Q&A with Daily Coffee News founder Nick Brown

Brown talks to-go cups, climate change and more
Q&A with Daily Coffee News founder Nick Brown
Photo by Erica Krug
Nick Brown, founder of Daily Coffee News

In 2011, Madisonian Nick Brown founded Daily Coffee News, an online news site about all-things coffee. Brown, a longtime coffee lover, says his mission was to support the responsible growth of the specialty coffee industry. About a year after it launched, Daily Coffee News partnered with Portland, Oregon-based Roast Magazine, the coffee industry’s leading trade magazine. Today, Daily Coffee News publishes 16 stories a week, sends out an e-newsletter twice weekly to many of the industry’s leading decision-makers and has had 1.39 million visitors to its site over the last year. In other words, Brown is kind of a big deal in the coffee world.

Brown and I met recently to discuss everything from French Canadian birthday parties to coffee’s “third wave” over a couple cans of Schlitz. Here is an edited version of our conversation.

Erica Krug: Tell me about your background in journalism.
Nick Brown: I started working at newspapers in college at Western Michigan University and then Texas State University where I got my master’s. Right after grad school, I got a newspaper job as a general assignment reporter covering six small towns in New Hampshire. It was a really interesting job because one day you could be doing a story about the 75th birthdays of French Canadian triplets, and the next day you would be covering a homicide. I did that for a couple of years before I came to Madison where I had taken an editing job at a trade magazine.

EK: Why did you decide to start writing about coffee?
NB: I’ve always been interested in coffee as a consumer (I also worked for two short stints as a barista — my only experience as a coffee professional) and when I started exploring what existed in the online news space in the coffee industry, I recognized maybe there was an opportunity there. I did it fairly casually at first, not thinking maybe much would come of it, but people started reading right away and after a pretty short time I realized there was a demand there among coffee professionals who wanted more news.

EK: How were you as a barista?
NB: I think I was pretty good because I could talk to people, but it’s also a really demanding job, especially if it’s busy. People can be really hard on you when you are on the other side of the counter in ways you don’t expect.

EK: You were recently in Seattle for the Specialty Coffee Expo. What do you talk about at those conferences?
NB: We talk about trends all the time and all kinds of interesting things people are doing to create differentiation in the marketplace to add more value to coffee. Make it taste more exciting, package it differently, etc. There are a million retail trends changing all the time along with the restaurant industry. Clearly over the last 10-15 years you have seen this movement away from a coffee shop that is designed only to have comfy couches and deliver people caffeine. Now you are seeing more elevated retail experiences and a lot of people taking more serious attitudes about food programs and the sourcing of all their ingredients. In terms of design and aesthetics, everyone is trying to create a unique experience that highlights the product in the best way possible while making people feel special while drinking it.

EK: You were also in Costa Rica this past winter. What were you up to there?
NB: I met coffee farmers, went to a cooperative, went to a coffee mill where coffee gets processed and gets turned from a fruit that comes off the vine into green coffee that is then traded. It’s really fascinating to see more actors in the chain and how many people add value to coffee at different parts of the chain. And truly how much labor goes into coffee. It’s really miraculous that we drink it every day and take it for granted. And, frankly, it should cost three times more than it costs right now. Oftentimes, farmers and producers are the ones getting shortchanged, but it’s certainly not like roasters and cafe operators get in it for the money, they do it for the love, too. But consumers want their coffee cheap, and the thing about coffee is that people drink it every day but oftentimes people don’t have any idea where their coffee came from or what it took to get here. It really is amazing how many hands are involved in getting it here.

EK: I’ve heard drinking coffee everyday isn’t the best thing for the environment.
NB: There are two sides to this. Coffee has contributed to widespread deforestation. It eats up a lot of fuel in terms of shipping and transport. You aren’t buying coffee that is grown down the street, you are buying it from Ethiopia, Colombia, Brazil … there is a lot of transportation involved. In terms of resource usage, one of the biggest energy hogs in the supply chain is the cafe — the energy, cups, water. The flip side of that is [that] coffee is incredibly important to various economies locally, regionally or nationally. As a cash crop, it truly has the power to transform; when treated responsibly, it has the power to positively transform entire communities and have a great financial impact on countries.

EK: What can people do to offset energy usage?
NB: If you feel you’re bad about the environmental footprint of your coffee? As one example of some of the amazing work that gets done in coffee — the entire country of Costa Rica is working to become carbon neutral in their coffee production. It’s a small country, but coffee is a huge export for them so that would be an incredible achievement. Buying coffee beans from Costa Rica is one small example of something you could look to support. There are coffee companies in the United States and coffee roasters who buy coffee based on certain factors — it might be environmental or it could be social justice. Right here in town, Just Coffee didn’t launch as necessarily a coffee company, they launched more as a social enterprise and it turned out coffee was one of the best ways to achieve some of those goals. I would encourage people to get to know the companies they are buying from. The nice thing is that typically coffee shops — managers, owners, baristas, coffee roasters — are really excited to get into the details of this stuff because it doesn’t take very long when you are working in coffee to become totally obsessed and in love with all of these fascinating details. Get to know them — ask them questions. Look for certifications, too, but those aren’t an end-all solution.

EK: What about bringing your own coffee cup to the cafe?
NB: Bring your own coffee cup. It might not be too long in this country before to-go cups are eliminated. It is looking like that is going to happen pretty soon in the UK. I would like to say one other thing … there are studies, legitimate studies by researchers in the field of agricultural sciences, who say that the world’s suitable land for growing arabica coffee — the higher grade coffee — will be reduced by half by 2050. The current land where arabica is grown will be cut in half by 2050 due to changing climate conditions. This is a huge factor affecting the entire industry. You are already seeing coffee farmers in certain parts of the world struggling with climate change and resilience. More pests, more diseases, lower yields, sometimes no yields. It’s not really easy to place coffee farms here and there because 90-some percent of the world’s coffee farmers are smallholder farmers, [or] farmers owning small plots of land — sometimes their yard. This is a huge sustainability issue in the coffee sector that I think not too many people are aware of. It’s bad.

EK: How does the Madison coffee scene compare to other U.S. cities?
NB: There is a lot of room for growth in the Madison coffee scene. There are some roasters who have been around for awhile and who do a great job. There are a couple roasters who are quite new. But you’ve seen roasters and retailers from Milwaukee come in to Madison and thrive, which suggests to me that there could be still additional opportunities for something Madison-born.

EK: I’ve heard people talk about coffee “waves.” What is that all about?
NB: First wave is Folgers, instant coffee. Coffee that is a brown thing that shows up in a can. Second wave is Starbucks and their ilk. They start opening cafes and selling lattes that are three times as expensive as people were buying before. It became a status symbol to go to Starbucks. But what they did that was very important, and characteristic of the second wave movement, was to elevate coffee slightly. They talked about quality, about differentiating factors, about different countries. “This is a Costa Rican coffee.” In my mind the third wave follows the craft American farm-to-table movement where you are getting specific about ingredients. To take care to make it the best product you can through roasting and brewing and also honor the coffee bean itself and the people who produced it. You are tracing coffee specifically down to the farms. You are talking about coffee varieties. Or you are talking processing methods — is it fully washed coffee? Is it naturally processed? All of these things are very complicated and partially intended to confuse you, but are also really interesting once you realize how they can affect taste and flavor. Third wave is code for uber hipster. Now, people are starting to market themselves as fourth wave, fifth wave, but that doesn’t really mean anything.

EK: Do you drink coffee every day?
NB: Yeah.

EK: How do you drink your coffee?
NB: Black. Brewed manually or through a good quality drip machine. Always grind before brewing. If I go to a cafe, I like a straight espresso, typically, or a black filter coffee or something very short with espresso and milk, like maybe a cortado.

EK: Do you ever wake up in the morning and think, “I would rather write about tea today”?
NB: I have never thought that.