“Just the actual ritual of grinding your coffee, brewing it, and drinking it, it’s like putting on a pair of slippers. You think about it, but you don’t think about it. You have people that worked it into their daily lives. It’s a frightening thought to not have it in your life,” said Derek Wolfe, Wholesale Manager of Bongo Java Roasting Company since 2003.
A world without coffee does sound scary. Not that we’re running low on it. But, with such a high demand for the caffeinated bean growing in the past few years customer’s attention to price hikes has caused a stir in the pot. People have to make the choice between paying more for the coffee they love or lower their standards.
Back when Derek started at Bongo he says coffee prices were less.
“It was kind of an afterthought,” he said.
But now they have no choice but to raise their coffee prices. They’re not only thinking about themselves but of the farmers who put so much work into harvesting these beans. Bongo Java raised their prices twice in 2011, about 10%. Derek points out that their raise was not nearly as much as the coffee giants, which were around 20%.
“The supply and demand is so tight that any kind of big rains in Guatemala, you know, can really mess up the system,” he said.
But, that’s not the only reason coffee prices are at an all time high. It’s also because people in the producing countries are for the first time wanting to drink their own coffee. He said in Chiapas there was a Starbucks on nearly every corner, just like here, and the cafes were filled with people sitting on their laptops. It was a familiar sight. When these countries don’t have the incentive to send it out because they can use it at home, why would they want to do the extra work?
He said another issue is urban expansion. Land that could be used for coffee farms isn’t anymore. Derek talked about more technology in these countries. People have more options than they used to, especially the children of these coffee farmers.
“It’s just so hard, I imagine for a lot of these kids to just see their parents work forever and really not get too far ahead,” he said
For the families that do continue to make this their living, Derek sees it as just another crucial reason to raise coffee prices. He understands where they’re coming from.
“I’m from Idaho and I worked on some orchards and farms growing up. And at some point it is all the same. It’s agriculture. As farmers they want to sell high and supply, you know, a livable wage for their family, and have a car and go to a good school. Ultimately I think they’d like their kids to not have to work on coffee farms. But, I think, it’s just, a lot of the farmers; maybe they didn’t even have a farm growing up. Maybe this is their first chance to own a house and land and have control over their own destiny,” said Derek.
Not that it’s an easy destiny to have.
“It’s kind of a ridiculously hard endeavor. If you compare coffee to apples, coffee to almost anything, you have this very finicky plant that needs to be in a certain part of the globe, certain elevation…It’s growing on mountain slopes. It takes years, three, four, five years, for it to even produce a pound or two of coffee. And then you have to start processing it. And then you have to get it to the mill and to the market. It’s mind blowing that on that side of the equation that people can make a living, because it’s so much work,” he said.
Knowing the behind the scenes of importing coffee seems to not only make a person care more about the final product, but it makes you think what you have to do to make sure everyone, including the customers that want to get in, get out, and drink their morning coffee, see the bigger picture behind their cup.
Charles Babinski, Intelligentsia’s Venice Coffee Bar educator, said consistent methods help this. Using scales and weighing your water are all good things.
“None of that attention to detail needs to be perceived by the customer, though,” he said.
Derek talked about doing small things like using doser-less grinders. He said they’ve saved Bongo at least 10% in espresso costs. There’s also the idea of only doing by-the-cup brewing, which has the potential of zero waste. Charles saw it the same way.
“The higher price of great coffee, a new and hard reality, emphasizes the need for new models of service, but it isn’t the main impetus. The coffee is,” said Charles.
And that’s exactly what The Venice Slow Bar does. It creates a new customer experience based solely around the coffee. Each week one barista is chosen to run the slow bar from 8-2 only on weekdays. They have total control of what is served and how they serve it.
“Justin Coates did a slow bar based around his favorite 90s rock albums… It was a little cheeky, yes. Lord knows, cleverly mixing alternarock and coffee isn’t proper progressive barista affectation, but these are the things Justin likes. These are the things that inform his vocabulary and circumstances, that he could spend a week having that reflected in his menu and service is very cool,” said Charles.
There have been plenty of other slow bars; one where Charles collaborated with Jaymie Lao, creating a dim sum style menu, where people could order several different espresso “pulled on a single basket into a wide-mouth, thin-walled teacup.” They also highlighted their teas with single infusions.
Charles said the customer experience is a different one with this kind of bar.
“Amazing things can happen when neither the customer nor the barista have the pressure of the line bearing down on them,” said Charles.
He admits the bar isn’t the perfect answer to our problem. It will take time.
“The fact that we spent so much time awkwardly fitting coffee of unprecedented caliber into volume-focused service systems is a testament to how undervalued coffee was for so long,” said Charles.
And now that coffee is getting more of the love it deserves there’s a chance that we can only go up from here.
“In some ways I think it’s a more clear coffee world – because of the conversations,” said Derek.
So keep talking to one another. Continue brainstorming. Have fun with the thousands of flavor experiences and find new ways to show them off to the customer. Of course we all wish the customers would get it right away, but they won’t. Not unless they have a barista with the patience to show it to them.