Monday, March 09, 2009

MCM/Mercanta @ St Ali + More Ethiopian Craziness

First of all, let's just get this out of the way. In breaking news, Lloyds of London have insured a coffee taster's tongue for ten million pounds: check it out. Pretty cool stuff.

Enter MCM

Melbourne Coffee Merchants recently started trading as a green coffee importer that is the exclusive Australian agent for Mercanta. Last week, Mercanta's MD, Stephen Hurst, visited the country to meet and greet. The whirlwind tour netted a fairly good article in The Australian, which is worth a quick skim.

For me, the main event was the presentation by Stephen + cupping at St Ali. Not only has Stephen been running Mercanta for over a decade whilst being a Cup of Excellence board member, but before that he was a commodities trader specialising in coffee. Needless to say, it was a rare treat to be able to pick his brains on a wide number of topics.

I guess that the elephant in the room, as always, was the issue of whether or not the public will actually respond to better coffee. Stephen painted a rather rosy picture of the possibilities of the market for high end coffee in Australia, which certainly made me feel a lot better about it. There are some truly spectacular coffees out there and, in an ideal world, I would really love to see Australian roasters shelling out for some truly spectacular lots and, by the same token, informed consumers demanding that roasters lift their game when they try to charge premium prices.

One of the stats that came up in response to the aforementioned point was that Australia's per capita coffee consumption has room to expand, at least when compared with a number of other markets. Stephen was able to draw a number of links between countries with high per capita coffee consumption and the countries to which much of the better quality coffee in the world goes. It seems that quality drives increased consumption, so on the whole consumers do seem to be able to vote with their feet and tongues. Anecdotally, this fits perfectly with my experience - Maltitude constantly got busier and busier, with its neighbours selling less and less coffee. Once Cafenatics opened in Church Lane, Hydra across the street started to look almost empty in the mornings. BBB is constantly packed for coffee during the day, whilst other cafes stay empty. I also checked Michael Sivetz' book today and he mentioned the converse relationship - per capita coffee consumption dropped in the USA last century when a higher proportion of robusta was imported. When you consider that against backdrop of the lipstick index (ie. people buy more cheap treats in times of recession), there's definitely an argument that now is a good time to be a coffee roaster investing in great coffee. The question is, as always, how great? What level of awesomeness is worthwhile buying? I have my own thoughts on that, but I'd love to see some comments on it.

Of course, as one would expect, the night also involved lots of interesting conversation about coffee sourcing and some interesting tastings. Steve from Hasbean in the UK did a great job roasting all the samples and there were definitely a few standouts that would be very interesting in an espresso-dominated market. I'm hoping that some people put their hands up to buy them. I also ended up walking away with a bunch of loot - leftover samples and a nice ceramic drip cone from Fleur @ MCM. These ceramic drip cones have the advantage of being non-porous, whereas my plastic ones are starting to get a little skanky after about a year's use.

More Ethiopian Craziness

I don't even know where to begin with this one; it's just so crazy. So apparently Ethiopia has passed legislation that mandates that all coffee sold in Ethiopia be identified by region. That's not a problem, except that it can only be identified by region. This means that you won't know if you are buying IMV, Beloya, Aricha or total crap. No longer will you be able to get Sidamo Dale; it will all be called Sidamo. Now, you might still be able to pick the Dale or whatever out of the blind tasting lineup and bid for it at auction, but, obviously such a system makes it impossible to invest time, expertise, money and equipment back in the producers to get them producing the best quality stuff that they can for our consumption. In other words, we are potentially looking at the extinction of IMV, Beloya, Aricha, Shakiso, etc, as we know them.

People on the ground have commented that they think that there will be some workaround. I certainly hope so. For the moment, though, the knee-jerk, seat of the pants legislation and regulation seems to be continuing. George Howell reported that it was mandated that some coffee that he was interested in be processed on the standard equipment in Addis, as opposed to the state of the art equipment that foreign buyers had invested in. The latest report is that coffee exporters have been told that they must sell all of their 2008 crop within a week.


I hope that the Ethiopian government is able to find a way through this, but, frankly, if this turns out to be a strategic attempt to focus on the lowest-common-denominator commodity crop dollar at the expense of the cutting edge of quality, I will not be buying Ethiopian coffee. After gorging myself on all of the super-duper stuff that I can get my hands on, that is!

There's a workshop being run as part of the SCAA symposium on this issue and hopefully something will be done about it. I simply can't afford to go to the symposium, but there are some very talented folk going and I hope that they are able to sort out something sensible.


Finally, I'll just throw this out there: best Esmeralda through the clover ever at BBB last weekend. Apricot jam bombshell with powerful overtones of mandarin and bergamot. Superb.


At 1:14 PM, Blogger michelle said...

Hey Luca,

Great post!

I was lucky enough to be able to get along to the Mercanta/MCM night at The Source, and it was an absolutely fascinating evening. In fact, I wish I had a transcript of what Stephen had to say.

The question is, as always, how great? What level of awesomeness is worthwhile buying?

Excellent question. For me - I'm almost crazy enough to pay almost anything (when I can) for awesomeness (and I'm the same with wine really). I know someone who just bought some of the Esmeralda Lot #2 from Sweet Maria's at $180AUD/lb. If I wasn't worried it might end in me being divorced, I'd almost get some (and get her to roast it).

I was saying to a friend the other day that I'd happily drink less coffee if I had to, if it meant drinking more 'super-duper' coffee.

All that's easy enough for me. I can go buy my 250gm from whoever and go merrily on my way. It's the guy who has to commit to buying whole sacks of the stuff that it's trickier for. If he/she buys all this awesome coffee ... who are they going to sell it to? How many people are that interested in paying premium prices for premium products? And, I suppose, especially stuff that's going to shine more brightly as brewed coffee, in this espresso-crazy country?

At 8:29 PM, Blogger Westy said...

10 million aye? Hope he is aware of the rookie mistake that is eating cheese pizza too quickly... that tomato salsa is napalm.


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