For a long time, coffee was simple…it was roasted dark, sold cheap and chugged throughout the day. However, like the beer industry, micro took coffee’s creative side to a new industry high. Coffee nerds take insane amounts of care in every step of the process, from visiting the farms that grow the coffee, building relationships with the farmers, and developing unique roast profiles that bring out each bean’s individual flavor qualities. Roasting in these small batches allows unparalleled attention to the details.
Erna Knutsen, who was a luminary in the coffee world, first coined the term ‘specialty coffee’ around 1974. Erna knew the appreciation and pushed forward for coffee’s full potential. And since then, specialty beans represent 55% of the coffee market share.
What makes small-batch coffee so special?
The flavor of a cup of coffee is the result of a long chain of alterations from the seed to the cup. Aromas come from inside the coffee beans as it grows and matures. The compounds and metabolites that accumulate during seed maturation contribute directly through roasting reactions to the broad spectrum of aromas and flavors in the final cup. There is a lot to understand between quality and coffee chemistry where small batch coffee can shine.
Roasting is Where The Magic Happens
Starting here, coffee roasting is the application of heat to coffee beans in order to create chemical reactions that develop the complex aromatic and flavor components of the bean. The goal is to achieve a delicate balance of flavor, acidity, body, and aroma that is both harmonious and intriguing. Small-batch producers have the legroom to innovate on these roasting techniques and to experiment at will with taste.
The language around specialty coffee is as complex as the beverage. Graders are the sommeliers of the coffee world, trained to detect the most imperceptible defects and differences in beans. A coffee is ranked as specialty when it scores 80 points or higher on a 100-point scale according to the Specialty Coffee Association. This is determined by cupping, the way coffee professionals evaluate and compare coffees. Coffee far outshines wine in the number of aromatics and flavors, which is why cuppers rely on the SCA’s Flavor Wheel (at right), a detailed mapping of vocabulary to use when describing and ranking coffee.
Becoming an expert roaster takes years of training with the ability to “read” the beans and make decisions with split-second timing. The difference between perfectly roasted coffee and a ruined batch can be a matter of seconds. The art and science of roasting transforms green coffee into the aromatic brown beans that we purchase in our favorite stores or cafés. When they reach an internal temperature of about 400 degrees Fahrenheit, they begin to turn brown and the caffeol, a fragrant oil barred inside the beans, begins to emerge. This process called pyrolysis is at the heart of roasting — it produces the flavor and aroma of the coffee we drink. After roasting, the beans are immediately cooled either by air or water. Roasting is generally performed in the importing countries because freshly roasted beans must reach the consumer as quickly as possible. Ref: NCAUSA
Customers are curious and want to know where their beans are sourced, how they’re roasted, and the nuanced flavor profiles to expect in the bag of beans. The smaller guys are often more transparent about the suppliers they work with, so each cup of coffee can be enjoyed guilt-free by their customers. More companies are especially coding their small batches so the consumer can find out exactly when it was roasted, where it came from and the farming relationship the roaster has to their community.
Fairtrade is an important relationship as the coffee depends on the skill and care of its farmers – hands in the ground, nurturing life from a small seed – and a lot of hard work goes into just getting those beans to the consumer. The majority of the world’s coffee is produced by 25 million small-scale farmers – meaning farmers working 5 acres or less (the average Fair-trade farmer works just 3.4 acres of land). Many of these farmers are dependent on coffee to support their families and entire communities rely on the once-a-year harvest.
Coffee tastes better when it’s fresh which makes small-batch important. As soon as the roasted bean comes into contact with oxygen it begins the slow process of becoming stale. After three weeks it loses its optimum flavor and attributes, which is why we recommend buying coffee in small batches, so you’ll never have to drink it when it’s not the best.