It used to be that going out for a coffee was a bit of a treat but in recent years we have seen specialty coffee joints popping up all over the island so we are never far from a decent brew.
The so called third wave coffee movement hit Singapore in the late 2000s, a movement to elevate the status of coffee appreciation and promote sustainability by opting for direct trade which has been sweeping over the world for nearly two decades now.
Still in its teenage years here in Singapore, it's interesting to reflect on what was on offer, if anything(!), back then compared to what they offer now; and really evaluate whether it is worth spending your hard earned dough on a cup of joe.
A well-known US coffee chain first opened its doors here back in 1996, they offered branded coffee made on shiny espresso machines, meant to impress and wow the crowd with frothy milk techniques. It was really all about the brand and and selling this to the consumer, along with a fountain of other merc including t-shirts, caps, cup holders, pens, barista bears etc.
Then things started to change, a type of cafe started to emerge that cared more about the product than the fluff of the brand. What they wanted was fresh roasted specialty coffee made on good equipment by well trained, passionate people — and they were willing to pay for it.
Some of them lifted the price of their cups of coffee to better represent the quality they were offering and the additional (and significant) cost paid by them to achieve this higher quality. Some of the pioneers of the increased prices were slammed by the news media, but it appeared that what they were offering had already won the respect and appreciation of the discerning coffee-drinking public. If anything, the media attention, which was intended to be negative, had the opposite effect. The upshot of all of this is was consumers were getting a much better product than they were before, and they were happy to pay for it.
Much of the world’s Arabica comes from growers with very small levels of production. Historically, this coffee has been sold to mill/exporters who then load it into their vast silos, blend it in with all the other small lots and sell the blended result by the container load to everyone around the world. The main difference now is that cafe owners are collaborating much more closely with roasters, and roasters are collaborating more closely with the growers — mainly for the purpose of providing the end consumer with an opportunity to taste and enjoy specific coffee from specific growers.
Achieving this is not easy. Firstly, one of the main reasons for offering microlot coffee is for it to showcase the potential of a particular region — meaning that it’s all a waste of time and effort if the coffee isn’t excellent and doesn’t reflect the characteristics you might expect from the geographical location, growing conditions and processing methods. This needs people on the ground working with the grower to make sure that they are employing the best agricultural and processing practices possible, and that their coffee, once ready for sale, is kept aside from the rest of the tons of coffee going into mill/exporter production lines and is hulled, bagged and shipped separately as small, individual lots.
All of this costs a great deal. The labour inputs are much higher. For example, farmers need to employ more pickers over a longer period of harvest to ensure that they are only picking ripe cherries. The labour inputs are much higher for the mill, as they need to handle the small lots manually and keep the coffee off the automated hulling lines. This separate handling of the coffee continues all the way through the process right through to the cup.
I really enjoy walking into a cafe knowing that I have an opportunity to order a single origin, micro lot coffee. I must admit that I’m sometimes guilty of taking a choice of a micro lot for granted. As an insider, I know what additional costs have gone into taking coffee from the tree of a particular farmer and I love knowing that it’s the very same coffee in the hopper I’m about to order from.
Celebrate the grower and their efforts by ordering a micro lot single origin when you have the chance. Celebrate the cafe owner who has also gone to the effort and expense of giving you the bean.
After all, it’s all about the coffee.