Behind Enemy Lines

"Competition brings out the best in products and the worst in people." - David Sarnoff, founder, NBC.

It appears the honeymoon is over.

Not long ago, America's specialty coffee roasters were as much friends as competitors. They shared knowledge and even coffee lots, helping each other to improve their product. They also shared a goal: To advance the industry, rather than dominate it.

Their spirit of cooperation has worked wonders. Coffee quality has skyrocketed in the past decade, and the baristas that serve it have reached an unprecedented level of knowledge and professionalism. In short, the industry has earned the respect it deserves.

Now they're getting down to business.

First, a bit of history. Discuss the industry with anyone who's been in it awhile, and they'll tell you about America's 'big three' coffee roasters: the East Coast has Counter Culture, Intelligentsia loomed over the Midwest; Stumptown the Pacific Northwest. In the spirit of cooperation I mentioned earlier, these premier roasters largely stuck to their respective regions. Left alone to their devices, each has thrived. Today, the largest specialty roasters boast eight-figure valuations. To sustain growth at that level, expansion was inevitable. America became a Risk board, and the coffee giants began placing their troops.

Depending on who you ask, Intelligentsia may have fired the first shot, deploying salesmen to the Southeast and New York -- traditional Counter Culture turf. They then dropped an atom bomb by expanding to Los Angeles, where their reputation has soared with help from their shiny new West Coast roastery, which feeds a trio of gorgeous, innovative coffee bars. They've also opened a training lab in New York, where they have more of a fight on their hands. In addition to Counter Culture's presence, there was Stumptown, who opened a New York roastery in 2010 to support their new Manhattan cafe, which may just be the most beautiful cafe in America.

Meanwhile, Counter Culture has quietly expanded and now operates six (soon to be eight) regional training centers, where they sharpen the skills of their wholesale clients to reflect the reputation of their company.

The industry's newfound competitive spirit is great news for Chicago coffee-drinkers. Our town is about to become a major focal point in this coffee turf war.

This spring, Counter Culture's seventh training lab will be opening in Chicago, almost literally in the shadow of Intelligentsia's roasting facility. While they won't be roasting locally, they hope to increase their presence by hosting events for coffee professionals and the general public. Allowing the public to attend weekly cuppings (formal coffee evaluations) alongside professionals is a nice touch, and should go a long way to establishing a fan base here. Counter Culture's Rich Futrell, who will be heading up operations at the Chicago lab, thinks of it as a social hub as well as an education center.

"We plan to host many gatherings, tastings, pairings, brew downs, throw downs, [as well as] meet the producer/buyer/roaster-type events. These training centers are meant to be living entities of coffee culture, and we want them to be hives of activity," Futrell told me in an email.

Meanwhile, though Stumptown hasn't responded to my emails regarding their presence here, they have announced plans to have a Chicago roasting facility open within six months. An optimistic timeline perhaps, considering their inexperience with Chicago politics. Nonetheless a gauntlet has been thrown, and many Intelligentsia employees have admitted to at least a bit of responsive anxiety within the company. Of course, Intelligentsia's coffees can go toe-to-toe with the best in the world, but the point is, now they'll have to.

Meanwhile, brand loyalists will probably align themselves with a roaster, but true lovers of coffee should be dancing in the streets. As of this year, Chicago will be overflowing with superb coffee options. We've already seen the best local cafes begin to offer 'guest' coffees from alternative roasters, a trend that will surely grow as cafe owners weigh up their coffee-providing suitors. The roasters, meanwhile, will want to avoid that model and will be pushing for exclusivity with cafes in the city. Whether or not they win that battle remains to be seen. The good news is, coffee consumers win either way.

Despite all this talk of war, I should clarify -- the coffee industry will remain one of the friendliest to work in. Attend any national event or convention and you'll see rivals drinking together, dancing together, and probably later, falling down together. But from a business standpoint, the innocence has definitely been lost. And I couldn't be happier about it.