May 19, 2017

Millennials Turn to Decaf: What Does This Mean for Café Owners?


For a growing number of millennials, coffee isn’t a pick-me-up. That’s because this generation is the largest consumer of decaf coffee. And for many of them, it really is a choice – not the doctor’s orders.

What’s more, while coffee’s consumed more by older generations, millennials are ageing. It seems unlikely that they’ll grow out of their decaf coffees as they do.

So why are millennials opting for decaf? And what does this mean for the future of specialty coffee?

Spanish Version: Los Millennials Prefieren Café Descafeinado: ¿Qué Significa esto para las Tiendas de Café?

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Many millennials are drinking decaf by choice, not just on the doctor’s orders.  Credit: Rosso Coffee Roasters

Decaf Most Popular Among Millennials

According to the 2017 National Coffee Association (NCA) report, decaf consumption in the US is led by 18-24-year-olds (19%). And while 25-39-year-olds fell into third place place this year, in 2016 they led the trend at 20%.

What’s more, 66% of consumers surveyed agreed that  “It’s important to limit my coffee consumption”. And among 25-39-year-olds, 68% say it’s important limit their caffeine intake.

In other words: want to attract millennials? Having decaf on the menu could be very helpful. And you really do want to attract millennials.

SEE ALSO: Why Cafés Should Consider Charging More for Decaf

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Decaf coffee consumption is growing among younger coffee consumers  Credit: Michal Kodet

Coffee Needs Millennials

Many people hear “millennials” and think “fresh graduates”. But today, millennials are aged 20-37. (To put that in perspective, the median age in the US is 37.) Over 40% of them are parents (Pew Research Centre). They lead gourmet coffee consumption and out-of-home dining (Dataessential/The Food Institute). And by 2025, they’ll make up to 75% of the workforce and be up to 45 years old (The Brookings Institution).

Can coffee shops afford to ignore the demands of even just 20% of this generation?

And, perhaps more importantly, can the demands of this 20% force us to provide even better decaf coffee offerings – no matter what age the consumers are?

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Coffee consumers are choosing decaf coffee, but what are coffee shops doing about it? Credit: William Tooley

Why Do Millennials Choose Decaf?

There are multiple reasons why millennials are turning to decaf, but health concerns plays a major role. According to a Goldman Sachs study from 2013, “For Millennials, ‘healthy’ doesn’t just mean ‘not sick’. It’s a daily commitment to eating right and exercising.” It’s purity, clean eating, and wholesome living.

Caffeinated coffee – consumed within reasonable levels – isn’t harmful to most people. But in today’s world, where hashtag #healthyfood has over 27 million results on Instagram, millennials are a little more wary about products that have an effect on their body.

Divine Akorli, 29, says, “Personally, I like moderation. Too much caffeine makes me drowsy and makes my eyes turn red. Decaf is ideal for a regular coffee lover like me. I take caffeinated once in a while, but decaf more regularly.”

Similarly, Leanne Dow, who is in her early 30s, had to give up caffeine for health reasons but tells me she wouldn’t choose to go back to it. “Honestly, I was drinking way too much of it and I was super intense,” she explains.

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Decaf: part of the millennial “healthy living” trend? Credit: Thirsty No More

Energy Matters

Coffee has, of course, long been associated with energy. And so it’s relevant that 62% of millennials say they are “too tired” to accomplish all they need to do today – a significantly higher percentage than among older generations (The Futures Company, 2015). The truth is that while caffeine might give them an energy boost, millennials know it’ll only last for so long.

Amelia Pass, 22, tells me, “I’m drinking decaf because the feeling of caffeine is nice for a moment, but it really drags me to the ground even after an hour!”

Many among the under-40s are looking, instead, for sustained energy – something that feeds into the healthy living trend. “Millennials drink decaf because they understand how to manage their energy throughout the day,” says Andrea Piccolo of Swiss Water Decaffeinated Coffee Company.

Decaf consumption has increased to 0.39 cups/day/person in the US (NCA 2017), and Swiss Water have collaborated on pop-up stores and shops across the word. “We showcased that coffee decaffeinated with Swiss Water Process can be enjoyed late in the afternoon and into the evening, when people typically stop drinking coffee, because they don’t want the effect of caffeine that late in the day,” Piccolo says.

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Consumers cup Swiss Water Decaffeinated Coffee Company coffee. Credit: Swiss Water Decaffeinated Coffee Company

Caffeine vs Coffee

Piccolo’s choice of the word “enjoyed” is important: many people are turning to decaf not because they don’t want caffeine, but rather because they don’t want to give up coffee.

Martin George, 24, has had to cut down on his caffeine consumption because of health issues. He tells me, “The first coffee of the day is caffeinated. The rest are decaf because one coffee is not enough for me.”

This isn’t something specific to millennials – Kelly Martin, 44, drinks only decaf and tells me, “I like the coffee cuppings I go to on Saturdays at a local roastery”. However, it’s the younger generations that are most prone to this.

This begs the question: what do decaf-drinking millennials want from their coffee?

It turns out that the answer is something close to specialty’s heart.

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Swiss Water Decaffeinated Coffee coffee brewed in a Chemex. Credit: Swiss Water Decaffeinated Coffee Company

What Do Millennials Want From Their Coffee?

Black coffee full of natural sweetness, lightly roasted and maybe even organically grown – it sounds pretty “pure”, wouldn’t you say? It also sounds like specialty coffee. Many of the same millennials who care about caffeine-free or low-caffeine lifestyles also buy into, for example, products without added sugar. And, for café owners, one of the key words there is “buy”.

That’s not the only aspect of specialty coffee that millennials like (fortunately for us). 45% of them “think more positively” of a café with “sustainably sourced” products, with nearly 30% saying it will influence where they shop (Dataessential 2015). Understanding the story behind the cup is an essential element of third wave coffee, as is the fight for a more sustainable industry.

Under-40s also value the role of the coffee house. They’ve grown up with second and third wave coffee houses and see them as “the third space” – a place to socialise, work, and unwind. Coffee is more than a product; it’s a lifestyle. As Leanne Dow tells me, “[Coffee] is an an integral part of my life, even past my morning ritual.”

And we’ve already established that millennials make up the biggest share of the gourmet coffee market. Just because they want decaf doesn’t mean they want to sacrifice taste.

So what do millennials want? A “healthy”, sustainable, good-quality coffee experience. If you ask me, that sounds pretty close to the third wave. They just also want to be able to choose decaf.

Written in collaboration with Brendan Clarey.  Featured photo: William Tooley

Please note: Swiss Water Decaffeinated Coffee Company is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.

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