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Specialty Coffee Expo Reflections: A Refreshing Return to Authenticity in a Post-Covid-19 World

The Specialty Coffee Expo was held in Boston this year.
The Specialty Coffee Expo was held in Boston this year. By Courtesy of Will McKibben
By Will McKibben, Contributing Writer

Over the weekend of March 7, coffee professionals and enthusiasts from all over the world gathered in the colossal Boston Convention and Exhibition Center for the annual Specialty Coffee Expo. This year’s expo marked a return to the scale and breadth of pre-pandemic events for the first time in over two years. Hosted in a different city each year, the Specialty Coffee Expo is the largest gathering of specialty coffee professionals in the nation. From roastery engineers to branding designers, rural farmers to small coffee shop owners, every aspect of the coffee industry was represented at the convention. Lectures and workshops on topics ranging from food service incorporation to coffee roasting chemistry were available to all attendees, coffee professionals or not. More than 420 vendors and over 10,000 attendees visited the convention this year, bringing with them a diverse array of perspectives and experiences, all shaped in some way or another by the Covid-19 pandemic.

After postponing the in-person convention in 2021 and leaning into a hybrid option, 2022 was the closest to normal that the convention has seen in a while. A rigorous testing policy and mask-wearing recommendations helped ensure a safe return to connection and community within the world of coffee. The Covid-19 pandemic dealt a devastating blow to the coffee community, forcing many shops to close permanently and a lucky few to continue with mobile or to-go ordering. Nobody was left untouched by the economic shock: coffee farmers on the far reaches of the Earth were unable to sell their products and likewise coffee shops were unable to market it to a society, isolated and at home.

While the effects of the pandemic will be a part of everyday life for years to come, decreased case numbers and increased vaccine availability has allowed for a return to normal life, or rather a new normal. This optimism also applies to coffee. The Specialty Coffee Expo 2022 was a beautiful and passionate representation of the perseverance and emergence of coffee through the trials and tribulations of the Covid-19 pandemic.

One of the pillars of post-pandemic authenticity comes from the coffee farmers themselves. Spanning from Indonesia to Yemen, from the far reaches of the Ethiopian highlands to the rainforests of Brazil, coffee farmers from every coffee region of the world were present at the convention, proudly representing not only their beans but the culture that produces them. One such example was a coffee farm in Colombia called La Esperanza. La Esperanza’s representatives said that they were third-generation coffee farmers, representing not only their country but also their families’s heritage. Offering 11 different lots, or varietietals, of beans, La Esperanza yields some of the most successful South American beans on the market right now. Their geisha beans prove to be especially difficult to process, with a low crop yield and proclivity for misfermentation. Their natural processed geisha beans are few and far between in the specialty coffee market. La Esperanza claims they don't grow beans and offer the varietals because it’s easy, but because they want to be true to their farm and to their ancestors that came before them and spent decades nurturing the same plant they do. In pursuing the best beans that they can produce and choosing to stay close to their ideals of quality and authenticity, even at the cost of production value, farms like these are beacons of hope in an ever changing coffee industry. Excited to be able to sell their beans again, passionate farmers like those at La Esperanza represent the steadfast desire to remain true and authentic.

La Esperanza represents the earliest stage in the coffee production, but the shift to authentic, transparent production is present on the consumer side as well. Minor Figures is an oat milk company based out of London that has expanded into the U.S., trailblazing with an uncompromising commitment to remain true to their roots as baristas and, more importantly, coffee-lovers. Minor Figures makes oat milk by baristas for baristas.

In speaking with Alix Walper, the company’s Director of Foodservice Sales, she spoke of the brand’s ethos and what sets them apart from other oat milks in the increasingly flooded market of non-dairy milks. She said that first and foremost they produce oat milk that is as beautiful and as pure as can be, but also take every pain to ensure it’s just that: oat milk. She said that a lot of other non-dairy milks rely on a lot of smoke and mirrors, promising that their oat milk tastes exactly like milk, or that it has the exact same texture. She said that Minor Figures authentically makes really incredible oat milk that tastes exactly like oat milk, nothing less, nothing more.

Minor Figures has a very short ingredient list that stays true to their goal pursuing the best that oat milk can be instead of imitating what it isn’t. Alix said that their oat milk isn’t stark white because oats aren’t white, and oat milk shouldn’t have to be. Their business model and production is uncompromisingly honest, profoundly refreshing in a coffee market that is filled with artificial replacements fueled by hype.

From coffee farmers to oat milk millennials, the 2022 Specialty Coffee Expo was a delightful display of what coffee should look like after the pandemic. After spending so much time away from each other during the pandemic, coffee lovers took a step back and found what matters most to them. The many voices, companies, and perspectives represented at the Specialty Coffee Expo proved that coffee and its community remain true to their foundations while innovating towards an authentic, honest, and sustainable future for coffee.

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