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High altitude roasting: marketing ploy or credible medium?

Most of the high-altitude roasters that are producing high. quality specialty coffees have not been promoting the value of high elevation as a sales strategy and the few that have done so, faced assertions on the part of competitors that the concept was sheer nonsense. In defense, these roasters say the proof is in the product.

"When people say it's baloney, I say it's physics, pure and simple. Duplicate the roast," said Marc Greenberg of Care La Semeuse/Trade Marcs Group. The Brooklyn-based company imports from Switzerland, coffee roasted at 3,300 ft. above sea level. "High altitude allows a fuller roast using less heat. A fuller roast translates to fuller flavor. Less heat means no burn, and no burn means no bitterness. So high altitude roasting accomplishes a fuller flavor without the bitterness normally associated with European dark roasts." To those who scoff at his reasoning, he points to Duncan Hines cake mixes boxes. The cooking instructions tell the user to adjust the temperature according to altitude.

Air quality plays a role in the outcome of the roast, he adds. Care La Semeuse coffee is air cooled.

According to Joe Walker of the Looney Bean Coffee Roasting Co., some high-elevation locales tend to have better air quality than low-lying areas. "The air quality affects the roast. At lower altitude, bad particles in the air can contaminate the coffee," he noted. "Great water also is important. Water is 99% of coffee."

The Mammoth Lakes, California, roaster/retailer, is situated 7,800 ft. above sea level, where pumice is a natural filter for water, said Walker. The humidity level also affects bean preservation and roasting, he added.

"Lower altitude is more humid, and beans can go rancid. Our climate is bone dry up here, so the beans are preserved longer," he said. "Because Mammoth Lakes has 5 to 10% humidity day after day, even when it rains, which is occasional, the roasting process can be more consistent. To ensure even greater consistency, I don't roast on rainy days."

Climactic influences have long been successful marketing tools; witness the differences between California and French Rhone wines. With that idea in mind, Greenberg has incorporated the significance of high altitude roasting in his packaging, sales literature, and presentations.

"It's my unique selling proposition. From the first taste, I noticed that it wasn't bitter. People tasted the coffee and their eyes lit up. So from day one, that has been my marketing thrust," he said. "I say, 'in the beautiful mountains of Switzerland,' but I am not trying to create a beautiful picture as much as I am a rational understanding.

I started to promote high-altitude roasting because it was a physical, scientific, and factual reason for the absence of bitterness. When you can satisfy the mouth and the mind of the consumer, you've done the job of specialty coffee."

Walker plans to capitalize on his altitude with a tagline on his business cards. Open for only six months, he is already mailing coffee to Los Angeles through work-of-mouth alone.

One limitation to promoting the high-altitude roasting is a lack of scientific data on the effect of elevation on roasting, noted Greenberg. This pocket of the industry simply isn't big enough to prompt such a study.

"It would make my life easier to back it up with sdentific evidence," he said. "Once you start dealing with analysis, it is very expensive."

In the absence of scientific analysis, Walker has drawn on his own experience to determine high-altitude roasting methods of operation.

"Fluid air bed roaster have a harder time at high altitudes," he said. "You can't get the same kind of flow and pressure as with a drum roaster, which has a more controlled environment. My optimum choice for high altitude roasting is the San Franciscan drum roaster."

High altitudes also require a more refined, clean-burning substance for control, he added. "We roast with propane, which is much more refined than natural gas. It offers a more controlled environment for keeping the roast consistent batch after batch."

If the coffee-buying public takes note of these roasters' statements about the features and benefits of high-altitude roasting, will other roasters ride the coattails of this approach? "I don't think so. I don't think anyone is going to build a roasting plant at a certain altitude because of its effect on the roast," Greenberg predicted.

Cafe La Semeuse/Trade Marcs Group, 55 Nassau Ave., Brooklyn, NY//222. Tel: (718)387-9696; Fax: (718)782-2471

Looney Bean Coffee Roasting Co., 2380 B Main St., Mammoth Lakes, CA 93546. Tel: (619)934-1345;Fax: (619)934-8860.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Lockwood Trade Journal Co., Inc.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Roasting Report
Author:Friedman, Susan
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Oct 1, 1993
Words:765
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