee, I met hundreds of players, attended 7 lectures, and had many conversations with coffee pros on topics ranging from pricing to coffee trends in roasting and processing.
I wanted to share a few “highlights” with my faithful blog readers. Things that most people probably aren’t aware of but may be relevant to your coffee life.
Ken Davids, a guru in the Specialty coffee world, and author of some of the most well-regarded publications in specialty coffee is the chief editor and co-founder of Coffee Review. If you would like to read a coffee site that is at the top of the industry this is it. I attended Ken’s lecture called Specialty Coffee in the 21st Century. What struck me most were two things he said.
1) “I don’t like when people compare coffee to wine, I understand there are similarities, but as products, they are very different, especially in terms of shelf life. The main idea is that specialty coffee is about giving the respect, care, and attention to coffee that a winemaker gives to his wine.”
2) Anaerobic coffee processing has become the biggest coffee trend in the specialty world, meaning that, at some point in their journey from tree to drying table, the beans are sealed inside tanks to ferment with no (or very little) exposure to oxygen, discouraging oxygen-loving, sweet-alcohol-promoting yeasts while encouraging oxygen-averse bacteria. The flavors created are bright and fruity and aromatic, surprising to even long-time coffee pros.
The Specialty Coffee Association is in the process of updating several assets that apply to the industry. The Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel was updated in 2016 (created in 1995) but currently, they are re-evaluating the concept of “sweetness” which is a big deal in coffee but not well understood. As the research continues, expect a new understanding and evaluation method to determine sweetness as related to coffee.
The SCA is also evolving its cupping chart/system to go a little deeper into the description/evaluation of the coffee, but will also include an “extrinsic” evaluation section that will allow cuppers to assign value to a coffee in a different way. Previously, coffee was described only as it was on the table, its “intrinsic” nature, but in modern times where it was grown, the processing method, the tree variety, certifications, and sustainability practices, can all be added in the section called “extrinsic” and add another value component to coffee.
Alpha and Beta testing are underway and SCA will continue to evaluate progress in practical use.
That may have sounded technical, but what it means for coffee drinkers who like really good coffee is not just the “what” (the actual coffee) but the “where” (origin, elevation, farm) and the “how” (processing method, certification standard), the “who” (grower, co-op, producer) and the “why” (social good, regenerative practices) will continue to grow as part of the value of coffee. This has been an ongoing evolution but what starts as a coffee trend, when good, becomes the norm.
Grab & Go
The technology of getting high-level specialty coffee in cans and bottles and preserving its character and integrity continues to improve and consumers can increasingly expect some of the best-brewed coffee in the world preserved in a grab-and-go format.
While there was a lot of discussion at the session I attended and many participants didn’t seem to agree that it could ever be the same, our presenter was confident that they would be surprised. As coffee trends go, we will see.
Also, note that Cold Brew is officially here to stay. What was once thought of as a passing coffee trend, now has a loyal, multi-generational following of consumers. As cold brewed coffee tends to be easier to can and bottle, look for cold brews to dominate the Grab & Go market for the next few years.
There are of course exceptions that trend higher, but the price point for fresh roasted specialty coffee has hovered around $18-22 per 12 ounces for almost six years. That $30ish a pound price does not reflect the current reality of higher utility and transportation costs, increased packaging costs, and a host of other concerns.
While it is understood in the specialty coffee world that there is nothing to celebrate in cheap coffee (both at the human level and in terms of health) roasters in this session indicated that they have difficulty getting that message out. When they go above the $22/12 ounce threshold, they see a decrease in sales. They are absorbing the loss.
It was brought up that restaurants that used to have the $30/40 plate boundary have blown by it post-pandemic and it is easy to find 50/60/70 dollar dishes all over the country.
Possible solutions include educational programs to teach people why Specialty Coffee is so much better, programs to teach people how to make coffee which allows them to experience coffee at its highest level, and hammering the message that when broken down by the cost per cup, specialty coffee is still well within the reach of most people, especially when compared to the cost at the café.
My takeaway was that prices are going up.
The All-Day Café Culture
The last coffee trend I will share with you is an interesting one. Most of us born in the ’60s and ’70s saw the evolution of the café in the United States from a quick-bite restaurant to a comfortable place where we can conduct business, hang out with friends, and have some “me” time.
Those born in the 80s and 90s, that cafe space has always existed, and is not only a non-judgmental safe space, but is a place to recharge their phones, use free wifi, with no pressure to “move along”. For those born in the 2000s, the local café has really become a second living room, a place to reset, and for many the center of social interaction.
Therefore, cafes are evolving toward the all-day café model. Stop by in the morning for coffee or tea, swing back at lunch for something healthy, avocado toast, or a hand-made sandwich, salad, or smoothie, and come back in the evening for wine or beer, music, art, poetry, and a place to showcase talent in the neighborhood. Events, holidays, and even special educational sessions give you a constantly changing variety of stimulation that bonds you to your local café.
Café-organized volunteer events (clean-ups, community events, etc) will give you a chance to meet café staff off-site and further bond in an environment of doing social good. Cafés will use social media to keep you in the loop, share news and even give you inspiration and you may find yourself checking the feed several times a day. The staff will know your name, and this all-day café will become a bigger part of your daily life.
At least that is the dream.
About the Author
Matt Carter is a retired teacher (1989-2018), part-time musician, farmer, and currently manages Greenwell Farm’s Tour and Retail Store Operations.