You might think all this fuss about micro-roasting and specialty coffee is awesome idea or you might think it’s just making the best case for a business that is too small to compete with the big guys. While it’s certainly possible for larger companies to produce some outstanding coffees and for the little guys to produce a cup that is, umm, shall we say, “uninspired”, a coffee roaster who truly cares about the quality of their final product has much greater potential for producing a cup of coffee that is head and shoulders above what the larger companies can ever hope to achieve. And this is because of some very practical reasons.
Coffee growers come in all sizes, from vast estates with millions of coffee plants stretching as far as the eye can see, to small farms and cooperatives with just a few thousand plants growing on a rugged mountainside. And this is precisely where the differences begin. Small farms need to manage their crop carefully. Since coffee cherries don’t all ripen at the same rate, it takes several pickings to harvest a crop, because only the ripe cherries make outstanding coffee. Large farms use mechanical picking methods that indiscriminately strip a coffee tree of all its cherries at once, making for an efficient system, but resulting in a harvest of over-ripe and unripened cherries along with the cherries ripe for picking.
The small farm will then process their cherries by hand, ultimately resulting in a harvest of a few hundred bags of coffee, ready for export. The large coffee companies will use mechanical means (mainly soaking in water) to separate the less ripened cherries from the more ripened ones, and produce hundreds of thousands bags of coffee beans for export. As you can see from this description, it is not possible for large growers to maximize quality on a large scale. Efficiency does not lend itself to attention to detail.
At the receiving end of the coffee chain, large roasting companies cannot be bothered with buying small batches of beans, no matter how good they are. Even the smallest “large roasters” roast hundreds of pounds of coffee per hour, making the purchase of coffee in limited supply an undesirable proposition. To meet their need, they buy coffee from large growers who can consistently supply hundreds of sacks per week. A limited supply of 25-50 bags of coffee, no matter how great it is, cannot be properly profiled, marketed, and sold by large producers because the scale doesn’t match their business.
This is where the micro-roaster comes in. Small batch roasters, producing between five and twenty-five pounds of coffee per roast, are uniquely positioned to offer premium specialty coffees on a small scale. They roast only what they can sell in a given week, so the coffee doesn’t go bad and customers get to enjoy specialty coffee when it is at its peak of flavor. The best specialty roasters will profile each new bean, roasting small samples and determining the best roasting method before offering the coffee to customers.
The small coffee specialty shops who carry these coffees are also part of the chain. While they could purchase inexpensive coffee beans from large roasters and big box commercial suppliers, they are much better positioned to offer unique specialty coffees, applying just the right brew methods in the right quantities to preserve and highlight the unique flavors in a specialty coffee.
So you can see, micro-roasting is an integral part of creating truly great coffee, a process that begins with individual farmers in far-away lands who give their crop special care so they can demand the best price for their coffee, and passes to the roaster who gives equal care to how those beans are prepared for making coffee, and finally to the barista who prepares the coffee using methods that assure a great cup.