By some estimates, the U.S. specialty coffee market is worth as much as $16 billion. While Maine’s coffee roasters are just a drip in the pot, industry insiders say the state’s market is growing.
No government or trade association tracks the coffee roasting industry in Maine, so definitive data on the number of roasters don’t exist. But roasters in the state say there’s no denying the market’s boom in recent years.
Alan Spear, one half of the duo who started Portland-based Coffee By Design in 1994, said he has been surprised to see the industry’s growth in recent years.
“I’ve been in the business for almost 19 years, and I’ve seen more pop up over the past five years than I have in the whole time I’ve been in business,” he said. “Just in the greater Portland area and a bit up the coast, there have been a lot of smaller roasters opening.”
Coffee By Design is part of what might be considered the coffee old-guard in Maine. They and others — such as Portland’s Arabica, Farmington’s Carrabassett Coffee, North Berwick’s Carpe Diem Coffee, Rockland’s Rock City Coffee and more — have been selling their coffee in Maine since the mid- to late-1990s.
But in recent years, a slew of small, boutique roasters have opened throughout Maine, according to a database of Maine corporations maintained by the Department of the Secretary of State.
Matt’s Wood Roasted Organic Coffee opened in Pownal in 2007, as did Brunswick’s Wicked Joe. Swift River Coffee Roasters opened in Raymond in 2009. Green Tree Coffee and Tea in Lincolnville, 44 North in Deer Isle, and Savage and Sons Gourmet Coffee in Bangor all opened in 2010. Crooked Porch Coffee in Bar Harbor and Tandem Coffee Roasters in Portland both opened last year. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Spear said several factors contribute to the rise of the artisan coffee roaster. Importers are more willing than ever to sell one or two bags of coffee, rather than shipping bulk only. The Internet means more information is readily available for new roasters. Equipment companies are offering smaller roasting machines.
The rise in boutique coffee products also parallels the local food and “know your farmer” movements, he said. While caffeine-craving crowds may not be able to meet a coffee farmer directly, they can buy coffee from roasters with strong ties to the coffee bean’s origins.
“Basically, it’s not factory or big-estate farming,” Spear said. “It’s small-scale, and trying to connect the producer with the roaster.”
Of course, it’s impossible to talk about specialty coffee in the 21st century without a nod to Starbucks, the ubiquitous coffee behemoth from Seattle that introduced a generation to specialty coffee and espresso drinks.
All the roasters interviewed for this story said the exponential growth of Starbucks in the mid-’90s paved the way for a new wave of specialty, small-batch, artisan coffee production.
Starbucks made Americans think about coffee differently, they said. It was a sea change in how people approached the drink. Coffee, once a means to a caffeinated end, was now an “experience,” or even a status symbol.
Charlie Colgan, an economic forecaster and professor of public policy and management at the University of Southern Maine, said Starbucks changed the economics of coffee, and created room for what might have once seemed like a glut of small roasting operations.
“In the aftermath of Starbucks, I think it’s safe to say that the limits of caffeine consumption, particularly the high-priced caffeine consumption, are way above what anyone else ever thought they were,” he said.
Starbucks created additional market by turning coffee into what Colgan called a “quasi-luxury good.” Paying $4 for a cup of coffee used to be unthinkable. Starbucks played no small role in changing that.
“Yes, it might be $4 for a cup of coffee,” Colgan said, “but that’s an affordable luxury. It means a lot of people can buy it and still feel like they’re getting a luxury good.”
Will Pratt and his wife, Kathleen, moved to Portland from Brooklyn, N.Y., in March 2012 and opened Tandem Coffee Roasters in August. The duo roasts about 1,000 pounds of coffee per month, and serves a limited menu of drip coffees and espresso drinks in a hip, sunlit environment.
Will Pratt said he hadn’t scouted the coffee market in Maine prior to opening, but said he noticed the prevalence of roasting companies immediately.
“Every account we have is a restaurant,” he said. “We don’t have any coffeeshop accounts because they all have their own roaster.”
Pratt said that even in a small state like Maine, it’s unlikely the boom in coffee roasters will outpace demand any time soon. Most roasters focus on wholesale operations, and so can take customers anywhere in the world, not just in Maine.
Besides, he said, each company offers something different. For example, he said Tandem is as focused on its East Bayside storefront as it is on its coffee.
“Our coffee is great, but a lot of our focus is on the space we’ve created in this building. We love it here, and people seem to like it. … It’s very community based, and atmosphere-based.”
Ron Greenberg started what he believes to be Maine’s first micro-roaster, Benbow’s Coffee Roasters in Bar Harbor, more than 30 years ago. He recently sold the business to Wicked Joe, and said the specialty coffee market is as varied as the people who comprise it.
“There is a passion about people who are into coffee,” he said. “But they’re passionate about different aspects of coffee. It’s not always the same ones I’m into. Some love the brewing technique, which is this whole art. Some are real roasters’ roasters. Others like meeting farmers, building those connections.”
Regardless of how many coffee operations open in Maine, there was general consensus among roasters that the market is big enough to handle the growth.
“There’s room for all us specialty roasters,” said Jane McLaughlin, co-owner of Carpe Diem Coffee. “As long as there’s people out there drinking Folgers and Maxwell House, there’s room for good coffee.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.