“There seems to be a coffee renaissance going on here in Houston,” Humberto Ricardo told me as we waited in line at the Counter Culture Coffee pop-up café on the second level of the George R. Brown Convention Center this weekend. Ricardo, who owns Third Rail Coffee in New York City, was one of approximately 8,000 coffee aficionados from around the world who descended on downtown Houston this weekend for the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s 23rd annual exposition.
The SCAA dubs itself as “the world’s coffee authority and largest coffee trade association.” According to its mission statement, “the SCAA is dedicated to creating a vibrant specialty coffee community, recognizing, developing and promoting specialty coffee by setting and maintaining quality standards for the industry; conducting research on coffee, equipment and perfection of craft; and providing education, training, resources and business services for its members.”
The annual conference and expo, known as “The Event,” is a place for enthusiasts and industry professionals alike to obtain certifications, partake in competitions and learn about the latest and greatest in coffee roasting, processing and brewing technology.
“It’s essentially a gathering of the specialty coffee tribe,” said SCAA president Peter Giuliano. “Every time I come to one of these, it feels like a family reunion.”
When it comes to specialty coffee, cities like Portland, Seattle, San Francisco and New York come to mind. Houston, unfortunately, has yet to earn a reputation as a destination for craft coffee. But according to Tara Shenson, marketing and new media manager for the SCAA, “our event has very unique electrical and spatial requirements that only a handful of venues in the U.S. can handle, and the George R. Brown Convention Center happens to be on that list.”
It’s no secret that both Houston and the coffee industry at large are very well connected to Latin America, further explaining the SCAA’s decision to hold the event in Houston.
Highlights from the show floor included the debut of La Marzocco’s new Strada EP espresso machine and the Baratza Vario-F grinder. David Buehrer, who owns Greenway Coffee & Tea and serves on the SCAA Events Council, described the Vario-F, which features a built-in scale for precision weighing, as a “game changer.”
In the adjacent exhibition hall, baristas from across the country competed in the annual United States Barista Championship. The competition ended on Sunday evening, with the crowning of Pete Licata from Honolulu as champion. Licata, who grew, harvested and processed the coffee that he competed with, will go on to compete at the World Barista Championship next month in Bogata, Colombia.
But as any good barista will tell you, the key to good coffee drinks does not solely lie in the coffee. For the cappuccinos that he prepared, Licata used milk from Way Back When Dairy in Jacksonville, Texas.
“The closeness of Houston’s food and beverage community has really helped us put on a successful exposition this year,” said Buehrer.
To the average Houstonian, the SCAA exhibition may seem no different than the dozens of other industry-specific trade shows that roll through town on a yearly basis. But those who demand the best in coffee often demand the best in everything else, and receiving a stamp of approval from a group with such discerning tastes is a significant accomplishment.
“I’ve fallen in love with Houston,” Peter Giuliano told me as he brewed a cup of Kilenso Mokonisa Natural Sundried Sidamama from Ethiopia. In addition to serving as the SCAA’s president for 2010-2011, Giuliano is the co-owner and director of coffee at Durham, N.C. based Counter Culture Coffee. “For me, it was always a place that I flew through on the way to Latin America. But this event has really changed the way I think about the city.”
In fact, everyone that I spoke with at the exposition praised Houston’s restaurants, bars and residents alike. The success of the SCAA convention, right on the heels of the latest issue of Fast Company that named Houston as the city of the year, leads me to believe that there may be a renaissance going on here that extends far beyond coffee.