Out of the Box Thinking Takes the Stage at Symposium 2015

209975_218123184866538_3956997_oBy Jesse Bladyka

Symposium VII is fast approaching! I urge you to reflect on the last year in coffee as you’ve seen it. Gather your ideas, your successes, your failures, bring your joys and concerns and register to join us! At this event we will share our experiences as we congregate to inspire and be inspired to explore and inform the next chapter of Specialty Coffee.

As a relatively new industry segment, Specialty Coffee has always relied on adaptation, innovation and rapid evolution to differentiate our products from coffee with a lowercase c. This year at Symposium, there will be a very special session where we will hear from some of the most exciting innovators relative to coffee. Those who think “Out of the Box” about the various ways that their work intersects with Specialty Coffee and will guide the future of the industry.

This session will feature a diverse group of presenters, a coffee farmer from California, a plant and insect pathologist from CABI, and a professor of American Studies and Food Science and Technology from the University of California Davis. It will be hosted by our very own Peter Giuliano in order to frame the conversation with an industry specific lens. The intent of the session is to explore the work of these innovators and expose their ideas to the Symposium community. As attendees, we will have the opportunity to engage with these ideas first-hand and allow them to inform our professional lives in every phase of Specialty Coffee, thus weaving this innovation into the fabric of our industry.

bladykaJay Ruskey has been an innovator in farming for over twenty years. His farm, Good Land Organics, is located in Goleta, California, just two miles from the Pacific Ocean. It has a unique microclimate that allows for frost free winters and fog cooled summers, creating ideal growing conditions for subtropical crop species. These crops include yuzu, dragonfruit, cherimoya, and most relevant to Symposium, coffee! At Good Land Organics, Ruskey is cultivating thirteen different varieties of coffee and exploring different agricultural practices. Some of these include precision irrigation and the use of irrigation as a fertilization delivery method. He is focused on post-harvest processing and how to capture varietal flavors so that they can be expressed in the cup. He describes his model as somewhere between Kona Coffee and California Wine. The cost of land and labor somewhat restricts the market for California grown coffee but he is optimistic as he sees specialty markets emerging in Asia, and the worldwide Specialty Coffee industry elevating its standards.

In addition to Good Land Organics, Ruskey was involved in the foundation of California Coffee Growers, a collaborative of coffee growers working to spread knowledge and coffee throughout the state. Ruskey has focused his efforts on an existing group of farmers. California has a thriving avocado industry, and he hopes to prove that like in so many coffee producing countries, avocados can provide a useful shade and intercropping opportunity to support a nascent coffee industry in California. While he is just getting going, he hopes to see a quarter of a million coffee trees in California in the near future. As he puts it, “If avocados can grow, so can coffee!”

bladykaCABI used to be known as Commonwealth Agricultural Bureau International, a non-profit organization whose website states that their work focuses on “[improving] people’s lives by providing information and applying scientific expertise to solve problems in agriculture and the environment.” Harry Evans is a Principal Scientific Officer with CABI and studies classical biological control (CBC), which means identifying co-evolved natural occurring enemies to control pests and pathogens, rather than using intensive chemical application or aggressive management techniques. Evans has worked with many different crops that utilize CBC. He has even worked on a project that included using a rust fungus, similar to coffee leaf rust, as a way to bioliogcally control an invasive plant species in Australia. He is now working on a project quite the opposite, searching for a CBC in an attempt to control coffee leaf rust.

Although the work is just beginning and there are no definitive results, Evans says that the initial field reports suggest that the strategy has potential. Over the past two years at Symposium, we have heard many stories of devastation from coffee producers affected by La Roya. We have learned that farmers in the most remote areas, without access to fungicide, or who are certified organic and have limited tools to combat the fungus are especially at risk. Evans says that CBC is “Very different, [than fungicides] because with CBC there is no ‘product’ per se: since it involves the release of a self-replicating, co-evolved natural enemy – theoretically, therefore, it’s cheap (no farmer inputs), ecologically benign (no chemicals), and sustainable (no repeated applications).” This certainly sounds like a strategy worth investigating!

bladykaIf all of this production focused innovation is not enough, we will also have the pleasure of hearing about how we can frame coffee consumption, and talk about the role that Specialty Coffee plays in our consuming cultures. Charlotte Biltekoff is a professor at the University of California Davis and an innovator in framing food and nutrition with a cultural perspective. In order to “think culturally” about food and health, or about coffee, we have to understand the context in which it exists. This is what Charlotte will be speaking about at Symposium. This differs from the various ways that we can quantify food or coffee, through sensory science, chemistry, or technology which can quantify the values surrounding the food and. Thinking culturally drives at the core of what we think of as “good food” and “bad food” and how they reflect not only nutritional science, but also social and cultural values.

As we look at coffee, and Specialty Coffee in particular, we see no shortage of cultural subtext and significance. Biltekoff aims to explore the ways that we might apply her work, some of which is documented in a recent book, “Eating Right in America: The Cultural Politics of Food and Health,” to our beloved beverage. She will also speak to the importance of understanding the history of a food when developing a cultural narrative. This cultural narrative has the potential to introduce the Specialty Coffee community to a new lens through which we can view our product in a more complete context.

These three innovative individuals come from radically different backgrounds and their work intersects with Specialty Coffee in very diverse ways. However, what may seem disparate at first glance, will upon closer examination reveal a synergistic passion for documentation and innovation within Specialty Coffee. This is the special, alchemistic nature of the SCAA Symposium. I hope to see you there!

bladykaJesse Bladyka is a Roasters Guild Member and SCAA Credentialed Instructor. He is currently employed as a coffee roaster in Sonoma County, California. He believes that we can make the world a better place by carefully and responsibly crafting usable and consumable goods within our communities.