Coffee News: from Seed to Cup

What Do Competitions Mean For Small Roasters?

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Another year, another opportunity to participate in coffee competitions. But for small roasters, how much value do roasting competitions actually add? We spoke to two winners of last year’s Golden Bean, and it turns out that it’s quite a lot.

Spanish Version: ¿Qué Significan las Competencias para los Pequeños Tostadores?

Meet The Roasters

Adam Paronto is serving customers while talking to me over Skype. He tells me that his shop, Reprise Coffee, is a highly specialized train station café in the suburbs of Chicago. “It’s cool to see people hang out at a train station. It’s just such a relaxing place to be.”

He’d been open just one year before winning a medal in the Golden Bean – and when I spoke to him, he was considering opening a second branch in another train station.

I ask him about his philosophy; he tells me, “I carry exclusively Gold Mountain Coffee Growers coffees, 8 or 9 different Nicaraguan coffees… I get people who say ‘I don’t like Colombian coffees,’ but that’s a crazy generalization, because they don’t realize how they all taste different.”

His café attempts to draw customers’ attention to the impact of varietal, processing method, and more. “As soon as I make [my customers] two different Nicaraguan coffees, they say, ‘Oh yeah, I guess I was wrong’. And then everything they think they know about coffee just kind of crumbles away. It’s cool to see that light go off, you know.”

Alabaster Coffee in Williamsport, Pennsylvania is the second roastery I spoke to. Owner Karl Fisher tells me their menu is designed to appeal to both newcomers and long-time drinkers of specialty. “We typically carry 9-14 different single origins at a time, which has been great for us in being able to offer differing quality coffees to our customers without being too overwhelming in choices…”

“We also try to balance our menu with both ‘classic’ coffee profiles and more ‘adventurous’ profiles  – think the really fruit-forward natural Ethiopians, for instance… [and] we really strive to find the right balance of information that is both simple and concise for the new coffee person, but also has enough depth for the coffee pro.”

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Karl Fisher of Alabaster Coffee. Credit: Ashley Wittmer Photography

The Challenges Facing Small Roasters

Both Reprise Coffee and Alabaster Coffee are away from the usual specialty coffee haunts. Based in the suburbs, Adam tells me, I started my coffee shop roastery outside of Chicago, north of the city, maybe 40 minutes out, so there are not too many coffee roasters out here… you have to drive 30 miles to get specialty coffee.”

Similarly, Karl tells me, “Where we’re located in north-central Pennsylvania, there aren’t many large cities and specialty coffee culture is still very much in its infancy.”

Adam feels that this poses particular issues for roasters. “If you’re not in the coffee industry you don’t usually see the roasting, unless it’s very developed in your city… I’m in the suburbs so I feel like there’s more of a disconnect.”

It can be hard to open a new business in an area with strong demand for your product; it’s even harder to do it an area where your product is not yet established. “Starting a new business, it can be nauseating because there’s so much involved and a lot of pressure,” Adam says. But winning medals in the Golden Bean, he explains, gave him drive and encouragement.

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Adam Paronto (left) at the Golden Bean. Credit: Gold Mountain Coffee Growers

Validation of Your Business

“I feel great about it,” Adam continues. “It’s really encouraging, as a young coffee roaster, to get some sort of positive encouragement. You know it’s great feedback, the most positive feedback I could have gotten.”

“[Owning a business] is your identity, you know. Stuff like this is like people accepting your identity.”

Karl has a similar response, telling me, “The biggest highlights for us are the validation in what we’re doing as a young business, and also being able to highlight our sourcing and some of our growing relationships at farm level.”

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Reprise Coffee’s Nicaraguan coffee being cupped at Golden Bean. Credit: Gold Mountain Coffee Growers

One Part of The Supply Chain

Competitions, for both Karl and Adam, draw attention not only to the producer but also to the roaster. “I really appreciate roasting competitions because they give a fuller picture of the ‘craft’ within the specialty coffee industry by including that area of the supply chain,” Karl tells me.

“Barista competitions, regional throwdowns, coffee films – these are all wonderful proof of the continued growth and perception of coffee as a craft beverage. It’s great to see roasting competitions filling in the gap between recognized awards like Cup of Excellence at farm level and World Barista Championship at the barista level.”

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Faira and Fatima, producers of the winning coffee. Credit: Gold Mountain Coffee Growers

SEE ALSO: James Tooill: I Competed in the Brewers Cup to Be a Better Roaster

Choosing Competition Coffees

This also influenced which coffees Karl decided to compete with. In the Espresso + Milk category, he won with his daily espresso blend Sabra Espresso (named for his daughter). “I thought it would be great that, if selected, our standard espresso might be recognized among other coffees that may have been selected specifically for competition,” he tells me.

It was a bold move, but one that paid off.

His other winning coffee, in contrast, was a microlot. “The Yader & Karen Microlot from Nicaragua, sourced through our partnership with Gold Mountain Coffee Growers was selected because I really wanted to feature a specific, direct trade coffee.”

Both Alabaster Coffee and Reprise Coffee won medals in the Golden Bean competition using Nicaraguan coffees from Gold Mountain Coffee Growers. Karl tells me, “I’ve had a desire since opening our shop in 2010 to work as directly as I can with farmers, but there are obvious time and financial constraints to doing so. When we first got connected with Gold Mountain, it was exactly what I was looking for in taking the next steps in some of our coffee sourcing.”

“Being able to spend time with our coffee farmers was incredible, and an experience I believe everyone involved in roasting or sourcing should strive to do. I wanted to learn everything I could about the supply chain, which meant everything from picking with other pickers, to processing at the farm, to visiting dry mills.” Karl plans to return to the farm next week to check up on the farmers with which he has partnered.

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Alabaster Coffee’s two medals, along with the winning Yader & Karen coffee. Credit: Karl Fisher

Making Connections

For Karl, these relationships aren’t just important for competitions – they’re important for the coffee industry as a whole.

“There’s such a disconnect between farmers and the end consumer of coffee, and being able to close that gap will only help to strengthen the industry all the way through. We’re proud to say that with all of the coffees that we now source from Nicaragua, we have been to every farm and contracted with them. It’s important to us, and also creates a transparency of our business with our customers here as well.”

An Opportunity to Learn

Adam believes that roasting competitions are also good opportunities to change any disconnect within the industry. “At the Golden Bean,” he tells me, “There are a lot more importers and growers connected to roasters. I thought that was a good chance for those parties to meet and intertwine.”

He adds that it was good for him to connect with other roasters. He could share his experiences as a café-roastery owner, and learn from others’. “It was encouraging to agree, to be like ‘oh, we’re going through the same struggles here.’ It was nice to realize we’re on the same page and to be like ‘this is how they educate their customers’. Or, if they don’t have a café, to see how importers educate roasters and growers educate importers.”

“The more people know, the more everybody [in the industry] knows, the better. Then the more the general public will know.”

The Golden Bean is peer-judged, and Adam feels that he learned from this as well. “I got to judge with Ben Weiner from Gold Mountain Coffee Growers, along with one other person on his team and the guy who won the Golden Bean Australia… it was really cool stuff.”

When I ask him if it made him a better roaster, he tells me, “Absolutely. I think it’s all about perspective and I got to have a lot of different roasters’ perspectives on what good coffee is. I felt that added another layer to my perspective.”

Roasting competitions are more than just the chance to win a trophy. From receiving validation of your business to making valuable connections and changing how people perceive the coffee supply chain, they offer numerous opportunities. And while these are useful for all roasters, for small businesses out of the main specialty coffee areas, they are particularly important.

Gold Mountain Coffee Growers is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind. Perfect Daily Grind is not affiliated with any of the individuals or bodies mentioned in this article, and cannot directly endorse them.

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