Photos by Kiki Vassilakis
If you want to find the moment when specialty — or “craft” — coffee emerged as a trend in the Capital Region, go back to November 2011, when the locally-based website, FromScratchClub.com, offered a tutorial on roasting coffee in one’s own home. The article speaks on the economic advantages of buying green, unroasted coffee in bulk from online suppliers and roasting it at home (in a forced air popcorn machine, remarkably), but for many coffee drinkers in the Capital Region, it was the point when terms like, “dark roasted Sumatra,” and, “Monsoon Malabar,’ were introduced.
“Each region of the world has a different type of bean, and believe it or not, a different taste!” the article exclaims, as though the only flavors for coffee that the common grocery store consumer had known to that point were “Folgers Breakfast Blend,” and, “Maxwell House Medium Roast.”
The latter company’s rectangular, resealable tubs of International Cafe flavored instant coffee — small enough to fit in the palm of the hand, but big enough for at least two dozen hot beverages — were the market standard in “special coffee” at that time, eclipsed only by the onslaught of Starbucks hifalutin concoctions with names that alluded little to the actual food product in each disposable cup.
But that was then; now, the Capital Region is home to one of the most recognizable brands of coffee on the mass market in Death Wish Coffee (Round Lake), and it’s nearly impossible to walk a city block without stumbling into a specialty coffee shop in the local urban landscape.
“Coffee is the cheapest luxury item in the entire world. There is nothing where you can get the absolute best for under $20,” says Ron Greico, co-owner of Stacks Espresso Bar, with locations on Lark Street and Broadway in Albany. That realization has lead to a spike in specialty coffee sales, accounting for 8 percent of all coffee retail sales in 2016. That percentage might seem inconsequential until it is contextualized with the amount of coffee sold annually: $18 billion is spent annually in the United States, with a total economic impact of $225 billion, or approximately 1.6 percent of the total U.S. Gross Domestic Product, according to the National Coffee Association. Specialty coffee is growing at a 20 percent rate annually and accounts for 14.8 percent of all retail food sales, ranking fourth among all specialty food groups, according to the Specialty Food Association.
Specialty coffee is defined as having a quality grade rating at 80 (out of 100) or higher, but Greico says that the quality of the coffee is less important than the convenience and relationships that form between an individual and a barista or coffee server.
“A lot of people generally don’t care that much,” he says, finding that while Capital Region residents are shifting away from chain coffee shops to independent shops, it’s not always because of the taste of the coffee.
“They want a decent cup of coffee served by someone who is pretty nice to them. You can have a drastic impact on someone if you are nice to them before they’ve had their coffee,” Greico says. The Specialty Coffee Association states on its website, “(the consumers’) relationship with coffee is deeply personal, and the human interaction that takes place in a coffee shop enhances the emotional connection and overall experience.”
The relationships fostered through coffee are deep, going back as far as coffee served in European salons and America’s embrace of coffee when the drinking of tea was seen as unpatriotic in colonial times. Matthew Loiacono, director of coffee at Superior Merchandise Co., in Troy, says that the so-called “second wave” of coffee, characterized as the coffee served in shops like “Central Perk” from the television show “Friends,” bolstered the role of coffee as an avenue to human connection. People were drinking coffee in these shops not only because of selection and taste (second wave coffee is the era of the syrup-laced cappuccino and frozen, blended coffee) but also for the living room feel, replete with coffee tables and couches, that encourage lounging and gathering.
“There’s definitely a place for that,” says Loiacono, adding that these locations — like Professor Java’s and Uncommon Grounds, where Loiacono worked for 15 years — are just on the edge of specialty coffee, roasting their own coffee with a low-80s rating while third wave coffee shops (like Kru Coffee in Saratoga, 3Fish in Albany, and Iron Coffee Company in Hoosick Falls) focus their coffee programs on beans with a rating range between 86 and 91 points.
Another differentiator between the second and third wave shops in the Capital Region is food service. While full menus might be available at the former, the coffee shops that have emerged in the last four years limit food sales to baked goods and granolas from outside purveyors. “Specialty coffee shops are defined as physical retail outlets deriving at least 40 percent of their total revenue from the sale of coffee, coffee beverage, and coffee accessories,” says a report from the Specialty Coffee Association.
Coffee, it seems, is following the trajectory of beer. Just as national beer brands lost market shares (and shelf and tap handle space) to small, craft beer products, consumers are moving away from big-name coffee towards independent shops. Coffee enthusiasts are seeking out small-batch, unique coffee blends like beer lovers hunt for new IPAs. “As people get more interested in craft beverage, coffee is following the trend of craft spirits,” says John Curtin, co-owner of Albany Distilling Company. His company makes a Death Wish coffee vodka that is marketed to both the coffee and liquor specialty markets.
“Any specialty movement in 2017 is focused on the same market and demographic,” says Greico, and August Rosa, owner of Pint Sized, a craft beverage shop that sells beer and bagged coffee, concurs. “There is definitely shared sales between coffee and beer in our shop. A common transaction is a growler (of beer) and a bag of coffee,” says Rosa. His customers respond well to hybrid products, he says, and the increased number of coffee-steeped beers on the market is good indication of that. (Several local breweries, like Common Roots, Rare Form, and Brown’s have all produced coffee beers.)
Stephen Pivonka, owner and roaster at Brewtus Roasting (formerly Barkeater) in Delmar says that while coffee is following the path of beer, the raw materials for coffee are fixed and stagnant in ways malts and hops are not. “No one is creating new beans, they are what they are. The opportunity to develop new flavors comes in the roasting.” Pivonka roasts about 1000 pounds of coffee a month, selling most of it wholesale (to Pint Sized and food coops in the area) and at the Delmar Farmers Market.
“I think people are really into (fresh roasted coffee). It’s really exploded,” he says, and the next era of Capital Region coffee will likely include more local roasters. Curtin says that specialty coffee will be propelled by its role as the “neutral ground” in the craft world. “There are lots of people who like craft beverage but don’t drink. There is a vacuum in that high-quality-beverage-without-alcohol world. Coffee helps to fill that.” Loiacono says bars and restaurants that feature specialty coffee might emerge on the local scene, like Hamlet and Ghost, in Saratoga, which uses a high-end Slayer espresso machine.
“I’d like to see coffee bars integrated into an existing business,” he says, pointing to places like 3Fish, which exists inside a bicycle shop, and Moto, in Hudson, which combines a motorcycle showroom and repair shop with a coffee bar. He also predicts user-facing programs for coffee will emerge, like they have for beer and wine: a smartphone app version of Untappd, but for coffee, or shelf talkers that are displayed below bags of coffee, much like “Wine Enthusiast” ratings and tasting notes appear in wine shops.
While Greico sees the future of Capital Region coffee as an expansion of independent shop locations and a continued move away from chains like Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts and McDonald’s, he says specialty coffee will take prominence on coffee menus there, attracting drive-thru customers and serving coffee drinkers where no independent shop exists. “When Starbucks and McDonald’s start selling cold brew, that’s a win for specialty coffee,” he says, noting the sale of specialty brands (like La Columbe and Blue Bottle) to global food conglomerates (Chobani and Nestle, respectively). “By and large, these conglomerates are buying specialty coffee brands and saying, ‘keep doing what you are doing,’” Greico says.
“Coffee doesn’t have to be a big production. It can be a nook, but whoever mans the machines has to have a passion about it,” says Loiacono, brushing off the idea that coffee is little more than a commodity that can be universally scaled. For that reason, independent specialty coffee will always have a cup on the Capital Region’s coffee market shelf. For Curtin, it is the ceremony of coffee that keeps the coffee brewing with year-over-year growth.
“I make pour over coffee, which forces me to slow down for a few minutes. It’s a ritual and it’s comforting.” Coffee is a chance to be still in a rushed world, and to get the most flavorful cup with a smile, there’s no need to roast your own anymore. The Capital Region’s pot is brimming with it.
Deanna Fox is a food and agriculture journalist. www.foxonfood.com@DeannaNFox