readers who do not know Don Holly - given some of his comments here - that he is one of the most optimistic and indefatigable boosters of the coffee industry that anyone could ask for. He is also, however, someone who also does not flinch from the facts, as he sees them. This gets back to the earlier comments of Ted Lingle, and his reference to the greatest impediment to progress that the coffee industry has yet faced, that being the lack, many times, even among the best of us, of an “open mind.” Perhaps over the next one hundred years, this magazine will report on the systematic disassembly of that barrier, and the greater prosperity through a better cup of coffee that was the result.
As part of the background for this article, several industry participants were asked to contribute their sentiments on the last century of progress in the coffee industry. Three people responded and their comments follow:
Gordon McNeil of Equip for Coffee provided several positive insights into the progress of the coffee industry. “I have had the opportunity to observe most of the wholesale, retail, and equipment segments of the industry for the last 16 years being closely involved with Probat, Mahlkonig and Grindmaster as well as manufacturing our own brass, copper and/or stainless whole bean dispensing display bins and other products.
“The two biggest driving forces have been price and quality. All other developments, good and bad, have been outgrowths of these big factors.
“The lower quality of the large U.S. roasters caused the specialty coffee industry to be created and thrive. If the overall quality had been kept higher, there would not have been as much of a driving force to have specialty coffee. However, we have seen where a large number of people can clearly taste the difference, a market formed that has grown into a significant segment of the industry today.
While McNeil credited equipment advances for improving coffee quality, he noted the limits inherent in this. “However,” McNeil stipulated, “great equipment cannot make good coffee in the cup out of poor quality green beans.”
McNeil then addressed the subject of roasting, “In the roasting area there are some common techniques in use that work well for any coffee. Today, most roasters use mostly convection heat, instead of conduction and radiant hear which was all there was one hundred years ago, to roast the coffee.”
McNeil brought up the issue of grinding and found some things to cheer. “In the grinder end of the business, equipment people have developed faster and cooler operating grinders to improve the quality of the ground coffee. Also the development of portion control foodservice and espresso grinders allow foodservice and coffee shops to brew freshly ground coffee to improve taste.”
In addressing the more widespread use of thermal carafes, McNeil also rang a positive note, and an advance that many of us now take for granted. “The brewer manufacturers all offer thermal airpot carafes to keep the brewed coffee hot without degrading its flavor on a hotplate. This has been one of the recent good advances in the industry. Combining the freshly ground coffee and airpots have resulted in much better cups of coffee being available.”
When it came to coffee packaging over the last 100 years McNeil, unlike some of his colleagues, seemed to believe that there was no development that should not be applauded, “The packaging has been greatly improved to keep the coffee fresher until brewed. First it was the vacuum cans, then came brick packs, nitrogen flush and one way valve bags to preserve flavor.”
McNeil concluded by drawing upon the dialectic he earlier defined, “Price and quality have helped make happen many of these positive improvements, but price has also caused negative developments. [I] already commented on the effect poor quality in U.S. giving opportunity for the specialty coffee industry, but at the same time causing greatly reduced consumption of coffee. We have seen green prices jump way up from frosts in Brazil and plunge way down due to the present oversupply of coffee. Unless the farmers can see a profitable reason to grow coffee they will drop out of the business. Therefore, smart coffee roasters and their customers will need to pay a premium to insure the supply of specialty beans that are truly special. Without the roasters, and their customers, paying a premium it is likely that many specialty beans will disappear from the market. For the long term the industry must support the farmers.”
Finally, McNeil mentioned a crucial resource upon which all progress in the industry is based, the quality of its members, “Fortunately, the quality of the people in the industry can make this possible. The passion of the people in the industry for coffee is such a contrast to other industries where I have worked. This passion gives me hope that for the next one hundred years that the industry will continue to flourish.”
Bill Sieber, director coffee & tea flavor division of Melchers Flavors of America, Inc. had this to say about his company’s role in the coffee industry’s progress over the last 100 years, “Melchers pioneered the development and introduction of flavors for gourmet coffees to the American consumer in the early nineteen-eighties. The growth of this new industry segment has been phenomenal for the past two decades. Flavored coffees created an awareness of gourmet coffees which continues to grow to this day. Innovative allied products such as cappuccinos, cold and frozen coffee beverages have begun to enhance the continued sales of coffee throughout the North American market place. The same awareness is growing in the Asian and South American market places. Melchers has experienced growth in smaller areas such as Europe, Africa and Australia.” Indeed, while many purists resist giving the category its due, flavored coffees popularized the whole bean sector and may have created, over the past two decades, many more specialty coffee drinkers than otherwise would have appeared.
Sieber concluded his comments by addressing the basic flavors his industry relies on and their crucial dependence upon coffee for their continued popularity. “Flavored coffees have become a main part of the gourmet coffee industry sales revenues. Melchers looks to offer improvements in the classic taste profiles of hazelnut, French vanilla and chocolate flavors in order to insure the continued success of the gourmet coffee roasters they partner with.” Coffee flavorings, as opposed to flavored syrups, depend on the success of coffee overall. Syrups are not nearly so dependent.
Maurizio Giuli, marketing representative for Nuova Simonelli of Belforte del Chienti, Italy, had this to say regarding the most influential development over the last 100 years. “The business of espresso coffee machines is younger than Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, since the first examples of this kind of equipment started in approximately 1905 with Victoria Arduino and Bezzera.” Giuli then described the success the first espresso machine manufacturers had in selling machines across Europe. He also offered a little history of the espresso bar, “In Italy, before the introduction of espresso machines, the “osteria” and the “cantine,” were popular. Here people went to drink some wine and discuss things. The cafés, on the other hand, were reserved just for high social levels. With the introduction of the espresso machines, the habits of Italians changed and the old local establishments started to sell coffee besides wine and other spirits. This started the era of the “bar” where people went for discussion and a cup of coffee besides.” Giuli then pointed out that the progress of the Italian espresso bar became interlinked with another form of technological progress. “But it was just after World War II that the bars had a big boost.” As Giuli explained it, most villages and small cities could only support one bar, so it was not surprising that not many people in these small towns could afford the first televisions. The proprietors of the bars bought the TVs and their patrons flocked in even greater numbers to now drink espresso and watch TV. “When the television wasn’t so widespread among families, the bars were a place were people went to watch their preferred program.”
Giuli then credited the spread of espresso worldwide with the emigration of Italians across the globe. He claims that espresso spread in much the same way that Italian food did. “Italians émigrés… gave a push to the widespread popularity of Italian food world wide [like pasta, pizza, wine etc.] and of course even the espresso coffee and cappuccino. Now we can say that this business is a global business and that the last century has been the first century of the espresso coffee.”
Giuli credits technological advancement for espresso’s steady rise in popularity. “The introduction of new technologies to the espresso machine has been one of the main factors that allowed the development of this industry. In fact, in the first years, the machines where so big and so complicated that few people where able to utilize them properly; in some case these machines were also very dangerous, because of the pressure inside the boiler. The introduction of a separate system of pressure [lever and pump - an introduction of “Simonelli”] and the improvements of the group heads, allowed for improvements in the quality of espresso beverages. During the 1980’s the introduction of electronic technology allowed us to have machines that were very easy to use, and where there was no longer required a long training period for successful operation.”
In reciting the history of espresso, however, Giuli can’t resist giving his company, Nuova Simonelli, some credit where he feels it is obviously due. “Nuova Simonelli has been one of the most technologically oriented manufacturers since it was founded in 1936. Mr. Simonelli was the first to introduce a pressure system based on a pump. Now more than ninety-five percent of the espresso machines produced use a pump in order to increase the pressure of water to nine bar.” Giuli also claimed that Simonelli was one of the first to introduce computerized espresso machines which could, among other functions, tabulate the number of drinks served.
Giuli then predicted that the increasing technification of the espresso machine business will continue. He thereby implied that coffeehouses, per se, could suffer because any business could operate a fully automatic and self-maintaining machine. “The new generation of espresso machines will be connected by Internet and will be processing lots of data worldwide, this will allow for remote maintenance. Probably they will also be able to produce other new hot beverages besides espresso and cappuccino. If we consider that just one hundred years ago it was not possible to drink an espresso or a cappuccino, it is clear how difficult it is to understand what will happen in the next one hundred years. Surely we will be able to continue to drink good cups of espresso and cappuccino thanks to these new espresso machines.”
Assessing progressing, in the final analysis, gets to be a very subjective game. It seems that the best, most rewarding advancements are those made with the understanding that as an industry we depend on the popularity of a very singular thing, the taste of a rather peculiar beverage made in the most unlikely manner. Coffee is a drink that has hardly any redeeming characteristic other than that it sometimes tastes remarkably good. It is for than “sometime” experience that coffee drinkers will continue to search. Anything that aids in that search might usefully be called “progress.”