Ricardo Lopez saw a shift happening in the coffee industry, one he had recently witnessed with wine.
“When you think about wine going back decades ago, it was mainstream consumers wanted red or white,” he said. “And you fast-forward to today and the mainstream consumer, they’re going to want a Chardonnay, or Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc or a natural.”
This shift is what motivated him to start Bellwether Coffee in West Berkeley.
For decades coffee consumers were given two options, regular or decaf. Maybe, in a forward-thinking coffee shop, there would be an additional special roast available. Then, the specialty coffee boom driven by the proliferation of Peet’s, Starbucks, Caribou and other, smaller independent cafes and roasters arrived. According to the Specialty Coffee Association, the percentage of U.S. adults who are daily drinkers of specialty coffee increased from 14% in 2001 to 41% in 2017, while weekly drinkers increased from 30% in 2001 to 63% in 2018.
Lopez wanted to find a way to help retailers accelerate this trend, and he saw the most opportunity in developing a way for them to have more control over the coffee-making process, from which farms they are partnering with to how the beans are roasted.
“When you really look at all of the steps involved with making a cup of coffee, the majority of it happens before it even reaches the cafe,” Lopez said.
Access and sustainability
It was also important to Lopez that the solution be environmentally friendly.
The coffee brewing process alone produces 50 billion pounds of carbon emissions annually, Lopez noted. For him, figures like that underscore how much impact one product has—and the potential for change held within improving just one product.
After Bellwether was founded in 2013, it took roughly six years to develop their product—a zero-emission electric roaster.
Bellwether’s roaster is easy to install, ventless, and simple to operate. It uses a new, closed-loop technology that does not require ventilation like traditional roasters do. This smaller system gives coffee shops more ownership over what they are serving their customers.
“They’re now able to mix things up and do something that’s unique and representative of their brand, which is like really, really cool,” Lopez said.
Bellwether manufactures its roasters in Berkeley—a location they chose because of its strong coffee history.
“When you look at coffee history in Berkeley, it’s just there’s so many firsts and it’s been very progressive over the years in terms of creating amazing experiences for consumers,” Lopez said. Bellwether was a perfect continuation of this history, continuing to push the industry forward.
1951 Coffee Company started working with Bellwether in June 2022, installing one roaster in their Berkeley coffee shop. This was the first time they were able to do their own in-house roasting.
Doug Hewitt, co-founder and CEO of 1951, explained that choosing to go with Bellwether was partly a practical choice.
“Traditional commercial roasters would require sometimes an entire facility for itself to operate a traditional natural gas roaster with ventilation, it’s an entire process that we would have to go through extensive permitting and redesign and all of that,” Hewitt said.
Installing Bellwether didn’t require any significant changes; all they needed was a new electrical plug. 1951, as a nonprofit coffee shop working with refugees, also saw a connection to Bellwether through their shared goals of tackling economic disparities and climate change through the coffee industry. Bellwether’s work on the ground in coffee farms around the world was important to 1951 as well.
“A lot of people that we work with come from the same regions,” Hewitt said. “We want to be able to hopefully bring stabilization to those areas and not further disruption.”
Installing the Bellwether machine has also created a talking point for 1951’s staff.
“It has kind of served, even just from a visual perspective, as something that is allowing our staff to connect with the community in a different way,” Hewitt said.
Innovation through collaboration
The California Energy Commission recently awarded a $1.8 million grant to East Bay companies Red Bay Coffee and Heirloom Coffee Roasters to help them install Bellwether roasters and speed up the electrification of coffee roasting.
Hovik Azadkhanian launched Heirloom Coffee Roasters, based in Oakland, because he wanted to start a coffee brand that, “was the best tasting coffee that we can possibly roast and I wanted to do it in the most sustainable way possible,” he said.
Azadkhanian is concerned the coffee industry is facing an oncoming supply issue in part due to non-regenerative farming techniques that deplete nutrients in the soil. Many coffee farmers do not have the money, time or resources to switch to regenerative agriculture. So, Azadkhanian launched the first 100% regeneratively farmed national coffee brand.
Regenerative agriculture, which Azadkhanian thinks could save the coffee industry, focuses on ensuring the soil is continuously restocked with the necessary nutrients for a good crop.
The sixteen Bellwether roasters that Heirloom is receiving through the grant will be installed in Heirloom’s new Regenerative Coffee Research Lab, a space to research and develop regenerative coffee. It will also be a space for collaboration between farmers and other industry experts, as well as a place for recipe development. Bellwether’s roasters fit seamlessly with Heirloom’s mission to be the most sustainable coffee available.
The other part of the coffee roasting process is sourcing the beans. Concentration within the marketplace is a disadvantage to farmers, Lopez said, and Bellwether launched its Green Coffee Marketplace to promote improved terms with farmers and more sustainable practices.
Currently, coffee beans are sold based on the commodity price, whatever the market determines each year based on supply and demand. The farmer’s cost of living is not considered. The small number of coffee buyers is dwarfed by the millions of coffee farmers, creating a structural disadvantage. The Green Coffee Marketplace is living-income pricing based, a structure Bellwether hopes will allow the farmers to support themselves and farm sustainably.
“So what we do is actually work with farmers. We have boots on the ground where we work to understand what their cost of living is, what the cost of production is, and then we pay a percentage above that,” Lopez said.
Bellwether has a team with decades of on-the-ground work with coffee farmers from around the world, and it has leaned on these existing partnerships to build its marketplace.
Many coffee shops lack the resources to send staff to coffee farms to source their own coffee, and the marketplace allows them to access ethically sourced coffee that is also providing a living wage for farmers. Additionally, every time a new Bellwether roaster is installed, it creates a new buyer of green (unroasted) coffee—leading to a less concentrated market.
Bellwether is the first company to sign contracts that are living-income pricing based, Lopez said.
“So we’re showing the world that, ‘Hey, you can do this in a more sustainable way,’” he said.
Lopez also sees Bellwether roasters as an opportunity to demonstrate electrification is possible in all industries, not just coffee.
“We have an opportunity to have coffee become like this poster child for the electrification movement, for positive impact at the farm level,” Lopez said. “And, I think it has so much potential to do good in the world.”
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