January is holiday time in Australia, when most Aussies take their annual leave and head for the beach or the bush. This normally gives me a business break where I have a bit more leisure to stop and taste the coffee. Specifically, I try out the coffee at various local cafes to see what's happening in the world of wholesale coffee roasting.
A quick digression into the vagaries of the local cafe scene is in order here. Unlike North America and more recently the UK, Australia has never had "Coffee Chains" along the lines of Starbucks or Gloria Jeans. Fast food chains since the 70's, but the first coffee giant (Gloria Jeans) only opened a couple of years ago, and Starbucks last year. The market here is cafes, clubs, pubs, restaurants and hotels, mostly run by their owners. Espresso machines have been the rule rather than the exception since the 1970's, although you can still find "Cafes" in outback towns where coffee means a boiling kettle and a jar of Caterer's Blend. Clubs, restaurants and hotels may have auto drips and plungers as well.
Supplying the coffee to this profusion of outlets is the job of just about every roaster in Australia, with few exceptions (one of them being me!) Once upon a time this was accomplished by competition based on price, quality and service. Recently, however, price has become less of an issue, averaging out to around A$18.00/kg. What has become more important to the roaster is the volume of coffee consumed by the customer. What is important to the customer is the amount of "free" stuff thrown in with the contract.
First it was "free" espresso machine service, then a "free" espresso machine, then "free" cups, saucers, glasses, milk jugs etc., and now it includes "free" outdoor furniture and screens. The problem with all this "free" stuff is that in reality There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch (the TANSTAAFL principle) and it's being built into the $18.00 price of the coffee. Somewhere in the middle of this the roaster has to extract his profit margin.
The situation is made worse by the fact that cafe owners aren't dills, so they shop around for the best deal (most "freebies") they can get. The roaster has to fund all this and retain or increase his profit margin, and at a time when the world price of commodity coffee is at an all-time low, the obvious way to do this is to cut the cost of his green coffee. He buys the cheapest Brazils and Robustas, gives minimal attention to the cupping and blending, roasts dark enough to drive off any off flavours except charcoal. At the end of the process, what suffers is quality in the cup.
I used to be able to get a good espresso (albeit with a hint of robusta) almost anywhere; now I get shots which are visually brilliant (heaps of reddish crema) but horrible tasting. Flat, unexciting, bitter and rubbery. Worse, they cost more than last year, up by about 10% in most places. The sad fact is that most Australian roasters have opted out of the specialty coffee market to become purveyors of cafe fit-outs rather than quality coffees.
I suspect that only the advent of widespread competition from the Coffee Chains, who do at least start with quality beans, will lead to the cafes and the roasters competing on quality. I just hope that they wake up to this BEFORE we have a "Starbucks on every corner".