#33: Re:co Podcast – The Evolution of Innovation (S5 E1)

This is the first episode from “The Evolution of Innovation: How New Ideas will Shape Specialty Coffee’s Future”, a session at Re:co Symposium this year. This session offered a glimpse of new ideas in coffee from some leading thinkers in specialty coffee and a discussion of how they are likely to shape the future of our industry.

This episode features a discussion with Ever Meister, Managing Editor at Cafe Imports; Arno Holschuh, Chief Operating Officer of Bellwether Coffee Company; Umeko Motoyoshi, VP of Product at Sudden Coffee; and Jay Ruskey, Co-Founder and CEO of Frinj Coffee.

Led by Ever Meister, the panel took the stage at Re:co this past April to explore the relationship between specialty coffee’s drive for constant innovation and its apparent reverence for tradition. What could innovation and irreverence do for specialty?

Special Thanks to Toddy

This talk from Re:co Seattle is supported by Toddy. For over 50 years, Toddy brand cold brew systems have delighted baristas, food critics, and regular folks alike. By extracting all the natural and delicious flavors of coffee and tea, Toddy Cold Brew Systems turn your favorite coffee beans and tea leaves into fresh cold brew concentrates, that are ready to serve and enjoy. Learn more about Toddy at http://www.toddycafe.com.

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Table of Contents

0:00 Introduction
2:00 Introduction by Erin Meister on the importance of radically challenging the status quo through technological innovation
9:30 What does accessibility mean in the context of innovation and how has it impacted your approach in coffee?
20:30 What approach do you take when you’re trying to help someone overcome their phobia of progress?
30:30 How does waste reduction and efficiency fit into your work, in terms of energy and people?
43:45 What else needs to be radically re

Episode Transcript

0:00 Introduction

Peter Giuliano: Hello everybody, I’m Peter Giuliano, SCA’s Chief Research Officer. You’re listening to the Re:co podcast, a special episode of the SCA podcast. The Re:co podcast is dedicated to new thinking, discussion, and leadership in Specialty Coffee, featuring talks, discussions, and interviews from Re:co Symposium, SCA’s premier event dedicated to amplifying the voices of those who are driving specialty coffee forward. Check out the show notes for links to our YouTube channel where you can find videos of these talks.

This episode of the Re:co Podcast is supported by Toddy. For over 50 years, Toddy brand cold brew systems have delighted baristas, food critics, and regular folks alike. By extracting all the natural and delicious flavors of coffee and tea, Toddy Cold Brew Systems turn your favorite coffee beans and tea leaves into fresh cold brew concentrates, that are ready to serve and enjoy. Learn more about Toddy at toddycafe.com. Toddy: Cold brewed, simply better.

Over the next three weeks, we’ll be releasing episodes from “The Evolution of Innovation: How New Ideas will Shape Specialty Coffee’s Future”, a session at Re:co Symposium this year. This session offered a glimpse of new ideas in specialty coffee from some leading thinkers in specialty coffee and a discussion of how they are likely to shape the future of our industry.

On this episode of the Re:co podcast, we are pleased to welcome Ever Meister, Managing Editor at Cafe Imports; Arno Holschuh, Chief Operating Officer of Bellwether Coffee Company; Umeko Motoyoshi, VP of Product at Sudden Coffee; and Jay Ruskey, Co-Founder and CEO of Frinj Coffee.

Also, to help you follow along in this podcast, I will chime in occasionally to explain who’s talking.

Led by Ever Meister, the panel took the stage at Re:co this past April to explore the relationship between specialty coffee’s drive for constant innovation and its apparent reverence for tradition. What could innovation and irreverence do for specialty? I’ll let Ever Meister take it from here:

2:00 Introduction by Erin Meister on the importance of radically challenging the status quo through technological innovation

Erin Meister: So the evolution of innovation – how new ideas will shape specialty coffee’s future.

So the word “Innovation” is actually just about as old as coffee’s recorded history itself. It was coined somewhere between 1540 and 1550, and it’s from the Latin word “to renew’,  “to alter.” The word itself embodies that definition. It’s not about creating something out of thin air, but about taking something that already exists, like the Latin word innovare, and making it better, improving it.

Fundamentally I think that’s what specialty coffee is about. I don’t think anyone in this room would claim that we invented coffee, but I think all of us are trying to constantly renew, alter and improve it, to challenge it and to challenge ourselves in the process.

However, even within our industry-wide history as movers and shakers and our commitment to progress in coffee science, quality, marketing, accessibility, all of these things that we want to improve, even just appreciation of coffee in general, we’re odd…. We’re an odd bunch. I don’t think anyone would disagree with the fact that everyone in this room probably is a little bit weird.

For all of our talk of these better systems that were seeking, better husbandry, improved scientific understanding, more market access, better payment for small producers. We all still all revere tradition, what some people might call “doing things the hard way.” In a lot of situations, this reverence that we have for tradition can be somewhat self-defeating.

If you’ll allow me an example, we get really wrapped up in talk about the latest, most high-tech advancement in espresso machine technology, right? We want all these bells and whistles on our espresso machines. We want built-in scales and timers and auto-volumetric controls and pressure profiling, access to recipes that are stored on the cloud.

And yet in order to source the coffee that we actually put through those espresso machines, we use sensory methodology that was developed in the 19th century and has hardly changed since it was invented. Yeah, I’m talking about cupping. Like when’s the last time you heard anyone think critically and evaluate the process that we use that’s one of the most fundamental tools for the industry? Have we ever really gotten together as an industry to improve it, to alter it, and to renew it?

It’s that thought that will drive us as we go forward and think about Innovation. Just think about the fact that we call cupping a “ritual.” Should that word alone protect it from being improved?

So that’s what we’re talking about in this session: Improvement, renewal, radical disruption of the status quo. Even our status quo. There’s no such thing as “too much better.” So why should we ever stop looking? What if specialty coffee could be a zero waste industry? What if we could use instant coffee technology to make sensory analysis more accessible at origin? What if we were actively looking for climate adapted regions to grow coffee in consuming countries? What if literally anyone on Earth could roast coffee, the best coffee, and roast it with zero emissions? What if we radically altered transparency in order to create real-time Financial records that could be checked and double-checked to strengthen the supply chain?

Well, we’ll hear, all of these ideas, all of these Innovations are more possible now than they probably have ever been before.

So joining me on stage for a Roundtable discussion about how Innovation will shape specialty coffees future are three more innovators who are doing just that: identifying problems and opening up a world of solutions simply by taking what we already know and making it different, changing it, reimagining it.

And this is where I’ll pause for just a moment – just to … I’m going off script.  And save this one for the blooper reel.  There can be a little bit of an anxiety especially in a room like this when we’re talking about Innovative products and, you  feel like “well, why is this person’s product being featured on stage?” Or “why is that person’s product being featured on stage?.” And I want to take a moment to remind everyone in this room that we are all working together to sell one thing. We all work in coffee. Every single person in this room, in this whole weekend’s worth of events, we’re all brought together because we want to sell better coffee. We want to sell coffee better. And so we’re all united under this one big umbrella every single person in this room does that in a different way with a different product, of a different approach? So the people who are here on stage or not necessarily pushing their products, but pushing the ideology of innovation and different ways that we can approach all of us doing that work together. So I just wanted to offer that slight deviation from my really just wonderful script, right? Like Oscar-winning script writing. Just to give that little disclaimer before we get started.

So I’m going to call it my three roundtable panelists here. The first is Arno Holschuh, he’s the COO of Bellwether Coffee, which is a company that does more than simply make zero-emission coffee roasting machines, that are easy enough for anybody to use. Though that would be enough. Arno. Next up we have Umeko Motoyoshi, she’s the VP for Product of Sudden Coffee, which is a specialty instant coffee brand that’s transformed the image of soluble product and the potential to break through countless barriers to make coffee more accessible to customers around the world. And lastly we’ve got Jay Ruskey, he’s the owner and farmer at Good Land Organics, which is the first commercial coffee farm in the continental United States, and he’s the co-founder and CEO of Frinj Coffee, which is an organization determined to develop and support a network of coffee farmers in California.

So the other thing about hosting a Roundtable and having a panel, is I find that the best panels are actually when you have a conversation, so I will hopefully be asking questions that I would love for you to answer but I don’t want this to be one of those panels where you necessarily go down the line everyone  answers. I would like you to also feel like you can ask each other questions or even ask questions of the audience, anything that makes us feel a little bit more like a conversation and a little bit less like a game show in the 1950s. That sound okay? Is everyone. All right with that can be aboard? Okay.

9:30 What does accessibility mean in the context of innovation and how has it impacted your approach in coffee?

Erin Meister: So obviously you three have very different focuses in your work you work on very different aspects of the supply chain and the products that you’re working with and the people that you’re working with are all different and diverse. But I feel like there’s a lot of ideological overlap in the things that you focus on and the innovations that you’re taking on. So I’d like to ask a question about redesigning and disrupting that status quo, specifically looking at accessibility to begin.

Accessibility is something that really struck me when I was listening to Anukampa Freedom Gupta-Fonner’s talk about the idea that the sleeve itself is so small. It’s such a small change. The price point is really low. It’s a very small habitual by in that people can take on. It’s something that you really have a hard time finding someone who couldn’t be convinced that it’s something that they can do. And accessibility means obviously a lot of things to a lot of. People is something accessible in terms of price point? Is it accessible in terms of the amount of skill or education or expertise you need to have to operate it?

So I guess I  want to ask what accessibility means to you in terms of the Innovation that you’re doing and if you want to talk a little about how that has impacted your approach or impacted your sensibilities about coffee?

Arno Holschuh: I mean I would say I look back to my earlier days, my beginning days in the industry and we had a self-image at least at that time and I think to some degree was borne out by reality, that the specialty coffee industry was a safe place to go and a safe place to have a career if you did not otherwise fit into the economy as it stood at that time.

We used to joke that we were the Revenge of the Liberal Arts Majors. I’ve heard other people [who] used to refer to us as “the island of broken toys.” And that was a really cool thing.  First of all, that was really beneficial to the people who could access that pathway. And so it was good for that part of society. But beyond that, it made our industry really dynamic because we were willing to think outside the box and we weren’t going to do things the way that other people had done them.

What’s happened as we’ve professionalized as an industry and as we’ve really normalized into a more traditional, late capitalist model in many places in our industry. Though that easy access for people who do not otherwise fit in has been barred. If you want to start roasting coffee, to talk about what we’re doing, there’s a capital requirement, which is quite severe. If you go out and you look for Capital as a specialty coffee business, the going rate is about 7%. Because we are high-risk businesses and that’s quite a burden to bear. It’s going to take you a long time to pay off that roastery if you want to do it. It’s much better to buy from someone else who’s already roasting coffee. That’s the more economic decision to make.

If you were able to get the money, you’d have the skills acquisition piece – not just around roasting, but also around inventory control, inbound supply chain, outbound supply chain, green coffee buying. Like we all know what we do for a living here, right?

And I think that Innovation really can bring us back to a place that allows new people, people who haven’t had access, while preserving the quality of our product and actually preserving the craft that we hold so dear.

I know it’s a balance here to what degree we should be promoting our own products. So I will try not to stray too far on that side of the line. But what we have tried to do with our technology is create something that tears down all of the barriers to entry, including that you need not purchase it, you can access it with a monthly fee. It’s a little bit easier for people swallow when they’re just getting into business. You don’t have to know how to roast. You don’t have to know how to buy green coffee. Although all of that is open as well and we welcome those activities as well. Because we view coffee roasting, and seen in a broader context, coffee production – everything that happens inside the production department or the roastery – that’s a really really good economic activity that we have built a ton of barriers around. And we think about ourselves as the pathway in for others.

Umeko Motoyoshi: So after you have your roastery set up and you are roasting coffee, you’re looking for your customers and for your market and that can be a tough place to be when you’re in specialty coffee. It’s still not exactly a product that’s totally understood and there are still a lot of questions around the price point, questions around “okay, do I need to buy a $500 grinder and do I need to buy into an entire ideology? Is that what I need to do in order to drink nice coffee?.”

So what Sudden really is excited about is being able to help specialty coffee companies extend that reach in a lot more of an easy and just a fun way. So when you have your customers, who aren’t familiar yet with specialty coffee, it’s such an easy way to get familiar and you can’t mess it up. You just add water to it. It’s an instant coffee and it’s a really nice way for specialty coffee companies to be able to reach new people. And and then the accessibility also works for the customers as well. And I really enjoy that about what we do.

And Arno is talking about also the barriers to entry for roasting and that for me also brought up…. So I’ve worked in specialty coffee for about 10 years, I’ve seen the industry change a lot and, when I started working in coffee, it was pretty easy for people to get in when they belong to you a very specific demographic. You could get hired and then for being promoted and moving up, the demographic narrows even more. And for no good reason, there’s no grounds for that. Coffee pun.

So that’s something that I care about a lot, is making sure that jobs in specialty coffee are accessible to people from all demographics. I think that’s so vital and so crucial and that’s something that I really enjoy about my team is we have such a diverse range of perspectives and we’re able to learn so much from each other. Because everyone’s coming from this really different experience. And creating that accessibility as well is something I feel really excited about.

Erin Meister: Yeah, there are these are so many different ways of interpreting that word, I think, and what it means. And I think it’s something that we’re all really striving toward and I think access to a growing opportunity actually as producers too… I mean that’s amazing the symbiotic relationship that you three represent. And I would love to hear what you think.

Jay Ruskey: I think what we all share in common right now, at least at the consumer level, is we’re trying to create accessibility to quality.  And that’s one of three components to what we’ve been working on.

When I look at accessibility, it’s really at three levels. We have accessibility for our farmers to get quality plant material and a new market because I’m working with farmers in California, avocado farmers, who have a lot of pressures in production and they are looking for accessibility and markets that are growing. And we have a perennial crop that needs a 10-year, 20-year growth. So try and provide accessibility to markets.

And then finally one part that I’ve always worked on, was the marketing. I did farmers markets for 22 years,  introducing exotic fruits. So allowing the consumer to have an experience of trying something new and then the customer coming back to the farmer, having a connection, is something I’m trying to put back into play here.

Accessibility needs to be applied to all parts of this really complex supply chain that we have. And it goes all the way to the end consumer because if we can take the experience that you two are doing, to game the consumer to pay a few bucks more and to highlight all the farmers’ work. And if we can bring it all the way back to the farmer, then they, the farmer, has accessibilities to better markets and hopefully have better return and a better future.

Erin Meister: Yeah, when you started talking, you say all of us are working toward access to quality. And I was immediately thinking about how, the loop of this work that the three of you are doing and the way that Innovation will make this accessibility happen is amazing. Even if you just imagine: a producer grows coffee in a place where maybe they’re not familiar with growing coffee. So there’s a learning curve there, right?  Your guessing at what quality is – how are we going to make quality in this place where there is no precedent?

You can give that end product to a company where someone can roast that, almost immediately roast it, and then create instant coffee with it. So the barrier to access for sensory analysis is basically eliminated. What if we could be roasting at a cupping level and making instant coffee that simulates the sensory analysis experience without necessarily going through all of the hoops of doing that and then bringing that right back into a circle?

So it’s amazing when you think about the ways that Innovations feed off of each other, and the ways that they make new growth and technology possible. So that is really interesting.

20:30 What approach do you take when you’re trying to help someone overcome their phobia of progress?

Erin Meister: And that brings up to the one of the other themes that when we were developing when we came together with the session, which is: our knee-jerk response to change and to Innovation and the ways that we tend to – maybe it’s a human response? – Tend to push back. Even though we want things to change, when they start to change you start to flinch.

And as I’ve been listening to everyone speak, and as I’ve gotten to know you all, I also have had to check my own knee jerk reactions in a lot of cases. And  I mean here I am reading off of a paper. I don’t even have an iPhone with me. Do you think that you have a particular approach or response to – when you’re speaking to someone who you can feel them close off or you can feel their skepticism, what approach do you take when you’re trying to help someone overcome their phobia of progress?

 Umeko Motoyoshi: What I found is listening more than talking, or more than explaining, is really helpful for me. I really emphasized with that feeling perhaps challenged or feeling like you found a way to make your business work that you like and that’s been successful. And when there’s someone doing something different, sometimes it can feel like it’s a challenge to your model or a challenge to what you’ve accomplished.

And I really empathize with that and I like to I like to really just listen and hear that. And from my perspective, it’s been helpful to just share where we’re really coming from – which is we love cafes. We love specialty coffee. We’re asked a lot if we’re trying to replace cafes or if we’re trying to replace baristas. Or that kind of thing. And I get why people ask that.

And we love cafes and want to extend the reach of cafes. And I’ve worked in specialty coffee, in the traditional specialty coffee for 12 years now. And I love it and I want to make that more accessible and approachable for more people because I think it’s such a wonderful thing to share. That’s where I’m coming from and I like to just listen. Like yeah, I hear you. I felt like that a lot in my life about different things that come up. And I’ve seen that, like you were saying, there’s been this really great synergistic – excuse my buzz words from the 90s –  path forward but also just like this expansion. That’s really neat.

Erin Meister: Yeah. You also probably have the benefit of having someone go “instant coffee!?.” And then you make it for them and it’s like a commercial right?  Like one of those early morning infomercials.

 Umeko Motoyoshi: Whenever I make the coffee for someone who is not familiar with specialty coffee, they right away they’ll be like “this is really… this tastes like a like a hot fruit juice. This is really weird. This is like a light roast.” And I’m like, “yeah, but also it’s instant coffee and you didn’t notice that!.”

So that’s like always a fun thing. #hotfruitjuice. Yeah, totally like they fixate first on “this is a different coffee than I’m used to drinking because of the flavor profile of light roasted specialty coffee.”

Erin Meister: You probably come up against a lot of that too. Where it’s people like, “coffee from California!?.”

Jay Ruskey: It’s just like what you went through. People will have this ingrained concept that instant coffees only tastes like this and your way over here. And so that’s a big reach for you.

But I think you, as a person, and your founders have this certain personality that once you get to the point where you’re sure it’s going to happen, there’s a tenacity. And so you get a little bit resilient to that, once you’re confident and you see the vision going forward.

Because I spent 10 years growing coffee in the closet, quietly. Like just a few trees. And I was really nervous because I was like “okay, we’re going to get these cupped finally” and then we got great scores on the table. And then I took a further step out and then more pushback. And then we started opening up tours on the farm because people thought I was growing them in a greenhouse and they didn’t know we were growing them with avocados on the hillsides.

And so the progressive phobia had different layers to it that I didn’t see. But one thing I have noticed in the last few years of attending the Symposium, a lot of the players that are really “innovators” are coming in from other avenues. And I think this stems from…. We are really an agricultural product, and there’s a lot of farming around. And farming has tradition. And then there’s tradition and systems that are almost centuries-old, that went all the way to the consumer.

And so now we have forms like this, where we’re bringing other people into it to give this outside to things. And I think that’s helping. I see this progressive phobia begin to break down. And I still see room for all of us to attack it, all the way down to the roasting machines and even the delivery system.

So it’s really a fascinating time and in the whole coffee industry not just specialty coffee.

Arno Holschuh: yeah, I would say that a bit like Umeko, I start with empathy. Because I am a nostalgist. Like, I own a 35-year-old pickup truck – that’s my pride and joy. I listen to Old Time Radio Theatre, which does not get much dorkier than that.

I love a lot of the past but I think that we in our society are at a place where we really need to understand the appropriate role for nostalgia. And it is not the guiding light of our business practices, or our production modalities, because that 35-year-old pickup truck that I have was really fuel efficient for its time, but it is no longer the best truck on the road. And so I don’t drive it every day. Right? I have it. I love it. I like to work on it.

And I think that that is really where Nostalgia belongs. It’s a thing to enjoy. It’s a thing to learn from. And then, after I’ve had that moment of empathy with people, I’m like “okay, let’s have a debate on the merits.”  I’m willing to have that debate because, if you look at other things that were held dear in history that were beautiful in their own right but weren’t really appropriate for the time… I like to use the example of the illuminated manuscript. It’s like if you were making illuminated manuscripts, you probably thought that they were the cat’s meow and in fact, they were totally beautiful. When the printing press came along it was a huge democratization in terms of the dissemination of knowledge, of ideology. It allowed for a very different debate that ended up with the enlightenment in Europe.

And and that is really where – I am we don’t see ourselves as necessarily Gutenberg printing press – but we do think that we’re this technology that allows us to do what we want to do, but do it in a way that is more appropriate for the times we live in.

Somebody brought up the notion of cognitive dissonance yesterday and that that rings very true for me. When people are talking about the impacts of climate change on coffee farmers and trying to say that these coffee farmers are in fact equal partners in our industry, and that we don’t just write on their backs. And then they go back to their roasteries and they fire up an old, open flame drum roaster with cast iron plates fore and aft, with a giant afterburner on it. And then they roast their coffee. And in order for it to be delivered fresh to their cafes, they have this like very “spendy” in terms of gasoline delivery route that the driver has to run in the morning. And everything has to be done in this way because quality is the only thing we care about.

I’m like, “you could have that quality without all of these other trappings around it.” So you need to question for yourself, like “was it the high-quality coffee you wanted or was it the imagery of high-quality coffee as it is derived from the past?”

Erin Meister: Wow, and that I think speaks to everyone on this panel too. It’s like: is it the high quality coffee you want or the theatre of making it? Is it the high quality coffee that you want or the origin story that we’ve all told a hundred times that super problematic. We could be growing coffee in our country. I think that that is an incredible thread to take away from that..I’m just going to sit with that for a second. I’m just going to let a feeling  wash over me here on stage

30:30 How does waste reduction and efficiency fit into your work, in terms of energy and people?

Erin Meister: So what are the other things that I want to talk about? And that raises this point for me – and Anukampa Freedom Gupta-Fonner’s talk calls to this and some of the discussions that we’ll have later on today we’ll talk about this.

But we focus on the idea of waste and I think that everyone is really focused on eliminating waste wherever possible. And one of the ways that we really focus on waste reduction is with tangible things like renewable or non-renewable resources, pollution, energy. But I think we also can think about waste reduction in terms of people power. How much are we wasting of either physical or emotional or intellectual resources?

And so I  want to ask a question about where waste reduction or where efficiency fits into what you do. And again, this is another thing that has interpretations on multiple levels. And so I’m really curious if that’s a consideration and where you think that falls into your work.

Jay Ruskey: well, I like to somehow add a monetary value to waste. And, for example, in California: water. There’s a really defined value on what we do with water. Every drop counts, how you use it, how you reuse it. Making sure when it’s being used it’s used in the right chemistry in fact for the trees. So that’s where we are trying to make a difference.

And we are working with avocado growers who have been there for 30 years and it’s been really surprising to see some of the efficiencies that are built into their system. And there are rather simple technologies, like sensors, like everybody knows when to turn water on, but people struggled to know when to turn water off because you can’t see it. You just look at the trees and there’s a delayed response in the canopies.

But by taking these sensors that are readily available and rather cost-effective and showing the farmers the difference – and it takes really a whole season to show that difference and do a monetary change change –  we can get farmers to use 30% to 40% less water because they’re just using it a little more efficiently. And innovations are a little more friendly, finally.

So that’s one example. But you really have to put a money value to it. And I think some of the waste that we encounter, we have such a streamlined disposal process that it’s hard for us to gauge that value. So you’ll see a lot of conservation efforts around the world where people are trying to monetize it and make it feel, not only that they’re wasting money, but there’s a benefit to them financially in the future to conserve water, so they can farm next year.

The fisheries are great examples. People are now privatizing fisheries successfully because they’re giving the ownership to the farmer, or the fisherman, who is really the farmer, protecting their fisheries and follows the rules.

So, from a global perspective, I see that as a pretty good paradigm of successful conservation efforts.

Arno Holschuh: I think that the notion of growing coffee closer to where it is consumed – it was referenced yesterday in terms of building domestic markets in what we traditionally referred to as countries of origin – maybe it’s time to rethink them as also countries of consumption.  Here too, that would reduce the food miles for our coffee. Which is never to say that we should displace what’s coming. but I think that your approach to farming has other ways of reducing waste.

Jay Ruskey: Yeah. Well, I do think that like, one aspect of coffee I’ve been trying to look at, is from farmer, Mill to you to the roasters, where that system is. And I think the direct trade between the farmer, the mill, to the roaster, is actually making a significant change in those, what we call, field miles or product miles. I don’t have the end numbers to project that.

Of course, I’m growing coffee in Southern California, which is a high-income region and consumer region. And that has an obvious advantage. But we still have to figure the ways in which the traditional regions, how we get that more efficient. I think there’s some machines that will help. I think Daniel Jones, who is speaking after this, has actually a pretty sophisticated technology that will help do this traceability technology to help everybody start to see how it moves through the channels and start adding that value component to it. Which will hopefully start changing the behaviors of how we view coffee and how we buy it and consume.

So you’re right on to think that it’s these little aspects of this value chain that we have to attack.

Umeko Motoyoshi: So, the cost of shipping instant coffee and the drastic reduction in the carbon footprint of shipping instant coffee, as opposed to shipping roasted coffee, is phenomenal to me.

It’s really incredible, the weight of a cup of coffee when it’s in instant coffee form, is a fraction of the weight of a cup of coffee when it’s in whole bean form.

So, it’s like grow your coffee and California, roast it really close and then you can ship it anywhere you want in an instant coffee form for a fraction of the price. And the carbon footprint is drastically reduced.

So at Sudden, what I think is most visible in terms of sustainability and waste reduction, is the reduction of polypropylene plastic waste, that we were able to achieve when we switched to using compostable packaging. And that’s what people can see right up front.

And behind the scenes what’s made really visible in any food production or manufacturing is just the massive amount of waste that goes into putting a product into a compostable package. There’s like waterways, plastic waste, huge energy consumption. And that for Sudden has a huge focus, reducing that.

In our first two years of business, we halved our water consumption through efficiency, through creating better systems for how we make our coffee. I developed a system for brewing our coffee that uses our water much more efficiently. So we’re able to use much less water to brew the same amount of coffee. We reduced our energy consumption by 90%. And we reduced our plastic waste by 90%.

It’s stuff that all happens behind the scenes and you can’t look at our website and see necessarily that we’re an Ops focused company, but we have like this incredible core competency around operational efficiency because our CEO Josh, he was a McKinsey consultant, he’s an industrial engineer. And I’ve learned so much from him and that’s enabled us to really like make such a huge impact on how our business works.

So for me coming from the specialty coffee world where that stuff is really not focused on – like operational efficiency isn’t necessarily a huge focus for small coffee companies. It’s mostly about like “ah! We’ve got to keep our doors open.” And just having that marriage of the specialty coffee world and also these really crazy operational efficiencies, has been phenomenal to learn from.

Jay Ruskey: I’d like to interject. A good example of where your product has helped in energy efficiency… So when I go backpacking, I had this thing where I carry a little grinder, a pour over set, filters. Because it was just so rewarding to have a really nice cup of coffee up in the mountains of the Sierras. But then you’re done brewing, you have the grounds, you have the filter, you have 1.8lbs of equipment. But with sudden coffee, it’s “boil the water, put it in’, then you can have that enjoyable cup of coffee without carrying stuff and having the waste.

And so it’s a really great example of how efficient you can get for quality coffee. So I just wanted to interject.

Arno Holschuh: I can totally second that. I’m a really ardent backpacker and I always take Sudden.  I wanted to raise a different kind of waste. I mean, at Bellwether, the whole waste reduction thing is super front and center for us. It’s very visible for us because we don’t have an exhaust stack. And CO2 and other long-chain hydrocarbons are even worse in terms of carbon footprint, so we cut that out. So that’s like, obvious.

But there’s this other waste that we endure and that we allow to happen in our industry, which is the waste of human potential. And I ran production facilities for a long time. That was part of my career thus far. And I’ve watched really talented, really dedicated people fall prey to repetitive stress injuries, or back injuries. Because a lot of the ways that we do business were invented in the 50s and 60s.

An, if you roast on an old UG22 and you don’t have a pneumatic loader or a bucket loader, you’re climbing up on a step ladder with a 40lb bucket of coffee, 20/25 times a day and doing this, which is like not a super ergonomic gesture. And I know people, friends of mine, who were not able to continue with their chosen profession of coffee roasting, because they were injured by that activity.

And one of the many things that we want to do here, is really take what we thought was the most crucial part and the most valuable part of coffee roasting and preserve that while stripping out some of the things that were maybe wasteful of people. And that was the physical injury aspect of it.

So you don’t need to do that to roast on one of our Roasters. There are no exposed belts. You don’t really even need to know how to maintain it. We can take care of that for you. What you need to do, is you need to have a passion for and a desire to roast coffee. And if you have that, we’ve provided what we think is the greatest tool ever for that. If you wanted to work out, like totally there are tons of CrossFit gyms where you can do those things and gain that physical strength.

But we thought that maybe it was time again to take this thing that we love so much… I think about coffee really is about communication. You’re communicating this aesthetic experience to somebody and we wanted to preserve that activity while bringing it into the 21st century or even just like the late 20th century.

Erin Meister: Yeah, I think that human potential is is another thing that I see for all three of you, right basically. Like, Umeko, you’re eliminating the need for any of the ideological or cultural barriers that people have about specialty coffee and have the potential to reach an audience that wouldn’t otherwise feel like this was a product for them. Because Sudden is the easiest thing in the world. It’s as easy as making crystal light, actually. If that still exists…

But I think that that potential to just get to people. And with roasting as well, the idea that anyone could roast… We’re wasting this potential by keeping people out of the industry, by telling them that they don’t have the skills, by telling them that they don’t have the physical capacity to do a job, that we can change to make it so that everyone has the physical capacity to do it.

And I think Jay, the work that you’re doing as well, diversifying the crops that someone can grow and increasing their potential as farmers, by offering them an alternative that is economically viable and that can create a totally new market for them. That’s like capturing what would be a potential loss, or a potential just zero, and  -if you’ll pardon it 0 planting something where nothing was growing before.

So I think that for me Innovation is a combination of these things. Accessibility, waste reduction and all of these different ways and then just Improvement in general. So I mean, this is a really magical…. I don’t know. I’m having a great time. I don’t know about you. This has been fantastic for me.

43:45 What else needs to be radically re-engineered in the coffee world?

So I have one last question that’s a big one, but I don’t want you to overthink it. And I basically want you to think, in the spirit of innovation, outside of the work that you’re doing, I want to know something else in coffee that you see as being something that is almost untouchable or is a tradition that we hold really dear, that you would like someone else – maybe because you’re busy – to radically  re-engineer, redesign.  And it could be anything: it could be a particular brewer… Anything that comes to mind. Don’t think about it too much.

Arno Holschuh: I think the packaging… Packaging is the number one thing for me.  Gold standard for sustainability is a paper bag with a PLA liner that has associated with it very very costly supply chains to get the coffee there while it’s fresh. I think we all know it, right?

 Umeko Motoyoshi: I worked in cafes for a really long time, for a decade, and there’s a lot of waste that’s baked into how cafes operate. When you’re making coffee, it’s like by definition going to be wasteful. When you brew an air pot of coffee, the water that you use, a good percentage of it is retained in the coffee bed and you just throw it away. So there’s that, but also you rinse your group had every time you pull a shot. You rinsed your filter every time you want to brew a pour-over. You are constantly using all of this water. There’s so much coffee waste and also just in a competition, for example, there’s there’s so much coffee waste involved in that when.

I competed for the first – and I think probably the last – time last year and I was like, “oh my God, I’m wasting all of this coffee.” And then I’m going up and telling these judges how much I like respect this coffee and I just threw out so much of it just practicing. I just think there’s so many centers of waste that we don’t really think about because we feel like it’s necessary in the service of presenting quality.

And I think that you absolutely can have quality beautiful, brilliant clear quality and reduce your waste by a lot. So I think the concept that I would like to examine more and see us start to dismantle, is the idea that efficiency and quality are mutually exclusive. Yeah.

 Jay Ruskey: So the question was, what Innovation out there in the coffee world, I would like to see that maybe is not obtainable that you cannot be obtainable? I have this problem because I think everything is obtainable with technology and brain power and group brain power.

But I just want to see, if you save 10 cents on packaging and shipping, that goes all the way back to the farmer. If the farmer can get paid better so that they can get paid better for their crops, so they can take care of the families better. Now I can put nutrition on, now I get better plant material, provide disease-free plants because they’re very nutritious.

I think there was an interesting result when the producer gets paid better. And that would be a fascinating case study to see if we can make those changes. And I know there’s these systems in place that will make it very difficult.

So that would be the single goal for me.

Arno Holschuh: I just wanted to build off of that. I think in order to achieve that, the Innovation and in order to achieve many of the goals that we heard about yesterday, the Innovation that we need most is: we need to examine the culture that we have built and decide what about it is worthy of being carried forward. And what about it is more worthy of critique.

Because we are supported by our culture that we have built, buoyed by it. We’re protected by it a little bit and we’re also hamstrung by it. And it’s a self-inflicted wound a little bit these days.

So I would agree with many of the speakers yesterday that it’s time for us to take a cold hard look at ourselves.

Erin Meister: awesome. Thank you so much. I’m really charged up by this conversation and I hope that this has been inspiring for a lot of folks in the audience.

Just to wrap up this particular session on Innovation, I personally – this is about me because I’m the one with the microphone standing onstage right now – I definitely feel like a lot of what we  talked about and everyone who was on stage, everyone who’s involved in this, and even just the energy in the room, felt really synergistic. And I feel like it’s really important for us to think, while we’re thinking about these Innovations, and while we’re thinking about the work that everyone’s doing to make coffee better, to remember that we are all in it together.

I think that the specialty coffee industry is funny in a lot of ways and one of them is this fraternal feeling that we have when we all come together. And even just describing what I was doing this weekend to people who aren’t in coffee and they’re like “it sounds like a big family reunion.” It is that way and, of course, there’s competition and some competitiveness and some degree of tension, in what we do. Because we all are very passionate about the work that we’re doing in the industry that we’re in.

But I do also think that ultimately we’re all in this together with the idea of making better coffee and making coffee better. And Innovation obviously is the thing that we’re all pushing toward. It is the cornerstone of our industry.

50:00 Outro

That was Ever Meister, Arno Holschuh, Umeko Motoyoshi, Daniel Jones, and Jay Ruskey at Re:co Symposium this past April.

Remember to check our show notes to find a link to the YouTube video of this talk and a link to the speaker bios on the Re:co website.

This has been the Re:co Podcast, brought to you by the members of the Specialty Coffee Association, and supported by Toddy.