Coffee Quality and Grade – a talk with Shem Leupin

The following is an excerpt of an interview with coffee roaster Shem Leupin (Swiss Barista Champion 2013 and roaster in Stoll Kaffee Zurich) which I have never published, but still think it’s interesting. 

What is quality when we talk about coffee and how does the customer recognize it?

Shem: Quality is in the cup. Coffee quality is a measure of cleanliness, complexity, acidity, sweetness and body – that’s the shortest answer. An important consideration is the outcome in relation to the processing method, terroir and cultivar. The customer can only recognise quality if he or she spends time learning about coffee. The more experience they have the easier it is to make an informed judgement.

What does “specialty” mean?

Shem: Specialty is something unique that exceeds the norm. ‘Specialty coffee’ is also attention to detail and a genuine interest for creating a better product. This is something that has been left open to individual interpretation. It is not just the raw product, but every process along the way including the roaster and the barista. Coffee can be special on the farm and yet many mistakes can happen on the way to the cup.

What about lesser grade coffees (not specialty)?

Shem: Lesser grades of coffee make up the majority of the market. They are the result of, in many cases, a lack of buying power on behalf of the consumer and consumer reluctance, due to a lack of product knowledge and understanding. A big contributing factor is also the lack of knowledge on production level, here access to education plays a big role. As with any product product quality only increases with consumer demand. The consumer is first and for most interested in convenience and quality is always second place.

How do you see the specialty coffee market as a part of the overall coffee market?

Shem: If we take an optimistic example of America, in the last 30 years, the specialty sector has grown to a 20% share of their market. However, specialty coffee in Switzerland is still a slow mover. I would guess specialty coffee is a small fraction of 1% of the total market, much like in America 30 years ago. Locally the consumption of coffee is less a conscious decision than habitual daily routine. It is still heavily governed by a traditional concept of what coffee should be and not what it is.

Do you think this will change?

Shem: In some aspects it will definitely change, as consumer awareness grows. How quickly it changes is largely dependant on the local coffee industry. In the last few years we have seen an increased interest in coffee and with it more attention to how we are serving the drink in hospitality. In the future ‘specialty’ coffee will become a selling point for cafes trying to stand out from the crowd. It’s up the industry to help customers understand more about coffee so that they can make an informed decision. The stronghold of the capsule market is growing and the local roaster will have to adapt. That said, as long as we stay true to it’s meaning, ‘specialty’ will remain the smaller market purely by definition.

Is there even a market for specialty coffee?

Shem: Yes definitely. It is a natural reaction to convenience and industrialised food production. Coffee is so interesting and complex and what we are being served at the moment does not represent coffee. In Switzerland this market is yet to develop, but there is a small group of roasters and consumers that are pushing this market to expand. The Swiss are willing to spend more for quality, but they need to understand why it costs more. At times it feels like watching paint dry but it’s slowly gaining pace.

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