When one considers the U.S. history of the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), as one does, especially, perhaps, when the association’s annual event is less than two weeks away, one might imagine (and let’s just say it’s you) that the story begins in 1982, when a group of people committed to “specialty” coffee first met to talk about forming an organization. You would not be wrong. You might imagine the story begins in 1983, when the Specialty Coffee Association of America received legal charter. Again, you would not be wrong. You might imagine some earlier date when someone among any number of people who may or may not claim such fame first suggested the idea to another person, who probably remembers it differently. Would you be wrong? Certainly not.
Historically speaking, beginnings are arbitrary animals and in placement, if not content precisely, somewhat fictional. So, the question becomes not, “Where does the story of the SCA in the United States begin?” but rather, “Where is the best place to begin telling the story of the SCA in the United States?”
1962 … obviously. 1907 works too, but not quite as well as 1911, or even 1914. Some might consider 1932 a close runner up, or 1952 if you want to be particularly nerdy about it, but today we will pin our tack (or arbitrarily tossed dart) on 1962 to frame a series of events, some fortunate and some unfortunate, that contributed to the formation of SCA(A). 1962 is the year that annual per capita consumption of coffee peaked. Peaked is a word that here means, “snowy heights to which we once climbed but have yet to return, not even close.”
In 1962 Americans were drinking 3.12 cups of coffee per person per day. By 1971 this had dropped to 2.50 cups and by 1980, 2 cups. From 1985 to 2010 consumption generally floundered between 1.60 and 1.90 cups per day. It has since been trending slowly upward. Given that the average cups per day was 1.69 from 1995 to 2004 and 1.88 from 2005 to 2014, there is good reason to believe the specialty segment of the coffee industry has had a positive impact on overall consumption. And yet, the 3.12 cups per person per day peak looms high behind us. What happened? The answer speaks to the roots of specialty coffee and the SCA in the United States.
Once upon a time, most cities were Portland, or Seattle, or any city with more than a handful of coffee roasters. A hundred years ago, if you lived in a city, there was a good chance your city had a few coffee roasters. If you lived in a large city, there was a good chance your neighborhood had a coffee roaster. But that was changing. Neighborhood roasters became city roasters and city roasters became regional roasters and regional roasters became national roasters. This expansion was first led by roasters based in New York and other east coast cities. By WWI the San Francisco roasters were west coast roasters and they were pushing east aggressively to gain national distribution. Accompanied by changes in the retail grocery business, coffee on a national scale became increasingly a battle of titans. Over 40 years a handful of coffee roasters gained a dominant market share and as they each competed for greater pieces of the pie they spent more money on advertising and less money on coffee so they could undercut each other on price.
As everyone reading this knows, spending less on coffee is a quality decision. Quality is a word that here means, “Yes, yes I will have another cup, thank you.”
Imagine you’re driving down the highway. Let’s say it’s 1962 and you’re on the open road. You have the radio on. Of course, you do. One of your favorite songs comes on the radio. Let’s say it’s Surfin’ Safari by the Beach Boys, a big hit in 1962. Or maybe it’s I Can’t Stop Loving You by Ray Charles, or Monster Mash, another classic from 1962. What do you do? You turn it up … you turn it way up. The next song is If I Had a Hammer, by Peter, Paul and Mary. You like the folk scene well enough and you appreciate Peter, Paul and Mary, but you really like a song that “has a beat and you can dance to it.” Almost unconsciously, you reach out and turn the volume down, just a little. You might even sing along a little, but you’re not as into it as you were. Then comes Venus in Blue Jeans, and you turn down the volume a little more. That song’s a little old fashion for you. Then the Theme from Doctor Kildare comes on and you turn down the volume a little more. You don’t turn the radio off but now it’s just music in the background, indistinct and practical.
This is an analogy for what happened with coffee after 1962. As the quality of coffee available to the vast majority of Americans began to deteriorate, they drank a little less. Quality dropped a little more, they drank a little less, until the song on the radio is George Jones singing She Still Thinks I Care, and you have the volume turned down so low it amounts to less than 2 cups of coffee a day, just a little noise in the background.
The large coffee roasters never gained 100% market share, of course. Tucked into the nooks and crannies of the remaining market share were small city and regional roasters, many of them businesses that had remained in one family for generations. They may have been serving many different types of markets and roasting many different qualities, but they remained close to the coffee and understood coffee as a highly differentiated product. There were new small roasters emerging. Some of them shared in common with the old school family roasters the need to remain close to the product. We won’t call them the hippy coffee roasters, but someone else might choose to use that phrase. Other new roasters shared in common with the older family owned roasters their understanding of coffee as a highly differentiated product, sometimes bringing a sense of quality coffee with them from other places, like Alfred Peet or Carl Diedrich.
These disparate outliers of small coffee roasters swirled around in the wake of 1962 and found pockets of customers interested in quality coffee. Whether quality coffee was the only thing they did or part of what they did they had in common an understanding of the fact that quality mattered and coffee wasn’t a commodity and need not be simply background music. Their businesses grew and as their businesses grew they began to bump into each other and the more they bumped into each other the more they began to wonder if they were part of a thing. That “thing” was identified as “specialty” coffee by a green coffee broker named Erna Knutsen during an interview with Tea & Coffee Trade Journal in 1974.
One of the bumping-into-places was the Fancy Food Show, practically the only exhibition available and of interest to specialty coffee roasters in the late 1970’s. As these coffee roasters (and they were almost all roasters) began to connect around what they had in common, a desire emerged to organize and formalize this connection. In 1982, groups met at both the Fancy Food Show in New York and San Francisco. They shared wine and ideas and agreed, more or less, on next steps. Out of spirited meetings came a charter and bylaws. In a move that could be said to have mirrored 80-year-old rivalries (and/or mistrust) between east and west coast coffee, the association began with a dual-presidency, a president from each coast.
In 1983, approximately 30 companies signed the charter and the association was on it’s way, run completely by volunteers for the first four years. In 1989 the association held it’s first conference and exhibition.
The emergence of the specialty coffee sector and creation of the specialty coffee association in particular is sometimes viewed, not without good reason, as a rebellion against poor quality by champions of high quality, of “turning up the volume.” This is not incorrect, but it is incomplete when cast as “us against them” with the National Coffee Association (NCA) playing the role of “them.” While there may have been a time when the policies and aims of the NCA were at times incompatible if not antithetical to those of small specialty coffee roasters struggling to establish a foothold in the coffee world, that is no longer the case and hasn’t been for a long time. Those who continue to view the world through this lens (an attitude that once upon a time was called “kicking the can”) may miss how important the NCA was to SCA’s ancestry. It was the NCA that established the Coffee Brewing Institute (later the Coffee Brewing Center), which sought to understand and codify so much of the science embraced by the specialty coffee sector and that came to symbolize in many ways its differentiation from commercial coffee.
Specialty coffee has not brought consumption back to three cups per day per person, but specialty coffee did get coffee drinkers to stop turning down the music and introduced coffee drinking to many people who otherwise may have never even turned the radio on (to torture the metaphor even further). Annual consumption now regularly flirts with two cups per day per person and the percentage of coffee drinkers who choose to drink specialty coffee has increased dramatically over the last 20 years.
Perhaps nothing reflects the growth of specialty coffee more than the tremendous success of the SCA’s annual event, the number of people who gather in the name of quality coffee. At the third event, in 1992, more than 1,800 people attended. The number was startling to everyone and overwhelmed the planners. It was the largest gathering of coffee professionals in history and today remains, each year, the largest gathering of coffee professionals in the world.