The Great Coffee Debate at the Culinary Center

Posted on October 28, 2010 by

I went to The Great Coffee Debate today, sponsored by illy, and held at the International Culinary Center. It was moderated by Corby Krummer, the Senior Editor of Atlantic Monthly.

The panelists were:

  • Richard Coraine – Senior Managing Partner, Union Square Hospitality Group
  • James Freeman – Founder and Owner, Blue Bottle Coffee
  • Andrea Illy – Chairman, Illycaffè S.p.A.
  • Wolfgang Lindlbauer – Senior Vice President Food & Beverage Design & Development, Marriott International, Inc.
  • Karalynn M. McDermott – Vice President, Bunn-O-Matic
  • Jonathan Rubinstein – Owner, Joe Coffee
  • Donald Schoenholt – President, Gillies Coffee Co
  • Guenter Seeger – Chef, Restauranteur, Consultant
  • Doug Zell – CEO, Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, Inc.

And the panels were:

  • From Farm to Roaster: growing, harvesting, green processing, certifying, sourcing/purchasing, roasting, packaging
  • In the Cup: preparation methods & trends, beverage menus and service, café/restaurant interaction, consumer interaction
  • Looking Ahead: industry direction & outlook, sustainability, informing & educating key stakeholders, audience Q&A

I don’t have much to say about this event that I didn’t already say on Twitter. The event was fun and good spirited. All the panelists were very well spoken and engaging. Schoenholt spent some time relaying tales of coffee past with examples from his family’s long history at origin (“before jumbo jets, when Bunsen burners were still allowed on planes”). Freeman explained his romance with coffee, from his childhood fascination with the process and style of preparation (“art is about restraints”). Zell says that because everyone has access to fresh coffee now, that term is essentially meaningless. Value is created in other steps of the chain. Rubinstein related his experiences with the retail aspects, educating consumers, and learning to communicate to them in ways that help everyone to grow. Illy shed some light on their 100% direct trade process (Zell could only claim 80%), and the work that Illy has done to educate their producers.

But as fun as this all sounds (and it was!), I honestly don’t see this event having much impact on the industry. If they did this more often, perhaps. Or in 3-5 years when this information filters all the way down (Zell suggested most innovation in the industry takes this long).

Meanwhile over in Houston, Texas the first meeting of the Global Coffee Quality Research Initiative has been going on, and reports from Jim Seven and Sweet Marias indicate that this is the event that may actually affect positive change in the industry. James actually has been doing a remarkable job live-blogging the event (on his iPad?) so for full details on why the GCQRI is the event of the year, read his blog.

For more on The  Great Coffee Debate, stay tuned to Serious Eats NY. Liz Clayton was there with me, and I suspect that she’ll have some thoughts of her own to post. Most of them much more coherent and elegant than my own.

Update: The Illy press release available here includes video from the event.