When you sipped that first cup of coffee this morning, did you think about its flavor notes, acidity or mouthfeel?
Did you ponder how many miles the coffee had traveled from Guatemala or Ethiopia and how many people at each stage — harvest, processing, roasting and brewing — were responsible for its quality?
That's how roaster Nick Tabor of La Vista-based Beansmith experiences coffee.
“Each step of the way, any of us could fumble and ruin an amazing cup.”
He's not the only one who cares so much. Several metro-area coffee roasters say their businesses are evolving to accommodate a shift in coffee drinkers' palates and perceptions of quality.
At A Hill of Beans in west Omaha, sales patterns have shifted dramatically, so that the majority now come from what co-owner Martha Barbour considers a better product than the flavored coffee that used to dominate her sales. Now more people buy unflavored beans, both single-origin and blends, roasted to highlight the coffee's natural qualities.
Interest in specialty coffee has helped fuel rapid growth for Scooters, which brews single-origin roasts from its sister company, Harvest Roasting in Bellevue, and serves them alongside its espresso drinks in its 100 franchise locations. Harvest has also grown by supplying independent coffee shops with specially tailored roasts, while other independents like Blue Line Coffee want such freshly roasted coffee they roast it themselves.
Even much larger, commercial roaster LaRue has seen sales of specialty coffee and high-end brewing equipment grow.
“It went from hot and black to really more about the experience,” said Terry Herr, vice president of business operations.
And the evolution has made a small business like Beansmith possible. Owner Chris Smith, who previously sold filtered water accessories and serviced commercial coffee accounts, bought out a former partner, rebranded the company and now focuses strictly on the specialty coffee market.
At A Hill of Beans, Barbour wrinkles her nose a little when she talks about how, when she and her husband bought their coffee bean business seven years ago, flavored coffees made up three-quarters of their sales.
Now, while they haven't lost sales of flavored coffee like banana nut bread or Jamaican Me Crazy, Barbour says customers are becoming aware of the origin and natural flavors of different coffee varietals.
“Once you drink really delicious coffee, really exceptional coffee, you can't go back.”
She and husband Dave Barbour recently expanded their business into an adjacent storefront in the Harvey Oaks Plaza. They've gone from no employees to eight employees and, even with next to no concerted marketing effort, see new customers daily.
“Our customers are ones who 'at home making coffee' is the most important part of their day,” Martha Barbour said. “The focus here is on real coffee purists.”
The business' success has come from more of those “purists” buying what the industry calls “specialty” coffee. Industry-led focus groups show that the term sounds to consumers like it might refer to a sugary drink topped with whipped cream, but to roasters it means something else, something that can be hard to define.
The Specialty Coffee Association of America says specialty coffee is a quality bean that is treated with high standards at every point from cultivation to cup, including harvest, processing, roasting and brewing. It rates an 80 or higher on the association's 100-point “cupping” scale, which roasters use to evaluate the coffee's flavor, acidity, body, uniformity and other characteristics.
A separate group, National Coffee Association USA, found in its 2012 trend report that “gourmet” coffee consumption grew to 46 percent of all cups consumed, up from 37 percent in 2011, amid growth in overall coffee consumption.
That's leading to more opportunities for people like Tabor.
Inside a nondescript industrial building near 120th Street and Giles Road that oozes coffee aroma, he and Jason Burkum, the lead roaster at Beansmith, are in search of that high-rated cup.
They and Smith were thrilled when coffee-buying guide Coffee Review in August rated one of their roasts a 90. It was a bean from the Yirgacheffe region of Ethiopia. In a blind assessment, tasters called it honey-toned and juicy, with richly and gently bright acidity and a lightly syrupy mouthfeel. The same roast was chosen for the Craft Coffee subscription service, which provides monthly samples of specialty coffee to customers around the country.
“That was like: We are doing something right,” Smith said.
Even better, the company got word recently that another roast scored even higher in a November test: Coffee Review gave a 92 rating to Beansmith's Guatemala Huehuetenango Finca La Bolsa, calling it “lushly bright and complex” with “hints of chocolate, honey and night-blooming flowers.”
Beansmith still creates flavored coffees like pumpkin pie and maple bacon, because the roasters see them as helping customers get a “foot in the door” of specialty coffee.
But “the single-origins are booming for us,” Burkum said. He said customers are drawn by the “story” of the beans, down to their growing region and the individual coffee estate workers who cultivate each variety.
Burkum and Tabor know they are coffee snobs (“We wouldn't be good at our jobs if we weren't,” Tabor said), but they are friendly snobs who aim to bring others into the fold.
Beansmith in the next year has plans to create a tasting counter inside its facility called the “coffee lab” where customers can sample coffees and baristas can improve their techniques. Burkum said they want to be “part of the dialogue” here and around the country of where specialty coffee is going.
“It's such a young industry. There are so many corners being turned each month.”
The specialty coffee movement is considered by roasters to be the “third wave” of the modern coffee industry.
First came mass-market coffee. “Look at 50 years ago: It's Folgers and Butter-Nut and Maxwell House,” Burkum said.
Longtime Omahans will remember when Maryland Club Foods operated a downtown roasting facility, originally founded by the Paxton & Gallagher Co. From 1887 to 1990 it perfumed the business district with the smell of roasting coffee, notably Butter-Nut from 1913 to the time the plant closed. At one time, the 350,000-square-foot plant produced a million pounds of coffee a week.
Then came Starbucks and other national purveyors of espresso-based drinks.
Burkum and other specialty roasters have a love-hate relationship with Starbucks.
“No matter how much we all like to bash Starbucks in a tongue-in-cheek way for being the 'green giant,' they started this whole thing,” by exposing coffee consumers to new tastes, Burkum said. Don Eckles, president of Scooters and Harvest Roasting, feels the same way about McDonald's, with its McCafe line of gourmet coffee drinks.
“They're going to build a big pond of customers that said, 'I didn't even know I liked a mocha,' and then they come to our place, and we make really good ones,” Eckles said.
Now, third-wave connoisseurs are interested in the beans' origin and in roasting and brewing techniques that reveal the seed's unique characteristics.
Some Omaha coffee shops even roast their own coffee, so particular are their customers about its origins.
“When a coffee shop is buying coffee from somewhere else, you don't know what you're getting” or how recently it was roasted, said Blue Line Coffee owner Chris McClellan. “When it's fresh, it's good, and when it's not fresh, it's not very good.”
Especially in his north-downtown location, which gets more traffic from travelers who don't know about McClellan's roasting practices, customers ask. “They say, 'Where do you get your coffee, or who roasts it?'”
On the other end of the size spectrum, even Omaha's largest roaster, which supplies some 10,000 customers including gas stations, offices and institutions in 11 states, has seen a shift.
LaRue Distributing got its start 40 years ago with freeze-dried coffees, teas and soups, but Terry Herr, vice president of business operations, said the market has changed in the last three years. LaRue still sells Folgers, but it now roasts hundreds of types of coffee, including single-origin and custom blends. There's even licensed Husker coffee, including Red & White, Rowdy Nation and Game Day.
Consumers who want to try local roasts will in most cases need to go directly to roasters and coffee shops, bypassing grocery stores.
“We've looked at placing our coffee beans at grocery stores, but it's hard to do and keep the quality,” Eckles said. “Coffee is all about freshness.”
He said it's “crazy” when a can or bag of coffee has an expiration date that's months in the future.
“You start getting past two or three months and it's just not the same at all.”
Shoppers will also need to pay more in many cases. Both of Beansmith's Coffee Review-rated roasts sell online for $19.95 a pound, about four times the cost of Folgers.
“People have gone from accepting coffee to demanding the coffee is good, and they're willing to pay extra for the quality cup,” Herr said.
He said people are seeking to brew a coffee-shop quality drink in their home or office kitchen. And business clients see it as a status symbol to offer guests a good cup of coffee from a high-tech machine, not stale coffee that's been sitting on a burner all morning. Now LaRue sells machines that incorporate an insulated carafe rather than the old-standby glass pot.
Small roasters still see LaRue as a corporate giant. LaRue has 140 employees and about 120,000 square feet of office, production and warehouse space across its distribution area, including 70,000 square feet in Omaha. The company's corporate office, distribution center and retail shop are at 2631 S. 156th Circle, and its roasting facility is at 13314 Centech Road.
Herr said there are advantages to roasting on a large scale. He said LaRue uses state-of-the-art equipment and stores customers' roasting profiles in a computer database.
“We can roast to that spec every single time,” Herr said. “A lot of the smaller roasters, it's a manual system. It's by look, it's by feel. Long term, that's not the best way to do business.”
Small roasters disagree and say their handcrafted approach sets them apart. “It's really allowing the true beauty and flavor of the coffee to come through,” Burkum said.
Roasting is an art and a science
Roasting a batch of beans takes less than 15 minutes, but a lot happens in that time.
Beansmith “roastmaster” Jason Burkum approaches the process as an art and a science, carefully assessing the coffee beans along the way from raw to ready-to-brew.
The roaster is just one in a chain of workers who bring the coffee from a tropical estate to your kitchen coffeemaker. Done right, Burkum said, the consumer won’t think about the roaster’s hand in the process.
“It’s about getting out of the coffee’s way,” he said. “We have our style, we have our signature, but you have to start with a great raw coffee and unlock what’s in there.”
In the back room of the La Vista business, Burkum ignites a drum roaster and watches as the temperature climbs to more than 400 degrees.
He sends a stream of green coffee beans up a conveyor and into a hopper, where they drop into the drum, causing the temperature to plummet to about 165 before beginning a slow upward climb.
Taking samples with a “trier,” like a dipstick for coffee beans, Burkum studies and sniffs the beans’ progress, as the sugars caramelize and the beans dry and expand.
He adjusts air flow as they progress from green and grassy, to yellow with a scent like popcorn, to fully caramelized and toasty brown, when he lets them spill into a cooling bin.
He breaks open a bean to check for an even roast, and the beans are ready to pack up and ship out.
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