Change Is Brewing in the Way We Consume Coffee

From cold brew to flat whites, the coffee evolution continues.

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In the 1991 comedy L.A. Story, Steve Martin orders “a half double decaffeinated half-caf, with a twist of lemon.” The line got the biggest laugh in the movie, a none-too-subtle dig at the finicky needs of California’s elite.

A quarter-century later, America can’t get enough of specialty coffee. We all know exactly what kind of java we want, as well as how we want it prepared and served. So would Steve Martin still get that laugh now?

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Today is the start of the National Coffee Association (NCA) annual convention, where the coffee industry gathers to discuss all things java.

What’s happening in the world of coffee? We checked in with a few experts to get the low-down. Here’s what they shared with us.

We’re getting more finicky about our coffee

Consumption of espresso-based beverages continues to rise, up two percent from last year, and more than 2.5 times what we drank in 2008, according to the NCA. And, despite environmental concerns, single-cup brew preparations such as Keurig are also still rising—up 3 percent from last year.

But the amount of packaged coffee Americans are buying is down. Drip method coffee represented 70 percent of preparation in 2011; today it’s just 50 percent. Instead, we’re getting our fix at increasingly elaborate coffee shops.

“We’re not drinking coffee like our grandparents drank it,” explains Mark DiDomenico of Datassential, a leading market research firm working in the food and beverage marketplace. “They had a pot on the stove and drank it all day.” The rise of gourmet coffee continues unabated, and what was once focused on frappuccinos and lattes has evolved into cold brew coffees and flat whites. This growing sophistication is taking a chunk out of traditional in-home coffee consumption.

“The consumer expectation of what a coffee beverage should be has changed to the point that, unless you have the money to plop down on a Cimbali espresso machine, you’re not going to have the equipment to make that beverage. And who has the time?”

DiDomenico gives consumers credit for being more educated than they once were and says the industry needs to do a better job of understanding them. “While they may not fully understand the difference between mountain grown and shade grown and fair trade, they have come to expect that kind of language regarding coffees of a higher quality. It has to be about more than house blend and decaf.”

New coffee sources are coming

A sustainable coffee farm in Kenya.

As consumers discover new ways to enjoy coffee, we’re finding new sources for it, giving java a sense of the terroir that wine enjoys. Although the vast majority of coffee we consume is blended from commodity-grade coffee, estate and single-origin coffees are on the rise.

“We’re coming into the second generation of young adults who grew up on nothing but good coffee,” says John DeMuria, senior managing partner with coffee import/export group Volcafe. “They go into a shop and they want their Columbian or their Ethiopian Yirgacheffe.”

What should we be watching for? East African coffees have been showing up in better quality and greater quantities. Honduras' coffee exports are also growing. But a number of people point to Vietnam as an intriguing new coffee frontier.

“Last year Starbucks took a very bold step and introduced a single-origin Vietnamese Da Lat,” adds DeMuria. Although the country is well-known as one of the top exporters of robusta coffee—considered inferior to arabica coffee—Starbucks says arabica has thrived in the mountains here for 150 years.

“It surprised us—until we tasted it. Vietnamese coffee can be phenomenal.”

Baristas are becoming true coffee experts

Coffee things to know
Credit: / Dave Swanson

Get to know the baristas at San Diego's Bird Rock Coffee Roasters.

Spencer Turer of the coffee testing laboratory Coffee Analysts says the scene in L.A. Story was the start of coffee being viewed as something akin to going to a bar and ordering a drink.

“When you’re a cocktail consumer, you walk up to the bartender and say, ‘This is the drink I’d like you to prepare, these are the ingredients I want you to use, this is the process I want you to use to prepare it, and this is the garnish I want,’” says Turer. “We're at the point where the skill set for your barista is the skill set expected at a high-level cocktail bar.”

According to Turer, buying a cup of coffee is no longer a 30-second transaction. “Coffee today is a four- or five-minute transaction," says Turer. "The customer orders the coffee they want and the barista prepares it the way they want, and then the next customer comes up and orders something completely different.”

Unfortunately, a few baristas can come across as arrogant, but better coffee shops guard against snobbism. The experts we spoke to said if your barista is intimidating or unhelpful, it’s time to find a different destination for your morning joe.

What’s coffee evaluator Turer’s favorite? “If you can get coffee fresh—recently roasted premium coffee that’s prepared with care by a roaster-retailer—it will be delicious, better than expensive specialty grade coffee that’s not fresh and not prepared well. So, my favorite coffee is whatever’s the freshest available.”

Coffee is good for you—really!

The health benefits of coffee consumption are adding up.

For many years, suspected health risks behind drinking coffee got a lot of play: Coffee stunted growth, resulted in bad grades, increased the risk of heart attacks, and caused a rise in blood pressure. Today, most doctors encourage coffee consumption.

“Many consumers feel guilty about drinking their coffee, but they shouldn’t,” argues Mark Corey, Ph.D., chairperson of the NCA Scientific Advisory Group. “We’ve found it’s a very common misperception, but actually, coffee can be quite good for your health.”

Multiple studies covering more than a half-million participants have found that coffee reduces the risk of stroke, and a 2011 study found that coffee may be associated with a reduced risk of prostate cancer. A 2013 meta-analysis of 36 studies involving more than 1.2 million participants found moderate coffee consumption to be inversely associated with risk of heart failure. In fact, the largest inverse association was observed for consumption of four servings per day.

“The sweet spot is three to five cups a day.”

“Coffee is also very good for liver health, and in helping to prevent type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s,” adds Corey.

Corey says that a federal inquiry into dietary caffeine and a coffee review by the World Health Organization’s cancer body are challenges the industry faces in 2016. But while a 2001 study did link coffee-drinking to a 20 percent increase in the risk of urinary tract cancer (though not for tea drinkers), overall, the health benefits of moderate coffee consumption are starting to add up.

“The sweet spot is three to five cups a day,” says Corey.

Climate change will impact your coffee future

Coffee cherries ripening

Like most agricultural commodities, coffee production carries an environmental and social impact. But coffee’s footprint is bigger than many other food crops.

Bambi Semroc, coffee lead at Conservation International, says that a lot of coffee is produced without paying attention to social conditions, workplace conditions, and wages, as well as water issues, adequate soil, and forest conditions.

“There are concerns right now around climate change and what that’s going to do to the future of coffee,” Semroc adds. Droughts and higher temperatures caused by climate change are making some areas less suitable to growing coffee, especially at lower altitudes. “We could see more pressure on higher altitude forests,” he says.

We need to buy from coffee roasters that source coffee transparently.

Semroc also brought up the issue of the rust outbreak and stronger diseases and pests, which are all linked to climate change. All of these issues will likely have big impacts on certain coffee-growing regions of the world.

"Climate change models predict that certain parts of Central America are going to be hit harder by climate change," says Semroc. "Indonesia and East Africa are also going to be affected.”

How can consumers help make coffee a more sustainable product? Buying shade grown coffee is helpful, as it reduces the temperature of the coffee plant, provides habitat for wildlife, and helps diversify agriculture. But sustainability also means fair labor practices and reinvesting in farms; fair-trade coffees are just the starting point. We also need to buy from coffee roasters that source coffee transparently and contribute to local communities.

“Look for ethical companies that make commitments to sustainability,” Semroc says. “And watch for certification programs that help identify the products on shelves—all of these programs are making significant contributions.”

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