Thoughts from the SCAA Expo 2015

Posted by Matthew Patrick McLauchlan on

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A city known as the heartland of specialty coffee and the birthplace of Starbucks, it was appropriate that this year's Specialty Coffee Association of America Symposium (SCAA), Trade Expo and World Barista Championship (WBC) were held in Seattle. With its thriving coffee culture, exciting food scene and great weather (not withstanding the piercing cold), Seattle was the perfect stage for what would be the best coffee event of the year. Home to the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, with its amazing state-of-the-art acoustics and intimate lounge spaces which were perfect for in-depth debates, the Benaroya served as unique and powerful backdrop for the Symposium. For those not in the know, the SCAA Symposium is an intensive two-day seminar where all the leading professionals, scientists, leaders and organizations in the coffee industry congregate to discuss the topics which are driving the industry at present.

This year, the Symposium was broken into five sessions and the topics for discussion were chosen in response to the last Symposium in 2014.

Getting to the heart of it: Quantifying and Optimizing Specialty Coffee

This was a light hearted introduction to the Symposium as five speakers assessed the current state of the market in their specialist areas. Pierre Ferrari kicked the session off with a bang as he preached the idea of the coffee industry thinking ‘outside the cup’ by providing solutions for coffee farmers to plant various other crops to provide an extra source of income to aid their quality of life. Other topics ranged from a rethink of the value and capabilities of different varietals (Caturra vs Castillo) to an in-depth look into collaboration between small coffee producers by Catracha Coffee in Honduras (which promoted a profit sharing scheme amongst these farmers). Not only did this collaboration enable an improvement in the quality of coffee produced, but it created the concept of change within the community and encouraged the fruits of success to be shared by all. This session ended on a high note with an in-depth look at the current state of the specialty coffee market; it was good!

The Cutting Edge of Sensory Science

With a few variations of the ‘Flavour wheel’ currently in use, it was only right that the SCAA addressed the issue of creating a universal vocabulary of flavours, one which details description and intensity but is also transferrable across levels. The World Coffee Research’s partnership with Kansas State University has led to the creation of such a lexicon, with a wide array of 108 flavour notes and nine levels of intensity.

One of the more interesting lectures which came out of this discussion was from the guys at foodpairing.com. Through the use of complex algorithms based on the availability of this huge database, Bernard Lahousse suggested to the audience that flavour perception is about 80% smell. Therefore this system, used alongside a formula for pairing complex aroma signatures, creates the ability to pair a dish with a certain single origin coffee with great ease.

Water: The Invisible Driver of Coffee

A wide spectrum of topics was covered during this session. The issues raised ranged from discussion about the conservation of water in coffee processing methods to the management of water cycles on a farm. The perspective of the Coffee Market and Community and how they are affected by drought was also discussed, along with ideas about the potential standardization of the composition of water in the specialty industry. This was potentially one of the most enlightening and intriguing topics on offer that day.

Flavio Borem’s lecture on how changes in processing methods can effectively save tonnes of water was something of a highlight for us. In this current day and age where water is scarce, we as an industry should be looking at ways of encouraging sustainable practices. Flavio champions the idea that natural processing (if done correctly, with well thought out systems and practices) can create an equally consistent and high quality end product as that achieved by a fully washed process – but water usage is decreased drastically during natural processing, from potentially 1,240 litres of water to 0 litres of water per bag of coffee. However, in the specialty coffee industry where the emphasis is on quality, there needs to be a balance between natural and fully washed processing.

Out of the Box: Unexpected Innovations in Coffee

This came from a farmer who proved that coffee can be grown in California. He discussed the evolution of coffee rust, its origins and where it is today.

Charlotte Biltekoff’s discussion of how health issues are addressed scientifically, but also significantly influenced by culture and social values, was enlightening. She showed us how the definition of what comprised a ‘healthy’ diet has changed dramatically over the decades.

Gender Equity: Can Shifting Our Focus Improve the Supply Chain?

The role of gender equity was analyzed with reference to the impact it can have not just on the industry and coffee, but also on the community within coffee producing countries when it’s implemented in the right manner. Lorena Aguilar’s lecture demonstrated that empowering women and giving them a seat at the table is not just the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do, as evidenced by their results especially in reference to creating a better, more effective and efficient community structure.

The Bukonzo Cooperative Union hit a home run with the implementation of their gender equity programme – a regime which not only improved relationships between men and women in the households of that community, but also empowered women through the various leadership and training opportunities. In turn, this improved the quality of their coffee programme, which in turn brought about some amazing returns. The coffee quality increased from a cupping score of 77 to 85.75 in the space of less than four years – which was phenomenal!

Being stuck in the hustle and bustle of a roastery each day, one rarely gets to take a step back from it all and put into perspective the enormous range of topics which seek to drive our industry forward. The SCAA Symposium serves as the perfect platform for discussion and inspiration for these thought-provoking topics. And this drives us, as coffee professionals, in our pursuit in excellence, as we’re always striving to produce that perfect cup of coffee. But the Symposium this year also reminded us to take into account the social and environmental footprint that excellence brings with it.

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