True “Craft” In Craft Coffee

When I grew up, the word “craft” was always linked with “arts and”. Today, the word “craft” is attached to foods and beverages of all kinds. Craft beers, craft ice cream, and of course, craft coffee.

The “craft” designation has been used (and maybe overused) in so many contexts… but the definition from my childhood rings true- a “craft” is linked with “art”, requiring special, “hands on”, skills.

I recently toured Brooklyn to check out many coffee bars purporting to feature craft coffee. Many of them are serving truly high quality brews.

But buyer beware- a fancy sign, an inflated price, a cool looking café, a unique brewing method, or an attractive website does not mean that the coffee is worth another cup. How can you be sure that your craft coffee is truly “better quality coffee”? Don’t be afraid to ask these questions:

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Start with the green beans:  First, who buys them? Do they have Q grading certification? Or if not, what expertise do they have? Coffee is the kind of world where people have lived it for generations- and that expertise is irreplaceable.

And second, where are the beans from- a unique story about “the beans on the side of this special hill” is often great – but you also have to be careful that the buying strategy is not so locked into a particular single farm that if that farm has a bad crop or becomes unreliable, that the entire product disappears.

Move on to the roast:- How do you know that every roast will be consistent? (hint- just having a hip roast master who watches every bean, as expert as they are, may not be enough if he/she is not there on any given day).  A strong supplier needs to have a structure in place, greater than any one person, to insure the same results roast after roast.

Aside from the people who make the product, what formalized quality control system is in place to verify that the product is in specification every time? (including in-house objective monitoring, subjective cupping, and third party testing).

Finally, what machinery is used to get the roast done? – A 12 kilo hand roaster is not the only machine that can do craft coffee – in fact, that degree of art may lead to inconsistency. But the system needs to involve “hands on oversight”, not a fully automated system.

Being craft shouldn’t mean being unsafe. Quality and food safety go hand in hand. What outside agencies review the roasting facility to insure compliance with federal, state and local regulations?

Hand in hand with the product is the brand. Brand alone without the product behind it won’t bring repeat customers and the web can make any coffee look like the real thing. But great coffee without any branding at any level (it doesn’t have to be retail) can be challenging. The brand needs a real story, with a true vision/mission/history behind it. Longevity, past practices, innovation, and market presence are all part of it. At its core, is the brand genuine and made to last the test of time, rather than just a fad that will be gone in a matter of months?

To validate a brand with staying power, look for a diverse, real, longtime, client list. This reinforces that the company can not only talk the talk, but walk the walk, day in day out, over years of real business.

When all this is in place, the result is a true craft product, worthy of the art behind it.  Then enjoy!

Jonathan White is the Executive Vice President at White Coffee Corporation in Long Island City, NY. Learn more about how Jonathan and his team can help you at