Every year, the Specialty Coffee Association of America invites members of the industry, as well as passionate consumers, to attend their annual conference and celebrate one of the most popular beverages in America. Held in Atlanta, or "Hot ’Lanta" as it was affectionately called by the Allman brothers, this year’s show was as big and beautiful as the city itself.
I feel it would be remiss not to mention a bit about the Georgia Congress Center, which is where the whole event took place. You have to understand that this is not your run of the mill conference center. On the same sprawling campus sits the Olympic Centennial Park as well as the Georgia Dome, so your first glimpse is impressive to say the least. Even though we took up what seemed to be a small corner of the Congress Center, we had actually taken over an entire building. Spanning 2 floors full of breakout rooms, 150,000 square feet of space for skill building workshops, and a show floor that was over 200,000 square feet, I think it’s safe to say that the conference was massive.
The first day of the show was dedicated solely to tea. It was great to see the coffee and tea worlds coming together and acknowledging the sisterhood of their industries, and as a member of the SCAA, it was an eye opener to see the similarities and differences in these two worlds. For every coffee house, there is a tearoom; for every barista, an infusiarista (a term I am hereby coining); but diametrically opposed to coffee’s "get-up-and-go" persona, is the laid back "take your time and enjoy it" feeling that the tea industry is based on.
All of the tea sessions I attended were extremely useful and informative, but one in particular, whose topic was concerning the health benefits of tea, was fantastic. Joe Simrany, president of the Tea Council of the USA, was the moderator of the session which also featured a representative from Lipton, a member of a communications company who has done research on the tea industry, and Dr. Lee of Dr. Lee’s TeaForHealth. There were two main things that struck me about their lecture. The representative from Lipton said that the number one question they get asked about their tea bags is what is in them. She said that many people have a strange assumption that Lipton’s tea is not truly tea, but some mixture of ingredients that produces a similar result! It really is tea folks; real tea leaves in a little bag.
The other thing of interest in the health benefits session was Dr. Lee. Dr. Lee started marketing his TeaForHealth when he helped his dog go into cancer remission using green tea therapy. The dog, Marty, had been diagnosed with canine lymphoma, but the doctor did not want to put his pet through the agony of chemotherapy. Dr. Lee, who specialized in cancer research, had been studying the affects of tea and believed it would help poor Marty, so he put him on a green tea regimen. 2 years later, the dog remains in remission. The amount of scientific information he has backing up the health benefits of a green tea regimen was unbelievable, and it’s obvious that Dr. Lee truly believes in and is passionate about what he does. I’ll say this, if you are ever given the opportunity to hear Dr. Lee speak, take it!
After the "tea break" on day one, it was nice to get into some territory I’m a little more familiar with: coffee. My first stop was a "Reverse Panel", moderated by Mark Prince of Coffeegeek and featuring some consumer coffee connoisseurs. The session was an open invite for retailers in all parts of the industry to ask any question of the consumers, be it about information the consumers may be searching for, or the atmosphere they prefer online or in a brick and mortar establishment. This session was a lot of fun and I have to tell you, even having read posts on Mark’s site, alt.coffee, etc, I’m still floored by the amount of information and enthusiasm these guys have when it comes to coffee. Despite everything they already know the main thing our panelists were looking for was more information! I thought this really spoke about the spec-hungry nature of our society right now. With the readily available information that the internet provides, people now have the availability to become experts on any topic, and will make the effort to do so to educate themselves as consumers. It’s no longer enough to simply provide the "what"; they want the "when", "why", and "how" too! This session was a great opportunity for those of us on this side of the industry to get a true opinion on what we can do better, and have no fear folks, these suggestions did not fall on deaf ears.
Something I have to give the SCAA major credit for is their offering of hands-on labs and skill-building workshops. If you wanted to learn about anything from pulling a shot of espresso to cupping to roasting beans, they had the equipment and the instructors there to get you going in the right direction. I had the pleasure of attending the Intermediate Espresso lab, and I can truly say that you haven’t lived until you’ve walked into a room where there are twelve 3-group La Marzocco machines lined up and ready to go. I have to admit, when I walked into the room I had to wipe a little drool from the corner of my mouth. Sherry Johns, president of Whole Cup Coffee Consulting, oversaw the event and gave introductions to each section of material: espresso extraction, milk steaming techniques, drink making techniques, and espresso equipment preventative maintenance. Each group, between five and ten people to a machine, was individually led by a trained barista who would perform an example of each task and then turn the machines over to attendees so that they could try their hand at it. Then the barista would "critique" each result and coach us on what we could do better. A lot of the people who attended this session had just opened, or were just about to open, a coffee house or similar establishment and I thought this was a really great training session for them. Wouldn’t it be great if a true barista trained every employee of a new coffee house?
I was mulling over this same thought while I was walking the expansive show floor, and stumbled across a booth for the Seattle Barista Academy. Lo and behold, there was someone who had the same thought about barista training, and had already developed an entire academy for the sole purpose of raising the espresso bar-no pun intended. The SBA wants to get to the point where certified barista coffee houses all display the certification logo, so anywhere you go across the US, you’ll know where you can get a great cappuccino or latte. I think this may turn out to be the next big thing…
Can I just tell you how much fun it is to walk around the show floor at a conference like that? If I had worn more comfortable shoes, I would have walked the floor a hundred times over and still have found interesting things to examine. Expobar, Solis, Capresso, Mazzer, and Saeco were all in attendance, just to name a few. Some had their "oldies but goodies" and others were rolling out new products or redesigns of older models. There were also several debuting companies and products in attendance, including a new brand of drip coffee beans that you can roast in your microwave, one pot at a time. Pretty intriguing.
Overall, I’d say the conference was a huge success on every level. The sessions and the show floor were top notch, and the people were fantastic. Everyone was great, but the consumer group made the biggest impression on me. It’s one thing for people who work in the industry to enjoy, understand, and pursue coffee, but it’s something else to meet a group of people who do it purely out of personal enjoyment. My hat goes off to them; without them, there wouldn’t be a coffee industry.
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