Monday, June 11, 2012

Beer and Coffee

Over the weekend I heard another story of people buying locally roasted coffee. The reason I heard the story, of course, was that these were coffee beans that came with a story: where they came from, how they were selected, where they were roasted.

It sounded almost like the micro-brew stories I started to hear around 1996. “You can actually see beer being brewed!” I remember looking through a glass window at an impressively clean room in which, I was assured, all the equipment contained the various early stages of beer.

It struck me a useful gimmick to make a restaurant more interesting. But then, people who drink beer assured me that microbrewed beer was invariably better than factory-brewed beer. It was not just that it was more fresh. It also tasted cleaner. It fit the story, that the local pub didn’t know about all the shortcuts that the big factories used.

In 1996 the beer business was dominated by a few dozen national brands. Within ten years that had changed. People were drinking local beer when they could get it. And, drinking better beer, they weren’t drinking quite as much of it.

It is a similar setup currently in the coffee business. The market is dominated by a few national brands, and for most of them, their measure of quality is whether their product will pass as coffee. The local roasting plant has a noticeably better product and a story to go with it. So will coffee, like beer, become more of a small-scale, local business?