Cupping artisan coffee and tea

Cupping artisan coffee and tea

Edelstein, Art

If you’ve wondered who’s checking on the taste and quality of the coffee you drink look no further than Coffee Lab

International in Waterbury. Here, under the supervision and sensitive taste buds of Manet Alves, many of the world’s coffees are “cupped” for quality.

The company, located in the former Ben &Jerry’s offices on Commercial Drive tastes coffee for companies that roast coffee in the US. Its sister company, also located here, is Vermont Artisan Coffee and Tea.

According to Alves a Portuguese native and former wine maker in California the company tests green coffee for quality control and tastes roasted coffee.

“We do product development, any coffee extract or concentrates,” he said. “It’s the same as tasting wine, you don’t swallow the coffee, you put it in your mouth, taste and analyze it and throw away.”

Coffee Lab International has been in business since 1998. Alves came to Vermont when his wife Holly joined Ben & Jerry’s. “I was looking for a similar job as in California,” he said. Alves first “cupped coffee” in 1990 while on his honeymoon in Costa Rica.

Coffee is like wine, he said. “You have to educate yourself. You go to coffee producing countries or cup with a mentor. I went to Costa Rica, Guatemala, and now I travel frequently.”

Alves also works for US AID because the US government wants to develop coffee in areas where cocoa plants now grow. So, he travels to these countries to see if it’s feasible to grow coffee.

Alves also works voluntarily for the Specialty Coffee Association of America where he chairs the technical standard committee. “We put the standards together for the specialty coffee industry,” he noted.

Specialty coffees are having a strong growth spurt. Alves said 15 years ago when he started in the industry specialty coffees had just one to two percent of the market today it has grown to 25 percent.

“People after they try a specialty coffee they don’t go back to the Folgers coffee,” he explained.

In offer to have a specialty coffee you have to have a special taste, he noted. These coffees can come from one country, sometimes from just one farm. He said they are very specific coffees and more expensive to buy.

Recently, Alves had three Columbian nationals at his tasting facility learning how to cup coffee. He said a taster can’t taste more than 20 coffees a day, so the business he runs tastes no more than 100 coffees a week.

In the U.S. currently there are perhaps four or five companies doing cupping. He assumes there are perhaps 5,000 people worldwide who are experienced coffee cuppers. Alves also teaches people how to cup coffee when he travels. He said his company does $250,000 to $350,000 annually in sales and services.

The other aspect of Alves’ coffee business is Vermont Artisan Coffee and Tea Company, which has been selling specialty coffees and teas for four years. The company roasts coffee, and creates blends while also packing its own teas.

The company sells wholesale to restaurants and food service businesses nationwide and does retail primarily in New England. In Vermont it sells to City Market in Burlington, the Middlebury Cooperative. Mac’s Markets, Gesine in Montpelier, and Harvest Market in Stowe. It has a strong Internet sales component at www.vtartisan.com.

The company employees two: office manager Renee Adams and coffee roaster Brent Ballard. It occupies 3200 square feet in the former Ben & Jerry offices.

“We don’t want to warehouse roasted coffee, we freshly roast and ship the coffee daily through VT Foods, a Vermont Products distributor,” said Adams.

The company, which is tiny compared to its Waterbury neighbor Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, uses a roaster that can roast 130 pounds every 15 minutes or 4,000 pounds a day, and two small roasters that can do 40 pounds an hour.

Alves travels to countries to find coffees to import to Vermont. At any one time there are 12 to 14 different coffees the company is selling which retail for around $10 per pound.

Alves likens the availability of his coffees to a winery. “Sometimes it’s not available. It’s a boutique type of product.”

Vermont has about 10 small independent coffee roasters, said Alves who doesn’t think the state alone can support this number of companies. Thus he does mail order but most sales are through the Internet.

Sales are boosted by the wholesale sales and according to Alves, “it’s a lot of word of mouth.”

Alves said his company has no aspirations to be another Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, “One is enough. We have one roaster and we are limited by the roaster capacity.”

However, he sees a good market for his coffees and teas. “I think the public’s taste in coffee is evolving, people are evolving from flavored to better coffee. People are much more educated than before they understand the concept of specialty coffee and are willing to pay more for much better coffee.”

Copyright Boutin-McQuiston, Inc. Nov 01, 2006

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