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A Q & A With Specialty Coffee Association of America's Ric Rhinehart

If you're anywhere near Anaheim for the next few days, you may notice a few minor tremors in the area. No, not another earthquake. Not even the happiness of baseball fans after the Angels beat the Yankees yesterday for the first time since 2002, but about 10,000 coffeegeeks all tossing back espressos (presumably) in one place. The Specialty Coffee Association of America is holding their annual exposition in Anaheim even as we lift our midday coffee cups.

So just what is the SCAA? Glad you asked. Ric Rhinehart, formerly of Groundwork and for the last three years the executive director of the association, took some time recently to answer that and other questions. In a moment of decaffeinated calm, if you will, before the storm of La Marzoccos and Arianna Huffington. Yes, Huffington will be speaking tonight, as the SCAA's keynote speaker. Please, somebody ask her about Starbucks and guns. Please.

Squid Ink: So I haven't checked in with you since you left Groundwork.

Ric Rhinehart: That would have been the end of June 2007. Time flies.

SI: Did you go straight to SCAA?

RR: Well sort of. I was on the board of SCAA at the time, and within just a about a week after I separated from Groundwork it became apparent that we were going to need to find an interim Executive Director for the Association. So the board asked me if I would. It seemed sort of convenient, so I did. We came to a mutual agreement about a year later to put me on on a permanent basis.

SI: So you're the executive director?

RR: I am. It'll be three years in August.

SI: What is the Specialty Coffee Association of America anyway?

RR: SCAA's a trade association that represents all the segments of the specialty coffee industry and we have about 2,000 member companies that represent every aspect of the specialty coffee supply chain, from farmers, farmers groups, exporters, importers, green brokers, roasters, roaster retailers, retailers, wholesalers, distributors, ancillary products. So we've got the whole supply chain, sort of minus the consumer, because we are a trade organization.

SI: But you are consumers in your own right, no? How much coffee do you guys drink?

RR: Hahaha.

SI: That's not that stupid of a question.

RR: Well, two things. I tell people who ask me, because I've been in coffee a long time, people say, how's the new job and I tell them that I'm not actually in coffee -- I'm near coffee. I happen to be in an association that works with coffee, but it's fundamentally a different business. Thankfully, coffee is our focus, so I get to hang out with a lot of coffee people, I get to be around a lot of great coffee. How much do we drink? For me, I don't think there's been any real change in my intake. I'm probably a 4-6 cup a day drinker, but I do not cup as much as I used to. I used to cup every day. I do that now maybe every couple of weeks.

SI: So can you tell us what cupping is exactly?

RR: Cupping is the tasting protocol that coffee professionals use to evaluate coffee quality. It's primarily used as a tool to evaluate on an empirical basis the quality of green coffee, and we have various standardized protocols around roasting green coffee samples, grinding them, steeping them in water, and then making assessments around different flavor attributes. We look at about six basic flavor attributes. We also look at four others from areas of interest for us to come up with a score on a 100 point scale that gives us an indication of where the coffee lies on a spectrum of all coffees worldwide.

SI: Wow. So you have to spit, right?

RR: Right. Yeah. You don't want to uptake all that caffeine. And if you routinely swallow coffee as you're cupping it starts to reduce your ability to perceive flavors and aromas.

SI: Like at a wine tasting. If you drank all that wine you wouldn't be very helpful after awhile.

RR: You might helpful to certain kinds of people, but no, not very acute at tasting.

SI: So tell us about this event of yours.

RR: This is our 22nd annual exposition. We do a conference, meeting and trade show. And this year we're in Anaheim. We rotate around the country from place to place, evangelizing on coffee. We expect somewhere in the neighborhood of 9 - 10,000 coffee professionals and trade visitors. We have a whole bunch of activities. We open with our symposium, a 2 day highly focused coffee-specific interaction, wrestling with Big Coffee Issues. And then we roll into Thursday night: we have our keynote address, from Arianna Huffington.

SI: Arianna Huffington?

RR: Yeah, she's a coffee drinker. She recognizes that coffee has an important social and political role in the world. We were able to get Arianna to speak on two fundamental areas of interest. One is her work on fearlessness, which seemed very appropriate. She wrote a book about approaching life from a fearless perspective. We have lots of reasons to be afraid, in this economic climate, and the uncertainty that's prevailed over the last year and a half, certainly felt that that was an appropriate thing to look at and then the other interesting piece to look at with Arianna is that she has very successfully found a way to make a business model out of the blogosphere, as I would think anyone who's in journalism, particularly print journalism, has had to look at what that means.

SI: No kidding.

RR: It's a big deal. I'm always impressed with people who've found ways to bring a new product to market and I think she's done that. So we're very much looking forward to hearing her speak. Then on Friday our trade show opens. We've got three days of 750 booths, 400 companies represented with coffee and coffee things from all over the world. We've got 3 days of lectures, workshops and other courses, and we've got a culinary track aimed at culinary professionals, chefs and restaurant managers and beverage directors.

SI: That's a whole different conversation, about the intersection of fine dining and coffee.

RR: We often wonder why it is that we haven't done a better job at that point of intersection.

SI: Yeah. For years, you'd go to an excellent restaurant, you'd pay an exorbitant amount of money, then you'd order coffee -- often the last thing you remember from a meal -- and it would, well, not be so great. Has that changed, do you think?

RR: Well, there are scattered pockets of life out there. But on the whole it's still an uphill grind for us. We understand the messaging that we want to get across to the restaurants. Coffee in a restaurant is always either your first or last experience and do you really want to leave with either a bad first impression or bad last impression? I think some of it is that sometimes chefs feel like coffee is out of their control. A chef can go to the farmers market and pick out fresh ingredients, work very closely with his meat or fish purveyor: there's a whole lot of control in place for a chef around his food. Coffee is somebody else transforming it from a raw ingredient to a finished product, and then somebody yet again makes it into a servable dish as a cup of coffee and the chef is not as involved as he might be. The corollary obviously is wine, but many chefs are trained in wine and if nothing else they can be pretty assured that nothing will go wrong in the preparation process because, well, uncork the bottle, pour it into the glass.

SI: Right. And also there's a much longer tradition of cooking with wine and drinking wine. Some chefs are very well versed in coffee, but probably much fewer.

RR: Yeah, the more we can get chefs to think of coffee as a potential ingredient in food, to taste coffee thoughtfully the way they would taste wine. And we have to reduce our own signal to noise ratio so that we don't let too much marketing and coffee speak get in the way of a crystal clear presentation of what coffee really is and what you might expect to find in a cup.

Check back later today for Part 2 of this interview.