June 11, 2015

Are You a Specialty Coffee Lover or a Lover of Cafés?


Understanding Consumer Behaviour

For those who often host cupping sessions at cafés, I am sure you have come across the experience that I am about to tell you. Just as my cupping session was well underway and the attendees were about to commence tasting the coffees, I made the comment, “coffee does essentially derive from a fruit, so please do embrace the fruitiness!”.

I was not expecting the response I was about to receive. I looked around the table and there were a few raised eyebrows and expressions of disagreement. One of the attendees broke the silence with, “coffee that is not bitter and bold is not coffee!”. There and then, I knew this cupping session was going to be more challenging than with other groups of specialty coffee consumers.

Spanish Version: ¿Amas el Café de Especialidad o Amas Estar en un Café?

 Without intending to sound pretentious, a few of those who agreed with the attendees statement first introduced themselves as coffee lovers who know a thing or two about coffee. The response I received expressed a lack of desire to experience coffee beyond personal preferences, and a refusal to acknowledge individual coffee characteristics for what they are. So my question was, why is this conservative opinion and way of drinking coffee not being challenged if these consumers frequent ‘specialty coffee’ businesses?

This conservative approach to coffee is not always the consumer’s fault. Even though many cafes attempt to focus on specialty coffee, the message is lost among so many other factors that make up their business model – food, the standard of table service and café atmosphere. Cafe operators recognise the importance these factors have in relation to consumer behaviour and increasing profits. So rather than redistributing their budgets on quality and high scoring coffees, handcrafted by skilled baristas on well-crafted machines, some operators are spending on everything except coffee. Yet, these busy cafes, some with quality food service, trendy designs & subpar coffee are still marketed as specialty cafes.

The hard truth is that many consumers who confess to be coffee lovers, in fact love cafes, not quality coffee. Offer them a single origin coffee brewed in a manual filter device and they will still opt to pay for a 12oz milk coffee with a pricey gourmet sandwich as the highlight of their purchase! Being able to have the best seat in-house for more than the average time spent in a cafe with the same 12oz beverage makes it extra special for this type of consumer.

Latte art being poured in a café

Latte art requires skills and practice, but does it help define specialty coffee in any way? Credit: @wolfpackcoffee

Enjoying good food paired with the best single origin coffee that money can buy, diluted in a big cup of milk with beautiful latte art, unfortunately, doesn’t classify you as a lover of specialty coffee. Regardless, this is the definition of specialty coffee for many coffee lovers.

The long time spent in these cafes by some of these consumers further points to a love of cafes more than coffee. How can a consumer with hot coffee that is left cold for hours, taking small sips of the beverage while working on a laptop be considered a coffee lover? Where is the appreciation for the coffee? The smell of the aroma with each sip, the taste of the notes as the coffee drops in temperature. A big gulp, or letting a coffee sit there untouched hardly shows love for your coffee. So I ask, who or what is driving these consumers towards these cafes if they aren’t really interested in what a knowledgeable specialty coffee cafe has to offer?

Food Bloggers – Very Handy, but Not Automatically Experts of Specialty Coffee

Specialty coffee and cafe scenes everywhere are heating up and generating a lot of attention from bloggers and magazines. In truth they most probably only offer one single origin via V60 and/or espresso. If they are lucky, they sell one filtered coffee a week. Their all-day -breakfast is amazing and affordable, but their coffee may not get the attention it deserves from consumers.

V60 coffees being brewed in a café

Is your brew bar getting the attention it deserves? Credit: Matthew Mon

Not long after the launch of a new business where food bloggers congregate, food degustation begins, along with flashing cameras and the publication of well-written blogs declaring this café the best specialty café in town (or second best etc).

Wait a minute, the blog reflected and scored 8 different types of food 5.5 out of 6 while one single coffee beverage, a café mocha, scored 6 out of 6. The coffee was also described with words such as bold, harmonious bitterness, smooth and extra hot! That sounds terrible!

This further feeds the disconnect between what cafes offer or want to offer, and what customers want them for. They have to maintain the image of specialty coffee, but yet keep three menu pages full of food items to please the consumers. A cafe can have incredible coffees from small producers around the world sitting in their grinders, and use the best technology to extract them to perfection. Many consumers will still undermine the whole setup by claiming the coffee tastes better as a cappuccino, and some might even add a little touch of raw sugar.

SEE ALSO: Seed to Cup: 5 Ways Mexican Coffee Is Becoming Specialty

 How Do Real Coffee Lovers Define Specialty Coffee?

A quick poll was conducted to reflect a diversity of personal ideas and emotions towards specialty coffee from a few coffee connoisseurs.

Alep Wolly, Head Barista of House Of Taste (HOT) said,

Specialty in every aspect, starts from the farmer, coffee farm, harvesting, sourcing out green beans, coffee roaster, barista & lastly the consumer…Every process makes specialty coffee special!”

Q-Grader Ian Consulta then added,

Specialty [coffee] to me is simple… when you have a smile on your face when drinking that cup because you know it tastes special!”

Collage of coffee production

It is the transparency and acknowledgment of every stage of the coffee cycle that makes specialty coffee so much more than just a commodity.
(Credits: top left – the Beansmith; top right- Alma De Cuba; bottom left – Luke Enfinger; bottom right – Alep Wolly)

Aindah, Co-founder of Coffee Story Co. located in Batam, Indonesia said,

To me…[the] definition of Specialty Coffee is about choosing the best and highest quality coffee beans that are grown in ideal climates, such as micro lots or microclimates. It also consists of the art of making coffee, and of course, coffee education to share the knowledge about Specialty coffee to the masses.”

In the quotes above, these coffee connoisseurs shared sentiments of traceability, acknowledgment of all people in the whole supply chain, as well as state of mind and knowledge while searching for and consuming that perfect cup. Not once was there mention of the variety and quality of food, atmosphere, or chocolatey drinks when defining specialty coffee. The love for coffee was clear.

Consumers Are Not Ready for Specialty Coffee Just Yet

Are we ready for a change in the cafe industry where operators will truly incorporate the appreciation of specialty coffee without the fuss of having to balance the coffee vs food equation?

Coffee has become sophisticated, but our drinking habits remain conservative. When will consumers appreciate the true definition of specialty coffee? When will they explore the story of each coffee that they sip and understand that it can make a difference to the lives of producers?

Maybe one day consumers will be ready to give back for the love of coffee, and not only receive the love and passion injected into the coffee by the barista serving them, & the work of those before him in the supply chain.

hole-in-the-wall’ specialty cafes

Many ‘hole-in-the-wall’ specialty cafes know how to serve up those beans just right.
Credit: @wolfpackroasters

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Feature Photo Credit: Yulia Nikitina

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