Every year we eagerly anticipate the next Specialty Coffee Expo. It’s the biggest gathering in our industry, and there’s a lot of excitement and a lot buzz! It’s an opportunity for us to check in on current trends, sample some new origins, reconnect with the industry and meet up with a few of our roasters. It was a special treat this year to have the show in Seattle, a bonafide coffee town, STEEPED in Americana and a love for coffee.
To be fair, Seattle was practically built on coffee; it has a long history both in importing and roasting including scores of startup, so-called third wave operations. The culture is firmly established, the city is incredibly friendly, and if you look around you’ll quickly find the baristas, shop owners and enthusiasts—just try and count the number of people walking around with coffee cups instead of umbrellas! In all seriousness the industry owes a degree of gratitude to the (now) titans of coffee, in particular Starbucks, who opened their first café here in 1971. We had the chance to visit the flagship Starbucks Reserve, which is just blocks away from the convention center but more on that later.
Let’s tamp down on the show first!
The Washington State Convention Center is an impressive construct of glass, steel and natural light. The exhibition floor is over 400,000 sq feet and let me tell you it was mobbed. Friday was a zoo! Maybe 10-15,000 people on the floor, where most everything takes place including the brewer’s cup and barista competitions. The roaster’s village was upstairs on the second floor, where they hosted the US Roasters Championship. There were also classes, talks and networking mixers to attend; that said with everything going on it was difficult to see it all.
We saw more home and consumer exhibitors like Technivorm debuting new home/enthusiast brewing devices and focused on b-to-b opportunities to feature their products. It makes sense considering the number of roasting and retail operations that now function as a nouveau, urban marketplace for a new generation of coffee lovers.
Roasters and importers are pushing honeys and micro lots in an effort to show off the farms and something uniquely theirs. We will continue carrying our selection of choice micros and honeys with the understanding that all the extra work at the farms to produce micros comes at a cost. You’ve got to separate the plants, separate the cherries, pulp them separately, wash them separately—there’s an entire apparatus that needs to be in place. With that in mind micros work really well in retail environments where roasters and shop owners can highlight them as limited specials. IE this week only: Origin X, roasted on Monday and brewed Tuesday ‘til we run out! The farmers want to produce micro lots because they’re popular and more expensive per volume, but if we look at the wider picture, they have limited appeal and it’s our view that micros will continue to be both popular heavily marketed, but a niche offering nonetheless.Kenya made a big splash, showing out with a gigantic booth, tribal dancers and their own cupping event. This was very nice to see! In all our years attending the SCAA, we’ve never seen Kenya deliver such a commanding statement. The best Kenyan auction lots continue to command large premiums, but in recent years we’ve seen the demand waver slightly as roasters have sought after some of the other fantastic origins that have come into favor. Perhaps some came and saw this and said, “Oh yeah, let’s get some Kenya this year!”
Only a few blocks from the convention center is what might as well be the Willy Wonka factory of the coffee world. At a rumored cost of 15-20 million dollars and a total of 15,000 square feet, there’s not a roaster alive that wouldn’t appreciate this place – it’s unbelievable. The form, the function, the finishes, all of it’s top-of-the-line, making for as much of a visual experience as a sensory one. Starbucks is touting its quality, its smaller boutique lots (not necessarily micro), freshness and the back story. In a sense they’re getting back to their roots and really flexing their muscle in a show to the public that says, “Yes, we DO in fact know coffee, and we know it well.” It’s a refreshing trend actually; get back to basics and reconnect with today’s consumers who are becoming more and more information hungry as they become more educated in coffee. As for cups I had a Peruvian espresso, which was good I have to say. It was served in a demitasse cup and saucer on a wooden tray with a small bit of lemon cookie on the side. Nice touch! The baristas were top notch and the entire staff really knew their coffee down to the profile minutia.
At the end of the weekend, you sort of need a vacation from the vacation. Lots of meetings, lots of coffee, and little rest! The city that doesn’t sleep certainly lived up to its expectations – okay so that’s supposed to be New York, but who’s keeping score with the amount of caffeine being thrown around this town? Not us! We had a really great time too, by the way. Thank you to everyone who took the time to meet up and speak with us. You’re the reason we always look forward to attending and we truly hope to see all of you again next year!
Yours In Coffee,
Full SCA 2017 Report available online with additional content, our take on a few origins & cold brews and our discussions about Direct Trade and GrainPro.