What Makes Artisan Coffee?
Nowadays, there are different terms in reference to coffee. Whether we are in a supermarket, on the internet, or commuting to our jobs, we find words such as ‘speciality coffee’, ‘artisan coffee’, ‘craft coffee’ etc. Maybe you’ve heard of a coffee roaster referred to as ‘artisan’ or, most likely, a bag of beans considered ‘speciality coffee’. But what does that mean exactly?
While some might use the term colloquially as code for ‘fashion’ or ‘expensive’, artisan coffee has a finite and specific definition. It also has an exciting history and a serious commitment to sustainability and respect with the effort of hundreds of small coffee farmers.
Particularly the term ‘artisan’ is usual in many activities around the world, including the coffee sector. If we go to any dictionary, it could give us a definition similar to a person who does work that needs a special skill, which involves making things with their hands.
In a more vernacular way, ‘artisan’ is notably used throughout many foods, textile manufacturers and beverage sectors; they are attached to segments such as craft beer, artisanal cakes, artisanal hats, etcetera. Substantially, these terms are used to nominate a more premium, higher-quality product, generally as a result of the skills needed to produce them.
In the speciality coffee industry, especially for us at Coffee Gems, the word ‘artisan’ is most associated with roasting. It is often used alongside terms like ‘hand-roasted’. We rely on our passion and expertise gained through many years of learning, experiencing and exchanging experiences with master roasters around the globe to roast our coffees without the support of any automated process, but still with the support of some technological tools.
Some people could argue that the instant we use technology or automated processes, we are moving away from the artisan roaster concept. Yes, every day we cope with the dilemma of whether we still are artisanal or if our roasting is an art or a science.
With our use of technology, we understand the chemical processes of coffee when roasting, besides being more consistent. Technology, such as temperature probes and roasting curves, is used alongside our roaster’s knowledge. So, we use technology to our advantage. In this way, the care and innate characteristic of the product is then passed on to the coffee lover.
Should we then be called artisan coffee roasters? We strongly believe so, as our expertise and hands rule the way as we roast our coffees without any automated process.
Where the New Concept of ‘Artisan Roaster’ Started
Some decades ago, from around the 70s, there was a break with coffee consumption behaviour where people started to move from a just convenience drink to kick mornings and social gatherings around a table, to a drinking experience.
Until the 70s, with some particularities of coffee’s origin to countries like Kenya, Colombia etc, all coffee used to be treated as a commodity. However, coffee merchants started to realise how beans had the best flavours if produced in special microclimates and if coffee were post-harvest processed under certain characteristics. As a result, they started to colloquially call coffee ‘gourmet’, and it was aimed to satisfy very demanding customers. This process was well-illustrated for the first time by Erna Knutsen in 1974 in an issue of Tea & Coffee Trade Journal.
From that point, the whole revolution that transformed the coffee industry for good began. Farmers were motivated to look after their coffee production in a more appropriate way. From planting the right seeds to post-harvesting processes as they were rewarded with a higher price.
To give a little bit more context, along the 80s my grandad in Colombia always complained that regardless of the quality of the coffee that he harvested on his farm, prices for his coffee would always become the same. At the end of the 90s in Colombia, farmers in small portions started to receive a premium for some lots of their coffee. So a new culture of production started to gain traction, now farmers classified their coffee as free of primary defects, with no quakes, properly sized and dried, free of faults and taints, with distinctive attributes.
At the other end of the chain, coffee roasters refined their roasting techniques as a new challenge emerged and answers to questions about how to interpret and enhance the inherent features of each coffee came up. In any case, it implied a move away from standardised roasting processes used for a long time to tailor temperatures and the speed of drum roasters to each type of coffee.
Which is the initial temperature of the roaster if we are going to roast an Ethiopian or Brazilian coffee? Why should it be different? Should I roast differently if I aim for an espresso coffee rather than a coffee for a dripper? Omni roasting or traditional roasting? To respond to all these interesting and challenging questions requires skills which have been learned over time using applied knowledge and expertise where there is no space for mechanised processes.
Somehow these previous questions moved to how baristas in coffee shops prepared coffee to highlight the more delicate flavours which are found in light-to-medium roasts. It also involved a greater appreciation for the barista and their technical skills, as more of the focus is on preparing high-quality artisan coffee. It produced more interest in learning about where coffee comes from, how it was cultivated and how sustainable the whole coffee supply chain is.
So, a whole wave of coffee experiences came up and is still here, revolutionising the way we appreciate and taste a cup of coffee.