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New Trends in Coffee: The Age of the Nano-Roaster

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[Photographs: Nick Cho]

When it comes to coffee, people have been talking about micro-roasters for awhile. Now there's a new trend happening: the nano-roaster. How did we get here? Let's dig through the history a bit, starting at the beginning of the last decade.

Waves and waves and waves

You might have heard the phrase "third wave coffee", a concept that is credited to my partner Trish Rothgeb, who coined the term in an article she wrote in 2003 (PDF). I usually summarize the three waves of coffee like this: The first wave is about coffee consumption (Gimme a regular coffee), second wave is about coffee enjoyment (Make it yummy. Make it a latte. In fact, make it a vanilla latte...), and the third wave is about coffee appreciation (like wine appreciation, or music appreciation). You'll notice that I wrote that the first and second wave "is," not "was." Each wave builds upon the next, and one wave isn't completely replaced by the next one. Even if more and more cities are getting their own specialty coffee shops, Folgers is as popular as ever.

When you encounter third wave coffee—as a bag of roasted beans, or perhaps a brewed coffee—it's likely labeled with more information about where that coffee comes from than you might have seen in decades past, and it's possible the beans will have a lighter roast than you might otherwise see. But the core of what has changed within the industry is the way that green (raw) coffee is sourced. When you see detailed farm information about a coffee, before you shift your focus to how one coffee offering differs from another, consider the idea that it's an achievement that you're seeing any of that information at all. Unique coffees that were once blended together are kept separate, which unlocks the opportunity to explore possibilities and potentials in those coffees at every step of the process, from seed to cup. That exploration and the product that results is ultimately what third wave coffee is all about.

It was around 2004 or 2005 when the whole third wave thing came into its own. Pioneering green coffee buyers were dissatisfied by the way certain middlemen in the supply chain held captive key knowledge and understanding about green coffee. These third-wave roasters and green coffee buyers disrupted the system by establishing various forms of direct relationships with coffee farmers. This has been the main fuel driving the third wave category forward.

The shift in sourcing relationships created superstars and role models out of the green buyers and their companies. People like Lindsey Bolger, Peter Giuliano, Christy Thorns, Geoff Watts, have their names spoken with reverence. Companies like Intelligentsia and Counter Culture grew quickly as wholesale coffee suppliers to retail coffee shops, specialty food stores, and restaurants, as they would find value in this new approach to coffee. A coffee shop would choose a coffee roaster to work with and subscribe to that roaster's coffee worldview and aesthetic. That is, until the multi-roaster trend took off.

Curate-a-palooza

Cafe Organica in San Francisco, Kopplins Coffee in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Barista in Portland, Oregon were among the first shops known in the specialty coffee scene that sourced from a variety of roasting companies instead of one. This created a low-frequency shockwave through the industry, which had an established model for a roaster-and-retailer relationship: you buy our coffee, we help you with training and equipment support. But with more ways to learn barista skills than ever, many new coffee shop owners were deciding that they didn't need to rely on one roaster's training program, and they found the option to offer a wider variety of coffees irresistible.

The trend of multi-roaster shops continues to expand today, and in hindsight, it shouldn't have surprised anyone. Green coffee buyers had become the rockstars of coffee, getting to travel and explore and taste and select. But if you're a coffee shop that's not roasting, you can't exactly be a green coffee buyer. But do you know what you can be? A brown coffee buyer! Multi-roaster shops are popping up all over, and with this new focus on curating a selection of beans from multiple roasters, roasting companies have had to rethink the way they sell coffee wholesale.

Meanwhile, the green coffee importers haven't exactly sat around doing nothing, letting the roasters redefine everything. They've been quietly adapting and evolving themselves.

New Models in Coffee Imports

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[Image: Coffeeshrub on Instagram]

Part of the reason that first group of third wave green coffee buyers is so revered is because their efforts resulted in uniquely delicious coffees from producers and farms that were otherwise unknown. Ten years ago, specific farm names and altitudes and specific coffee bean variety information were generally unknown, mostly because nobody tended to ask for that info. As the importers and exporters have become more savvy at meeting the demand of their third wave roaster customers, they've also enabled new entrants to the market by providing unprecedented access to traceable lots of quality coffee.

But a "lot of coffee" is still a lot of coffee. The traditional singular unit of green coffee is "one bag," but one bag can weigh 132 to 143 pounds, and freight expenses mean that you've got to buy five to ten bags at a time if you want to be cost effective. A small coffee shop uses as little as 30 or 40 pounds of coffee per week, which just about rules out roasting your own coffee for a lot of people. It's not just the costs, it's also about maintaining green coffee freshness.

Enter Coffee Shrub. The beloved Oakland-based home coffee roasting supply company, Sweet Maria's, saw growing requests for their coffees by small in-shop roasters, so they spun off Coffee Shrub to meet that demand. They repackage their green coffee offerings in smaller 50 or 100 pound quantities, and can ship as little as 50 pounds at a time.

Similarly, larger coffee importers such as Cafe Imports (Minnesota) and Olam Specialty Coffee (New York and California) have also been making it easier for smaller roasters to have access to high-quality coffees. That lower bar for entry, added to the ever-growing desire for coffee shops to present their unique take on coffee, adds another viable option for a new progressive coffeeshop: be a nano-roaster.

Nano-nano!

Roast Magazine identifies a roasting company that roasts less than 100,000 pounds of coffee per year as a "micro-roaster" for purposes of their annual "Roaster of the Year" competition. That's just over 1,900 pounds of coffee per week. But if a shop is roasting just for itself, you're looking at something closer to 50-200 pounds per week. So we're talking about a whole different category.

Some folks are installing roasting machines that do as little as half a pound per batch (most micro-roasters have machines that have capacities of between 20 and 50 pounds). When you've got a machine smaller than a 12-kilo size, chances are the local municipality won't require special (read: expensive) air pollution control accessories either.

In every corner of the world, you're seeing more shops plugging in small-capacity roasting machines and roasting their own than ever before. You can call it a nano-roaster, call it a shop-roaster, call it whatever you want. The real question is: Is this a good thing for coffee?

We'll see! A dirty little secret about coffee roasting is that most new professional roasters learn more from trial and error rather than apprenticing under an experienced roaster. There aren't really schools that aspiring roasters can go to, so unfortunately, there aren't many ways for people to learn the craft right now. I've had good coffees from tiny nano-roasters, I've had some great coffees. I've also had some awful coffees, with obvious flaws in the roast.

Trial and error can teach you a lot, if (and only if) you also learn how to taste and evaluate your roasts and adjust to avoid flaws. But most larger specialty coffee roasting companies (micro-, milli-, or otherwise) are going to have a more experienced roasting crew, so the nano-roasters have plenty to live up to. My hope is that the rapidly-growing number of nano-roasters—each offering their unique takes on coffee—will put more pressure on everyone to up their game.

Have you had any nano-roasters pop up in your area? What new trends are you noticing in at your local coffee shops? Looking forward to reading your comments!

About the author: Nicholas Cho is the co-founder of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters in San Francisco, and produces and hosts the Portafilter.net Podcast for Coffee Professionals. Follow him on Twitter at @nickcho

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