Learning from the Coffee World – In Conversation with Peter Giuliano

Can wine and coffee learn anything from one another? They are both highly-prized agricultural products, that offer a bewildering array of sensory profiles, places of origin and levels of quality. ARENI spoke to Peter Giuliano, executive director of the California-based Coffee Science Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing the understanding of coffee, to find out what’s on the mind of the coffee industry.

Photo courtesy of Peter Giuliano


There are so many things that we can learn from coffee that maybe coffee can learn from wine. We specialise in Fine Wine and one of the things we work hard to determine is, actually, what is fine wine? What is specialty coffee and how does it differ from regular coffee?

Peter Giuliano

Well, it’s a great question. I’ll give a little bit of history. The term was first used in the 70s by a woman named Erna Knutsen, who was a green coffee trader in the United States. Green coffee is unroasted coffee. She was trying to differentiate between unique tasting coffees and the sort of generic coffee that just exists for being coffee. So, she used the term ‘specialty’ to make the comparison with a specialty cheese cellar or something like that. You know, you’ve got different flavours, different varieties.

Our organization was founded in the early 80s and we adopted the term, but it took us a while to get to some definitions. And the first one was a green coffee definition, which is an absence of defects, basically. Then we built a kind of a hundred-point system, where we have 10 or so different flavour categories that a trained taster will rate a coffee on. If they give it a score that score is above 80 on this scale, then it then we think of it as a specialty coffee. The consumer would never taste coffee structurally like that, or think about defect.

These days we think in terms of attributes, things that make coffee more valuable. Now they can be sensory attributes. A coffee may taste especially clean or especially chocolatey or especially floral. The more of these sensory attributes that it has that are unique, the more value that the coffee is, but there are other things that make the coffee valuable as well. The place that it came from, the identity of the producer who made it, the way it was roasted and blended. Certifications are a big deal in coffee. So those can be attributes that add value to coffee.

As coffee grows around the world, the appreciation of it becomes much more diverse. The attributes that are valuable in Europe are not the same as the attributes that are valuable in Asia.

Peter Giuliano, Executive Director, Speciality Coffee Association

We’re not so invested in saying these attributes are good and these attributes are bad. Instead, we’re saying, does somebody recognize this attribute as being valuable? If so, then it adds value to the coffee and it brings it more on this gradient of specialness.


That’s really interesting because you took a consumer centric approach to the definition of what makes fine coffee. And it’s not the trade saying, this is what fine tastes like, and this is what fine should be. You’re saying, let’s hear how they value their coffee. Can you tell us a bit more about the markets for, for specialty coffee?

Peter Giuliano:

It does vary dramatically throughout the world. Ideas of what coffee is, what makes it special, are culturally specific. Starbucks could make itself special by adding Italian vocabulary to its menu. That seemed amazing in the nineties when they did that—just calling it a cappuccino rather than a coffee


If I wanted to measure the size of the specialty market, what would it be, compared to regular coffee?

Peter Giuliano:

In the US it’s somewhere between 10% and 40% of the total coffee market. Now that’s a big range. And the reason it’s so big is it is because it depends on who you ask. About 44% of people of consumers think of themselves as drinking a coffee that was specialty in some way. In Europe, it’s a little bit trickier to measure because the idea of specialty coffee is relatively new.

In many countries like Italy, for example, a big coffee consuming country, there’s been more quality diversity in that country for a long time. It’s harder to measure the strong difference between the two then in Asia.


In wine, we talk about the on-trade and the off-trade, which wouldn’t make sense for coffee. How do you divide your different routes to market?

Peter Giuliano:

The big division, I would say, is maybe food service or coffee bars, coffee shops, restaurants. Coffee as a prepared thing, as opposed to the beans where you have to bring the beans to your kitchen and make the coffee yourself.

Source: Speciality Coffee Association


You’ve described this fantastic growth of specialty coffee. What are the trends that you think could be behind this growth?

Peter Giuliano:

We have this terminology that we use in coffee and the terminology is ‘waves’. People have been drinking coffee for about a thousand years, but originally they were buying the green coffee, roasting it themselves, preparing it all the way. A complicated thing. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution that commercial coffee roasters came into being. And we think of those as the first wave of commercial coffee companies. Then in the 60s there was a rediscovery. We call that the second wave of coffee companies. Starbucks is like that.

The rediscovery of coffee flavour happened in the 60s, 70s and 80s. In the 90s, two things happened. One is Starbucks and companies like that started to expand their retail shops, slowly at first, but then by the late 90s, very, very fast. And meanwhile, all the people that worked for those coffee shops as baristas got interested in coffee and decided, ‘Hey, I can open my own shop!’ And this had a powerful echo effect. One of the things is that the barrier to entry from a business perspective is very low.

What we saw, starting in 2000, is big explosion that we call the third wave. There was one specialty coffee shop in the town that I grew up in. Now there are 20, and there are five that roast coffee.

That we’ve trained coffee people to be evangelists for coffee has really facilitated our growth. And we’ve done a lot of that intentionally, doing barista programs, Brewster training, coffee, roaster training, coffee taster training with the intention of creating ambassadors for the product. The other thing is the effectiveness and growth of Starbucks, which has taken a fast food approach. That may be antithetical to the specialty thinker; however, what it does is introduce to people the idea that coffee can be better. They may be drinking instant coffee at home and somebody brings them to a Starbucks. That’s the entry point.

We think of those shops, Starbucks and Costas, as being incredibly important.


You educate people about coffee and the culture of coffee, but you don’t educate them on regions. You said to me that coffee is the first act of self-care one does in the morning, how everyone does everything take the kids in school and then stops at the coffee shop.

Peter Giuliano:

I learned that from some consumer research that we did about five or six years ago, and what we heard is that coffee was this act of self-care for people. They really valued it and cherished this moment that they were able to do something nice for themselves.

I remembered being a barista and, the look of gratitude on somebody’s face when you smiled at them and handed them something warm, delicious and crafted, you can see that it made a difference to people.

Peter Giuliano, Executive Director, Specialty Coffee Association

It’s a community experience, right? Somebody in the community is doing nice for somebody else, and it could be a member of the household, you know, like one partner making coffee for the other partner, or it could be a stranger in a coffee shop making you something. And that’s what hospitality is. And the fact that coffee allows us to do a little bit of hospitality early in the day is I think an important thing.


Who drinks specialty coffee?

Peter Giuliano:

Going back to the consumer research we’ve done, we’ve identified two major consumers, at least in the United States. In the United States, we have two broad categories. One we call the adopters and the other, we call super specialties or the supers and the supers are more like the hipsters. They want to be knowledgeable about coffee. They’re interested in being connoisseurs and knowledgeable. The adopters are bigger. It’s a bigger demographic group and it’s just people that are looking for something to elevate their life just a little bit.

Some of the fastest growing coffee cultures in the US right now are in Latin American communities and, Asian American communities. Latino people drink more coffee per capita than anybody in the United States. Korea is the fastest growing specialty coffee market in the world right now.


Which also means that you’ve got a variety of consumers and diversity of people to address. How well do those two worlds relate to the codes and language that you’ve got in the coffee room?

Peter Giuliano:

This is such a live conversation that I have literally every day. The thing that makes coffee is some sort of attribute that makes it elevated or different from your normal coffee. Well, one is language. Sometimes, when somebody learns that little bit of jargon, it makes them feel powerful.

Something that we have to guard against in our industry is being arcane. You know, sometimes when you accumulate that jargon, you just become unintelligible.

There are these flavour wheels that exist in wine and beer and, and everything. Since the 90s there’s been one that’s very popular among coffee people, but it was filled with jargon. We wound up revising the wheel five years ago. All those coffee specific jargony terms are gone and they’re replaced with everyday flavours that most people are familiar with in some way.


It’s such an interesting question for the wine world. And that’s what we keep on doing, having the same vocabulary over and over again. We keep on that Western point of view on vocabulary and language and food pairing and we try to educate the world to come into our world.

Peter Giuliano:

Whether it’s fine wine or specialty coffee, you need to maintain the specialness, right? You can’t, make it so like, accessible that it becomes meaningless. Keeping the specialness, but yet inviting people into it in a way that feels welcoming, I think is the key. I’ve learned to read people’s language. If, if they’re in a learning mode, if they’re ready for a learning experience, then you can share with them a little jargon and teach them some little titbit that makes them feel empowered. However, if all they want is a cup of coffee, please, then you don’t need to lecture them about flavour notes.

I think it’s something that we lose in fine foods often is this idea that consumers should be respected wherever they are, whoever they are.

Peter Giuliano. Executive Director, Speciality Coffee Association


How does sustainability and taking care of the people that farm the coffee echo in your world of specialty coffee?

Peter Giuliano:

Well, it’s something, that’s another thing that’s on our minds all the time. One of the things about coffee is, as I mentioned, it came from East Africa originally, as a part of the colonialist enterprise, right? The European based expansion of the colonial and imperial ideas. That is just part of our legacy that we are constantly trying to cope with. About 80% of the coffee farmers in the world are very small, meaning around a hectare or two hectares and it’s very difficult to farm anything at that scale without being poor.

The challenge is to understand that and do the best you can. Our industry has been trying various interventions to try to grapple with this for at least more than 20 years. Some things have been a little bit effective, but most haven’t. Coffee prices are still unsustainably low for those small producers.

One of these questions that we need to ask is to say to a coffee producer, “Hey, look, if you produce better quality coffee, you can get paid a higher price and therefore you’ll make money.” The problem is it also comes with higher costs and higher investment.

One thing I think is an opportunity for us here is as we become more global as an economy, is that traditionally coffee has been grown in Latin America or Africa or tropical Asia and then it’s shipped in raw form, where it gets roasted in Europe or the US or Northern Asia. Now there’s no reason you can’t roast it in the same country that it was grown. And you add a lot of value when you roast coffee. We love the idea of a local coffee roaster, or a local winery or a local bakery, but it actually could have very positive economic effects if I’m drinking coffee that was roasted in Nicaragua or Kenya.


Can you talk about the impact of Covid?

Peter Giuliano:

The past 20 years have seen a proliferation of small coffee shops all over in urban centres and suburban places and towns. And a lot of these places saw themselves as sort of coffee education centres. Their job was to teach people about what good coffee was, but then once Covid hit, we were having interruptions in food supplies. People were running out of milk at the grocery store, but the coffee shop had milk, so they would start to sell the milk. I think it led to an awareness of the coffee shop’s role in the community.

I think coffee shops, the successful ones found a lot of satisfaction in meeting those needs. It’s made the local coffee shop feel like a much more important and ingrained part of the community rather than like a gourmet shop or something like that.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity. To hear the full discussion, go to:

Learning from the Coffee World – In Conversation with Peter Giuliano

The ARENI Global In Conversation series showcases some of the world’s most interesting speakers and issues.

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