The six disruptive innovations of coffee

Coffee comes from the area that is now Ethiopia. Interestingly so do we. Fossil and genetic research suggests that all modern humans originated in the same area as coffee. It is impossible to know if your great x 10^4 grandfather was munching on coffee products. However, for the next 9928 generations there was probably more munching than drinking. Archaeological evidence suggests it was common around 800AD to press the cherries into ball of fat to preserve them for long journeys[i]. At some point some bright spark started boiling water and using the leaves of the coffee plant to make a stimulating infusion. Since then the way that coffee is drunk has changed dramatically six times over the past 600 years.


A coffee house in Yemen

A coffee house in Yemen

First was the roasting of coffee seeds to bring out the new aromas. Probably after the year 1430[ii] and occurring, not in Ethiopia, but in Yemen with influence from the Chinese practice of toasting tea. The coffee seeds were roasted in a pan over a fire releasing many of the chocolaty, nutty aromas of coffee. The roasted beans would then be pulverised using a pestle and mortar and boiled in a pot and drunk much as it is today in many coffee houses in Africa, Arabia, Turkey, and the Balkans.


The industrial revolution both necessitated and gave rise to the second revolution in coffee. The workers in the factories were introduced to unnatural sleep patterns when they needed increased levels of concentration in their dangerous steam-powered environments. Many men devised many methods for roasting coffee in furnaces in order to increase the rate at which they could roast coffee. The contraptions were usually drums or balls that left the beans scorched on the outside, green on the inside and no better than the coffee roasted in the pans of villagers around the world. The drums also had to be removed from the furnace in order to cool the beans.

Jabez Burns roasting machine

Jabez Burns roasting machine

One bloke with a great garden shed thought they were all doing a fairly poor job and set to improving the quality and efficiency of the process. Jabez Burns had started off selling Sumatran coffee to hotels in England for eleven cents and then spent 20 years working in the industry in New York. In 1864 Burns emerged from his shed with a really decent roasting machine. Burns’ masterstroke was using a turning drum with a double right and left augur that acted like a corkscrew inside the drum pushing the beans from the back to the front. Once the beans had been roasted a door at the front was opened allowing the beans to pour out of the drum. The drum could carry on turning and a new batch of beans could be loaded. Moreover, the turning of the beans by this double screw meant the beans moved uniformly throughout the drum and were therefore roasted far more consistently. Not content, Burns returned to his shed and went on to invent an improved coffee cooler and grinder. These innovations brought on the era of mass produced coffee and the start of the big coffee corporations like Maxwell House and Folgers.


The shameless bottomless cup

The shameless bottomless cup

The third stage of coffee development was more of a regression. Instant coffee was made popular during WWII with Nestlé’s new Nescafé product supplying caffeine to American soldiers. After the war, the people of America took to the new product as modern and post-war depressed consumers worldwide sought out cheaper products. The big firms went into a race for the cheapest possible product using the cheapest possible beans. This was disastrous for the coffee producing countries and for the quality of coffee.


In 1966, Alfred Peet, a Dutch émigré to US America started a coffee roasting operation in Berkley, California. He imported better grades of coffee than it was possible to get in the USA at that time and roasted them quite dark to increase the sweetness of the brew.

The three founders of Starbucks made a pilgrimage to Peets from Seattle to learn about coffee and used Peet’s coffee during their first year of operation in 1971. This began the fourth stage of coffee development: using better grades of coffee. Grading involves removing defects from the beans. Defects like mould, fungus, unripe beans, stones, sticks, sours, nippers would be counted and the coffee sold according to how many defects were present. The new breed of keen roaster bought speciality grade beans with less of the defects present. This marked a vast improvement on the foregoing era when low price was the priority. The term ‘specialty’ was the best, but in the Olympics of coffee it’s like running both the Olympic athletes and the para-Olymipic athletes in the same race. In order to disguise the included defects, the roasters typically roast to a high degree giving that typical char flavour that most people associate with coffee. Peet’s and Starbucks began with fresh roasted coffee, but over their monumental growth, both sacrificed this to profit and both now sell stale coffee[iii].

Most decent supermarket coffee is of the fourth stage. Lavazza and Illy are both of the fourth stage with Illy pushing the boundaries for quality and freshness within this stage.


In the mid-1980s owners in New Zealand and Australia made their coffee using imported coffee beans shipped over from Italy. Typically, in these pioneer countries, they thought they could do it better. On this occasion they were right. Once they discovered the exhilaration of fresh coffee, there was no going back to the lacklustre stale coffee of the fourth stage. The roasting of green beans for a local market that drank them as soon as possible after roasting heralded the coming of the fifth stage of coffee.

Roasted coffee beans degrade far quicker than the best-before dates on most supermarket coffee would have you believe. Roasters started putting a roasted-on date instead and, if the packaging was good, they’d recommend drinking within a month. But fresh roasting is just one of the characteristics of this fifth stage: espresso machine made coffee was the favoured beverage of the people and the delicate and flashy art of frothing milk became a delicate and flashy art.

The days of scalding hot pavlova cappuccino were over and rosettas/fern leaves on top of drinking temperature textured milk were in. In Seattle in the USA cafes like David Schomer’s Vivace were also experimenting with coffee and latte art and producing a drink with far more vitality and taste than ever before.

I’ve always enjoyed the claim in McCafes that each coffee is freshly ground. It’s a good start, but pointless if the coffee being ground is already stale. The freshly ground stale coffee of the fourth stage has a characteristic rancid/burnt rubber aroma. Fresh-roasted coffee tastes much better, but the beans that the roasters were using were generic beans from entire countries. With all the defects that the ‘speciality’ grade allows, the coffee still tends to be roasted quite dark. It’s a great step up from stale coffee, but it is usually drunk with milk and only drunk black by stoics or when added to sugar.

Generic country coffees roasted dark by Allpress Coffee

Generic country coffees roasted dark by Allpress Coffee


There have been trends like Fairtrade and certified coffees, but these still mostly belong to the fourth and occasionally the fifth stage of coffee development. Without the demands and price of quality coffee, the farmers produce decent fourth and fifth stage coffee. There is not enough incentive to produce zero-defect coffee when you have a price guaranteed by a label rather than by the quality. Moreover, the price paid to certification farmers, although higher than their miserable counterparts, is still too low for them to invest in the machinery of quality. It’s a condescending, latter-day missionary practice propagated in the main by proselytising Christians in the rich world who lack enough beggars and exists to salve the consciences of people who care so much that they’ll look for badges on packages before moving on to pick up the hummus and pate, but not so much that they beyond the glib marketing to see if it really does make a difference. It does, actually, but not in the long run.


Today the vast majority of coffee consumed in the world is still third and fourth stage coffee. However, the fastest growing sector is the sixth stage where, finally, coffee may be drunk black without a grimace or the aid of a sugar refinery.

Characteristically, the beans are sourced from estates or small cooperatives where great care is taken to produce green coffee that contains delicate flavour compounds reminiscent of fruit, flowers or herbs. Generic country coffees tend to lack these most delicate aromatics. The pride of a name (estate) also means that the coffee would be graded properly removing all the nasty defects inherent in untraced coffee. The zero-defect coffees may be roasted to lower levels that retain the delicate aromatics and acidity of the finest coffee. Sixth-stage roasters are now seeking out direct trade relationships with growers and working hand-in-hand to improve the quality of the coffee.

Klaus Thomsen of the Coffee Collective with a big smile on his face at Kieni Estate in Kenya

Klaus Thomsen of the Coffee Collective with a big smile on his face at Kieni Estate in Kenya

Zero defect coffee from a single plantation with great inherent flavours

Zero defect coffee from a single plantation with great inherent flavours

The sixth stage takes freshness to a whole new level by attempting to get the green beans a soon as possible from the estate. Conventional coffee trade wisdom says that green coffee stales after two years. This may be true, however, it also tastes much, much better when roasted one month after harvesting. The sticking point is the logistics of getting the beans from origin over some of the world’s least vehicle friendly roads to the overseas roastery so quickly after harvest. The beans can be better preserved through better packaging at origin and being stored

Defective coffee from the same plantation showing the importance of grading

Defective coffee from the same plantation showing the importance of grading

in climate-controlled rooms. Many roasteries roasting sixth stage coffee follow the harvests around the world and their selection of beans is therefore always changing.

Where sixth stage coffee really shines in pure unadulterated coffee and water. This is best sampled in coffee prepared in coffee syphons, aeropress, filter coffee makers. However, this stage of coffee also tastes much better in espresso based drinks like short blacks, lattes, flat whites etc.

Hand-brewed coffee

Hand-brewed coffee

Espresso is one of the methods of brewing coffee and has gained popularity like no other except instant coffee. It is also one of the most difficult ways of making coffee. Espresso traditionally uses 9-10 bar of pressure

Espresso coffee spectroscopic

Espresso coffee spectroscopic

to force hot water through a puck of coffee grounds. That’s four to five times the amount of pressure in your average car tyre. The effect of this pressure on the taste of the coffee is to concentrate it. A photospectrograph can give us a graphical representation of the flavour compounds that we can sense in a substance. In fact, if you look at a photospectrograph of the same coffee brewed by hand and brewed by espresso machine, the hand-brewed coffee has the taste compounds more evenly spaced out, whereas the espresso has concertinaed the flavours in to a sensory cluster – it’s a party in your mouth and everyone’s invited.

Humans are not able to sense as well as many other animals such as eagles or dogs. The raging parties that are espresso are extreme and some people enjoy them all the time, but it’s difficult to get to know the people with the music up so loud. With the flavour compounds spaced out more in a hand-brewed coffee, it’s much easier for our under-developed sensory organs to recognise flavours and associate them with foods and smells that we’re already familiar with.

A little bit about taste.
When we taste food or drink our brains pick up signals from sensors and give them certain interpretations. In fact, an apple doesn’t have a taste: it gives rise to taste in us. When we eat an apple we say it tastes different to an onion because our sensory apparatus is feeding our brain different signals. However, the flavour is in our brains. We start off with a poor ability to taste as a baby, when what we craved the most was sweetness. Over the years we become better at tasting and enjoy more complex flavours. Indeed, the more we taste, the better we get at it. What we refer to as taste is the fusion of gustation, olfaction and touch. Gustation is what we sense on our tongues and around the soft palette and is the sour, sweet, salt, bitter, umami, piquant. Olfaction takes place as orthonasal olfaction (sniffing) and retronasal olfaction (in the space behind our noses). We use the same sensory organ – the olfactory bulb – for orthonasal olfaction and retronasal olfaction, however (and I do find this quite thrilling), the direction of airflow affects how our brain interprets the flavours. Ie our brains interpret the same substance in different ways depending on the direction of airflow.

Farmers growing the world’s best coffees are akin to the farmers growing the world’s best grapes for the world’s best wines. Typically a bottle of Chateau de Tour is going to taste better than a generic bottle of French wine. But not everyone agrees. Some people are perfectly happy with a bottle of cheap wine and it begs the question: who is the lucky one? The person who pays $5 for a bottle with some mates and spends a good couple of hours happy with the vinous flavour and inebriating effects, or the person who pays $400 for a bottle of Château Latour and spends a good couple of hours amongst friends savouring the subtle flavours within?

Not everybody likes the developments in coffee. People get used to a taste and if there’s a change they’re upset. Just as people enjoy their pickles in a time when we have refrigeration and we can eat our vegetables fresh, some people prefer the char of the darker roasts. There’s a bean from Malabar that used to come from India in open-hulled boats. As the boats travelled across the seas the wind and rain would blow and wash through the sacks of green coffee resulting in a pale washed-out bean arriving in Europe. When shipping improved with the advent of the shipping container, the beans were saved the damage and the people of Europe were most upset. “This is not what we ordered!” they cried in an upset fashion. So, the slightly puzzled Indians pre-spoiled the beans before packing them into the shipping containers. They stacked them in open-sided warehouses where the moist winds could blow through and damage the beans.  The process was called monsooning and Monsoon Malabar is still a hot favourite for many in Europe, especially in Scandinavian countries.

Monsoon Malabar is like drinking molten tar mixed in with a bit of burnt tyres. When our roaster in Glasgow tried to get some more interesting notes from the bean we received this excellent complaint:

“This Thursday I did something that I had never done before: return a bag of coffee to Artisan Roast (Edinburgh).

The coffee in question was the Indian Monsooned Malabar. I have been buying this excellent coffee for quite a while, it was my favourite by far of all your beans. I loved the almost chocolatey flavour and smell of it, the greasiness as it stuck to the walls of my grinding tray, and the deep tar-like bitumen liquid it produced. Exquisite. You could build a motorway with the remaining crud.

Mr Sadowski agrees with me. But he actually likes the stuff. He is, however, completely correct that the coffee tasted better for him before the change. He doesn’t ‘get’ the lighter style of roasting and the subtle differences in the aromas and he doesn’t want to:

“I do not understand why anyone would find it necessary to alter the roast on the Monsooned Malabar. There are so many ‘light’ and ‘fruity’ etc. coffees around, and they are all so similar and so pointless.”

Unfortunately for Mr Sadowski, the roaster, Megan, was quite pleased with the results of her tampering and so were most of our Malabar customers. I sided with Mr Sadowski – he was spot on with his description afterall. But the business sided with the lighter roast.

Each stage of coffee development has changed coffee so much that we might as well refer to them as different drinks. Indeed, there are many like Mr Sadowski who are used to drinking fourth stage coffee find the coffee of the sixth stage a hard kick in the soft palette. They have different expectations from ‘coffee’ and are shocked when those expectations are not met. But for those lucky people who sense peach, plums, cinnamon, jasmine in their coffee for the first time, the effect is like discovering, during a rainstorm while driving down a muddy mountain road, how to finally turn the windscreen wipers on.


Where will coffee go next? There are so many different directions that coffee is going in. The next big trend is always knocking on the door like a queue of colourful salesmen. Many of these vivid trends fade away leaving gaps in cashflow and would-be coffee entrepreneurs rueing their avidity until… knock, knock.

Most of the excitement has been closer to the consumer end simply because that’s where the majority of the money is. Recently we have seen the rise of the Clover filter coffee machine, bought out by Starbucks where its grave lies. Filter bars like Monadnock Coffeebar in Chicago serve 700-1000 filter coffees a day and syphon bars are making an appearance outside of their non-native Japan in New York, London, Wellington, Melbourne. Espresso machines have moved through saturated group heads, dual boiler, multi-boiler PID and pressure profiling technology. The ever-increasing flood of the infernal pod machine producing expensive, environmentally wasteful, poor quality coffee is threatening to drown good coffee everywhere. I hope that the pod is not the next innovation to disrupt our industry. Or if it is that we can learn to harness the blighted thing. But I’m more hopeful than that.

There’s historically been less money in the producing countries and therefore less development. However, it’s in the selection, harvesting and processing of the coffee that I believe the greatest leaps will be made. Happily, the producing countries are getting richer and are also starting to consume more of their own beans. The domestic consumption of coffee in Brazil, the world’s largest grower of coffee, has doubled since the 1980s[iv]. In the 2010 crop year Indonesia consumed over 1/3 of its coffee crops[v]. This means more of the added value and wealth is staying in the origin countries and that there is more money in these countries to invest in research and improving processing techniques.

Estates are now starting to ship coffee in vacuum-packed or grainpro bags that preserve the beans for much longer. Estate owners understand the need and, more importantly, can afford to invest in environmental controls. Estates are growing single varietal coffee and not just the high yielding coffees, rather coffees that taste good. One of the areas that I’d like to see more experimentation is using different yeasts and periods of time when fermenting the freshly milled beans to remove the mucilage Through increased contact and better communication, producers are learning about other methods of processing coffee common in other parts of the world.

By improving their coffee the producers are earning higher prices allowing them the luxury of further improving their product. It might cost me more as a roaster, but at the end of the day it means I’ll be able to buy and roast and drink better coffee. Happy with that!

[i] All about coffee. William H Ukers. The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Company,1922. P 615.

[ii] Coffee, a dark history. Anthony Wild. pp40-49.

[iii] Starbucks have special FlavourLock valves that mean the coffee stays fresh for several months. Peets have a freshness guarantee that their coffee is not older than 90 days. I define fresh coffee as coffee without oil on the surface: vacuum packed <42 days, sealed <30 days. Any coffee that has oil on the surface goes rancid after 45mins and cannot be considered fresh. By my definition this means that none of the Starbucks and Peets coffee until February 2012 (Starbucks blonde, veranda and willow roasts) and July 2011 (Peets Café Domingo and café Solano roasts) was fresh.

[iv] International Coffee Organisation.

5 thoughts on “The six disruptive innovations of coffee

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s