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(Re)interpreting the West Coast landscape through espresso-colored glasses.

(Re)interpreting the West Coast landscape through espresso-colored glasses

A year or two ago, observers in the coffee trade and consumer media called attention to the tremendous popularity of espresso on the West Coast, most prominently, Seattle. We marvelled at the tales of espresso carts lining the streets, and espresso bars on every office block (more reason to rank this city among the most liveable). But, just when we thought it couldn't get any better, we find out that things have in fact gotten even better, at least for roasters, retailers and consumers of espresso. And specialty coffee business, restaurateurs and savvy consumers all along the coast, not ones to pass up an opportunity or a trend when it's splashed across the front pages, have fueled the virtual explosion of espresso bars and coffeehouses as far south as San Diego. The hottest concentration has been developing in the City of Angels (West Hollywood, West Los Angeles, Santa Monica and Venice), perhaps the coffee culture's biggest scoop of this year. Based on reports that have come in, we expect there will be a lot more espresso to experience in the cooler months ahead.

So, what exactly has been happening during the past 12 months? How is it that espresso in particular is faring so well, in the face of a growing menu of options for specialty coffee drinkers, from varietal and regional coffees, flavors, to decafs of all stripes? There seem to be several reasons. (It's important to point out that when talking to "espresso," most people I spoke with were referring to the beverage that results from the espresso brewing method, rather than to the particular roast. Having said that, I will refer to the same beverage unless otherwise specified.)

First of all, and as Bob Sinclair of The Pannikan and Alan Chemtob of Cafe Au Lait were quick to point out, sales of espresso are fairly small in comparison to other beverages made with the espresso machine. Says Sinclair, "On the West Coast it's all cappuccino." For Chemtob the term espresso machine is somewhat of a misnomer-perhaps cappuccino machine is more fitting.

Secondly, there is also the real possibility that the early consumer market for espresso is beginning to mature, meaning that, in terms of home brewing equipment as well as roasted beans, the first wave of converts has begun to take the next step-upgrade! I've been told on numerous occasions that espresso fans have begun to tire of that first espresso machine they bought several years back. Their appreciation of espresso has outgrown their equipment, and they're looking to move up to a more capable (read expensive) model.

Lydia See of See's Coffee Co., Inc., specialty coffee wholesalers and retailers located in Riverside and now also in Santa Barbara, California, reports that yes, cup sales of espresso at See's are up-they're approximately doubled since last year. Iced espresso sales have tripled in the same time. Decaf espresso at this point is not a big seller. Lydia See also observes that: "The espresso consumer is certainly becoming more educated. They will come in and look at the color of the roasted beans." But Lydia See is pleased to see that customers are becoming more sophisticated about the espresso they drink and buy, and about coffees in general. The more discriminating the consumer, the better the business for specialty retailers and, increasingly, for those who roast on the premises.

When asked if there seems to be a new or emerging demographic profile of the typical espresso drinker, Lydia See answers that espresso drinkers seem to be getting younger. They are becoming more of a college crowd, and are drinking espresso at cafes as well as buying the espresso roast to brew at home. She confesses, however, that there is still the perception that there is more caffeine in the espresso roast. "I keep explaining that the beans in an espresso roast contain no more caffeine than any other coffee beans. That it's the brewing process which produces a more concentrated beverage with more caffeine. They're learning."

Regarding espresso equipment, See's Coffee Company is dropping the entire line of home espresso machines she has been selling, carrying instead only the stove-top equipment for the time being. "I don't think there are very good counter-top machines available on the market for consumers. I can sell great freshly roasted coffee beans to my customers, but when they go home and prepare it in one of these machines the quality is no longer there. That doesn't make my coffees look good. So for the time being, I'll be selling only the stove-top espresso machines, one-cup brewing systems, Chemex and other drip brewing systems. But what I'd really like to see is the Specialty Coffee Association of America come up with a seal of approval of some sort so that consumers will know what works and what doesn't."

Back up the coast, Tim McCormack of Seattle-based Caravali Coffees agrees that there continues to be more and more interest in espresso in the Northwest. His sales figures show it, as do the (still) growing number of new espresso bars. Though this story may no longer make headlines, the city apparently has an unquenchable thirst for the concentrated and fast brew as well as the roasst. McCormack agrees that the coffee and espresso subculture is maturing, as people begin to specify just what they want or expect from a certain

beverage. Talking about coffee subcultures, McCormack says that the first issue of a new magazine, called Cafe Ole, has just come off the presses, printing run 10,000.

He also confirms that some espresso drinkers are looking to upgrade their equipment, from the less expensive, bottom of the line models they may have begun with to the more elaborate and hopefully better quality machinery which allows them to steam milk and doctor up their drinks. While McCormick isn't ready to call it "a trend sweeping the nation," several people have relayed such sentiments to him at coffee seminars he has given.

Without a doubt, McCormack is optimistic, and Caravali Coffees has an open mind on the subject of espresso. Caravali Coffees will soon be releasing a second espresso blend to the marketplace, one with a lighter roast made with milder coffees. The company believes that coffee drinkers out there are looking for a lighter, mellower espresso blend, and hope to be the ones to provide them with it.

Though Caravali's overall business continues to do very well, McCormack adds that he has not seen any dramatic figures for decaf espresso. Nothing big happening in decaf espresso seems to be the consensus.

Bob Sinclair of The Pannikin based in San Diego contends that the sales of actual espresso have increased some, but that "the sales here on the West Coast have been mostly in very overextracted expresso with massive amounts of scalded milk."

Sinclair adds that they are opening a fully equipped showroom and espresso bartender's school in the near future. With such an investment, he must be fairly bullish about the future of this market. Sinclair expects the West Coast espresso market to continue to grow, though he adds that it still represents only a drop in the bucket in terms of the overall demand in Italy and throughout Europe. "At this point," he adds, "it is important to establish The Pannikin as an expert in the area, and to begin educating those people who are serving espresso and espresso-based beverages so that it can be done properly. It's real challenge selling real espresso to people on the West Coast when they're used to mochas and cafe au laits."

And like Lydia See and Tim McCormick, Sinclair now sees the demand for decaf espresso as slow, and admits that he may have overestimated the decaf market as a whole.

Alan Chemtob of Cafe Au Lait, based in Inglewood, CA, has also taken note of the relatively small percentage of espresso sales in comparison to sales of other beverages made with the machine. "But," he adds, "consumers are definitely becoming more discriminating in the Southland as well as in the Northwest. The biggest difference is availability - you still cannot get an espresso on every street corner in Southern California, but you sure can order it in more and more fine dining establishments - Los Angeles has one of the largest foodservice markets in the U.S. And espresso has become much more of an after-dinner experience rather than an eye-opening morning one. It will be at least a few years before that happens here." To achieve that goal, and to be in a good position to capture that market as it develops, Chemtob alludes to a need for specialization. "It's a different market, and it requires a different approach," though he declined to elaborate on his plan of attack. Chemtob also says he has a new espresso on the boards, though the project is still under wraps.

When I caught up with Carlo DiRuocco of Mr. Espresso in Alameda, CA, I wasn't too surprised to hear that demand for his espresso roast has increased dramatically during the past 12 months-he has more customers and they are ordering more. He is also not surprised to learn that several other roasters plan to offer a lighter, mellower espresso roast. "What many have been calling an espresso roast is more like a French roast, very dark. A true Italian espresso roast is not that dark. I don't wait for the sight of oil to release the beans from the roasting chamber. It should be a dark brown, like the color of a monk's robe. My retail customers used to tell me that they loved this roast, but that their customers weren't used to the lighter roast. Well, now espresso drinkers are definitely more sophisticated." He also says that more and more people are asking for espresso at the end of a meal. Five years from now, he predicts, 50% of coffee drinkers will have switched to espresso as their coffee brew of choice, and that's with caffeine.

Geographically speaking, DiRuocco sees tremendous growth beyond the usual metropolitan areas around San Francisco and Los Angeles. "The demand for espresso is moving beyond the Bay Area and the Los Angeles basin and into the mountains, the desert, to Sacramento, Las Vegas and Palm Springs - wherever the tourist go, wherever people travel, and wherever students go after leaving the big city campuses, there is a need for espresso machines because there is demand." The real challenge in the next few years will be to watch that all this espresso is prepared well. "The coffee, coffee grinder, machinery and the person serving - these are the factors that combine to create an excellent result or a bad one. So when people buy our coffee, they also buy our knowledge."

All parties interviewed are optimistic about the potential for espresso and espresso-based drinks on the West Coast. The number of espresso fans are climbing higher and higher, as coffee houses and espresso bars chip away at the pub/bar audience and as espresso-based drinks become an after-dinner favorite. They also bring this demand with them as they travel inland. And they are increasingly discriminating. As a result, we have begun to hear calls for a greater standardization of espresso roast terminology, as well as for a specialty coffee industry seal of approval to ensure that the equipment used to prepare these drinks at home is up to snuff. Finally, the specialty industry is beginning to realize that espresso will require more and more specialization in terms of marketing.
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Author:Hackeling, Joan
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Nov 1, 1990
Words:1930
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