SXSW 2015: Panel explores coffee’s growth through technology

Date/time: 11 a.m. Sunday

A SouthBites panel during the Interactive portion of South by Southwest explored artisan coffee's growth during (and as a result of) the digital age.

A SouthBites panel during the Interactive portion of South by Southwest explored artisan coffee’s growth during (and as a result of) the digital age.

Panelists: Cameron Hughes, CEO/ founder of Invergo Coffee; Erin Meister, coffee educator at Counter Culture Coffee; and Lawrence Marcus, senior digital editor of Food & Wine

The gist: Thanks to the Internet and high-tech machines that both allow us to make our own cups of joe each morning and help coffee bean producers around the world speed up and better the production process, coffee has achieved the same sort of artisan status as, say, craft beer — people are realizing that the caffeinated beverage is “much more than just pouring water into a machine,” Marcus said, noting that specific parameters like the temperature of the water, the amount of beans added and other factors contribute to the ultimate steaming beverage poured into your favorite mug each morning.

Now that people are paying attention to those parameters, good coffee is on the rise both at home and in coffee shops, the panelists said, though Meister said she doesn’t think top-quality coffee will become the rule, rather than the exception, in the future. “People know what good hamburgers taste like, but they still eat McDonald’s,” she said.

But she and Hughes were ready to give the packed audience tips on how to make their coffee at home just as tasty as what they might enjoy from their favorite local barista. She emphasized being willing to “adjust your parameters… People can be like pit bulls when it comes to their coffee brewing methods.”

The takeaway: The rise of the Internet is largely parallel to the rise of artisan coffee. Myriad forums exist for total strangers to swap coffee roasting and brewing techniques, and websites from coffee bean purveyors provide access to these beans from anywhere in the world. Plus, coffee farmers, Meister said, can find new customers who are willing to pay a lot for their coffee.

I’m not a coffee drinker, but I was fascinated by the talk, especially when it veered toward the similarities between coffee and beer (which both took off as craft beverages around the same time). “The beer analogy is so apt because people thought beer could only taste like Budweiser for a long time,” Marcus said. “People similarly think their coffee is too bitter to drink black, so they add milk and sugar.”

Although there’s nothing inherently wrong with the pairing of these sweeteners with coffee, Marcus said, it’s not only masking the taste of overly bitter coffee but the fact that good coffee, extracted just right from the beans, shouldn’t need the sweeteners at all.

Over-extracted beans taste very bitter, under-extracted beans sour, Meister said, while a proper extraction gives an element of sweetness to the coffee.

“It’s a human problem, not a technology problem,” she said. “We have to know what good coffee tastes like.”

The hashtag: #southbites


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