Coffee News Club: Week of May 13th

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Howard Schultz, underminder-in-chief. Plus, scientists hate waiting for cold brew, and experts are skeptical about the benefits of mushroom coffee. 

‘Cocoa Rally Is Spilling Into Coffee as Traders Run Out of Cash’ – via Bloomberg

Cocoa’s commodity market has been volatile over the past year, with price spikes fueled by bad weather in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. 

The turmoil in the cocoa market has spilled over to the coffee industry. An analyst told Bloomberg that cocoa’s price volatility has “contaminated” the coffee market as speculative buyers move into what they perceive to be a similar commodity. The price of robusta spiked 70% over the past six months, which could partially be explained by traders seeing the trends in cocoa and betting that the price of coffee would also spike.

Coffee experts are looking at what’s happening in cocoa to inform and try to protect robusta prices from fluctuating. For example, part of the price spikes in cocoa is because cocoa production is concentrated in just two countries. When bad weather impacts Ghana or Côte d’Ivoire, demand can quickly outstrip supply and push prices up. “Cocoa’s large concentration in just two countries led to the problems we are seeing now, and we can’t let the same thing happen to coffee,” said Vanúsia Nogueira, executive director of the International Coffee Organization

While Brazil and Vietnam grow the bulk of the world’s robusta, coffee production is spread out between countries, meaning roasters can substitute arabica into blends when robusta prices increase. Meanwhile, a single country, Côte d’Ivoire, produced 38% of all cocoa in 2020, and there’s no backup when production falls.

Exacerbating both coffee and cocoa prices is climate change. Drought in Asia is affecting coffee growing in Vietnam, Indonesia, and India, while heavy rain and disease in West Africa have severely impacted cocoa production over the past year.

Industry experts interviewed by Bloomberg say coffee must learn lessons from cocoa, especially as Brazil grows a larger and larger percentage of the world’s coffee. Failure to diversify “can end up fundamentally changing the industry model and potentially breaking the trade,” said Volcafe’s Trishul Mandana. “I believe we are witnessing this today in cocoa and the coffee industry has a lot to learn from these events.”

Read the full story here.

‘Former Starbucks CEO Schultz Says Company Needs to Refocus on Coffee as Sales Struggle’ – via the Associated Press

Howard Schultz can’t resist checking in on his old workplace. The former Starbucks CEO is often credited with building the brand into the multinational behemoth it is today, which made him very rich in the process. Lately, however, he hasn’t been too happy with the company’s financial performance.

Schultz, who stepped down from Starbucks’ board of directors in September 2023, wrote a lengthy assessment of the brand’s recent earnings report on the platform where everyone’s favorite ‘thought leaders’ go to complain: LinkedIn

Conferred the honorary title of “lifelong Chairman Emeritus,” Schultz believes that the Starbucks leadership needs to spend more time in stores speaking to baristas and focus more on coffee. “I have emphasized that the company’s fix needs to begin at home: U.S. operations are the primary reason for the company’s fall from grace,” Schultz wrote.

That fall from grace? Starbucks reported a 2% drop in revenue for the January-March period, the first quarterly fall in revenue since 2020. Schultz attributes the drop to a lack of attention to the in-store experience. “The stores require a maniacal focus on the customer experience, through the eyes of a merchant,” he wrote. “The answer does not lie in data, but in the stores.”

Schultz is still Starbucks’ largest individual shareholder. His share of the company was valued at $1.5 billion at the end of 2023—and the company’s share price has fallen 20% since the beginning of 2024. It’s fair to say that his input wasn’t well received by the business press: the Wall Street Journal said he was “back-seat driving Starbucks,” while Bloomberg called him the “underminder-in-chief.”

Starbucks itself was more tactful: “We always appreciate Howard’s perspective. The challenges and opportunities he highlights are the ones we are focused on. And like Howard, we are confident in Starbucks long-term success,” the company said in a statement.

Read the full story here.

‘Blasting Coffee Grounds with Ultrasonic Waves Creates a 60-Second Cold Brew’ – via Popular Science

Cold brew is great, but it is slooooow. Who can wait 12-24 hours for a delicious iced beverage? We’ve got stuff to do.

Luckily, science is on it. In 2022, German researchers developed a new technique to speed up the cold brew process using lasers; now, it’s time for sound waves to join the cold brewing game.

Chemical engineers at the University of New South Wales in Australia devised a way to speed up the cold brewing process using a proprietary sound transmission system and a Breville espresso machine. The researchers retrofitted the espresso machine with an exterior pump and circuit to allow them to use cold water and better control flow rate. They used fine-ground (but untamped) coffee in a modified portafilter and experimented with different brew times and levels of “sonication” to find the perfect match of extraction and speed.

The ultrasonic waves caused acoustic cavitation, which sped up extraction times and improved the final product’s taste. “When acoustic bubbles collapse near the grounded coffee, they generate micro-jets with enough force to pit and fracture the coffee grounds—intensifying the extraction of the aroma and flavors of the brew,” said lead author Dr Francisco Trujillo in a news release. “And the acceleration is enormous—we are reducing what would typically take 12 to 24 hours to less than three minutes.”

Dr Trujillo noted that one of his goals was to show that the whole process was as easy as pulling a shot of espresso—hence the use of a regular, affordable espresso machine. “We are very excited about developing this technology that can be used by companies that already manufacture coffee machines, so consumers can enjoy an ultrasonic cold brew at home in less than three minutes.”

Read the full story here.

More News

Blue Bottle Coffee Loses Trademark Suit Against ‘Blue Brew” – via Daily Coffee News

Starbucks Boycotts in France and Benelux Hinder Alsea’s First Quarter Coffee Sales’ – via World Coffee Portal

Robustas Reach 45-Year High: ICO Report’ – via Global Coffee Report

UC Davis Coffee Center Opens‘ – via the Daily Democrat

’30 Minute Acid Trip: George Howell, Snapchill, And The Quest For Cold Coffee Acidity’ – via Sprudge

Squeaky Coffee Tools Enter the International Market with a Bang‘ – via Daily Coffee News

The Week in Coffee Unionizing

Just a month after announcing their intent to unionize, workers at five Blue Bottle Coffee locations in Boston, Massachusetts, voted overwhelmingly in favor of joining the newly-created Blue Bottle Independent Union (BBIU). The final vote tally was 38-4.

When workers first announced their intent to unionize, they asked Blue Bottle to voluntarily recognize their union. The company declined, so workers walked out and filed for an election with the National Labor Relations Board. According to the union, reasons for organizing included low pay, lack of input into cafe operations, and the company’s “continuous disdain for us as workers,” they said in a statement posted alongside a GoFundMe for BBIU.

“We have once again demonstrated to management that Blue Bottle workers overwhelmingly are in favor of unionizing,” the union said in a press release. The group also alleged Blue Bottle engaged in union-busting tactics in the lead-up to the election, including “attempting to install cameras in cafes, distributing anti-union flyers, and sending letters to workers’ homes.”

In a statement provided to Daily Coffee News, Blue Bottle said, “We value the dedication and contributions of our team members, and while we believe in our ability to address their needs directly, we respect their right to union representation.” In a letter to employees, the company said that once the NLRB certifies BBIU as the Boston-area workers’ representative, “Blue Bottle will negotiate with the union in good faith as we move forward.”

Meanwhile, in Syracuse, New York, workers at mini-chain Salt City Coffee announced their intent to unionize. Employees from all four cafes, as well as the production and roastery team, have asked the company’s management to recognize their new union, Salt City Coffee United. “We are organizing a union because we want to make Salt City the most equitable workplace it can be for both current workers and the ones who come after us,” the union said in a letter posted on Instagram.

Is Coffee Good For You?

Apparently, “mushroom mania” is sweeping the United Kingdom. The Guardian reports an increasing demand for medicinal mushrooms, with customers asking for fungi like reishi, lion’s mane, and chaga to be added to their coffee and beer.

According to mushroom fans, they have adaptogens that boost focus and mood and reduce stress. However, the evidence for such claims is currently “pretty scant,” according to the Guardian: “While many [mushrooms] have been safely and effectively used in traditional medicine for thousands of years, what humans haven’t ever done before is take them every day, with caffeine.”

While they are undoubtedly popular with consumers, experts, and members of the scientific community are less impressed. Professor Nicholas Money, a mycologist at Miami University in Ohio, said the reported claims were “without scientific foundation and amount to little more than snake oil.” Other experts theorize that much of the positive response has less to do with the mushroom’s inherent goodness and more with the fact that such blends often contain less caffeine.

“Show me the evidence – that’s my bottom line with all of these products,” Money said. “On the plus side, probably, these products are not harming any consumers … the placebo effect is so powerful if somebody feels better after drinking mushroom coffee, go for it.”

Beyond the Headlines

‘We Went to De-escalation Training: Here’s Everything We Learned’ by Lydia Stolper

“Actually Pretty Simple’: The Wild World of DIY Coffee Roasters’ by Fionn Pooler

‘A Closer Look At Mikael Jasin’s Historic World Barista Championship Win’ by Zac Cadwalader

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Fionn Pooler

Fionn Pooler is a coffee roaster and freelance writer currently based in the Scottish Highlands who has worked in the specialty coffee industry for over a decade. Since 2016 he has written the Pourover, a newsletter and blog that uses interviews and critical analysis to explore coffee’s place in the wider, changing world (and also yell at corporations).

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