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Gourmet: a noun, an adjective, an accelerating trend.

Gourmet: A noun, an adjective, an accelerating trend

Folks have been buying gourmet coffee, in significant amounts, for some years now. From Caravali in the West to Green Mountain in the East and Coffee Roasters of New Orleans and another thousand points of light in between (I've been waiting months to find a place for that metaphor) wholesalers (Brownies) have been springing-up to provide better beans to retailers. Specialty green coffee importers (Greenies) have appeared in key cities providing raw material to roasters and roasting retailers. Purveyors of roasters and grinders, brewers and the like join flavorings houses, and lamination and film converters to supply the needs of the gourmet specialty coffee trade; a business whose sales are reported to be valued at something over $400,000,000. annually.

But what is gourmet coffee? Is it something different and special? Is it a rallying point for "The good stuff" or merely the new marketing Buzz behind which the same old tired beans are being hawked? Avarice is nothing new to the American coffee marketplace. There are even those that think the coffee business is the world's oldest profession. Finally, has the fast aging pioneer generation of American coffee entrepreneurs (gosh, I was 44 last month) made an impact on the buying habits of the consumer and the marketing practices of the larger coffee industry in the U.S.

A Gourmet is a person, not a product category; a fellow who enjoys and is a good judge of fine food and drink. Correctly speaking, a Gourmet is an epicure not a line of coffee, cheese or meat. In the New York vernacular however Gourmet has come to mean both a category of goods and a type of retail establishment. A Gourmet shop is a first rate specialty food retailer.

A neighborhood convenience grocery selling beer, facial tissues and making sandwiches and hot coffee to go is also called a Gourmet shop. Still the name Gourmet sticks to coffee packages here like taffy sticks to teeth (It's unsightly but it tastes good).

Specialty is the correct term of identification for beans of top flight character. It denotes a special height of quality, a coffee with distinctive merit in the bean, in the nose, and in the cup. Specialty coffee should be distinctly different from coffee sold as a commodity. It should be pure Arabica variety. It should be of the highest grades. A specialty may be a novelty as are flavored coffees and caffeine-added blends. All specialty beans should be produced with more than an alleged attention to production details. Where appropriate specialties should be labeled to indicate their specie variety, country of origin, district and grade. Any additional "Marks" might also be noted. Informative data pertaining to roasting, any other treatment, packaging and brewing instructions are often found accompanying roasted specialty coffees.

Premium, as a descriptive word for coffee, has been replaced by Gourmet as meaning up-scale, better quality, hence more expensive and worth it. Gourmet is abused in the extreme when it appears in the advertising and labeling of well known commercial brands of instant coffee. Still, it does indicate the manufacturer's sensitivity to what the consumer hopes to find in instant form. It may also be telling us that these products have been up-graded, but don't get your hopes up.

As the above illustration indicates there is a growing awareness of the themes of Specialty Coffee which are now being echoed in the marketing schemes of the largest manufacturers of brand label coffee products. Still, Gourmet remains a high-toned moniker that falls somewhat flat on the ear of a true Gourmet.

Twenty-five years ago virtually all retail coffee sales were Roast/Ground products or jars of instant. There were few coffees offered with an origin label; Nathor's Pride of Colombia and O'Conner's Mocha & Java come to mind along with Savarin's Brown Gold. Institutional roasters had consolidated their industry into the hands of a few regional giants devouring the small family suppliers. The degradation of blends hit a low in 1977 when Robustas replaced Brazils in America's blends in the wake of the Black Frost of 1975.

Specialty coffee has played the pivotal role in changing both the taste and the perception of coffee in the mind of the American consumer.

None of this has been lost on the big coffee companies who send their legions to the trade shows to pour over specialty coffee booths. The proliferation of new Big Brand items and lines, in the last three years, is a direct result of Specialty coffee's impact. This influence can also be heared in the bullying mean-spirited radio spots aimed at the back-bone of our industry; the small family coffee store. Take heart, let them crack that our coffee "Smells like liver," and then spend like a sailor to project themselves as "good enough to be served in America's finest restaurants." That is the way of a bully; Taking aim at those smaller and weaker than they is their way to lick their self-inflicted wounds.

No matter what you call Gourmet, the reintroduction of whole bean coffees sold in bulk awakened something dead in the American psych; something mystical and down-home and warm, and fine. The valve bag made roaster-freshness a reality. Swiss Water and Natural decaffeinated products for both home and food service fueled a decaffeinated coffee revolution. Flavored coffees found a youth market where for so long there had been none. We have much that we can point to and be proud of.

Donald N. Schoenholt is CEO of Gillies Coffee Co., America's oldest coffee merchant, New York.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Lockwood Trade Journal Co., Inc.
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:specialty coffees
Author:Schoenholt, Donald N.
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Oct 1, 1989
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