Across the board, specialty coffee is marketed as a superior product, in terms of its quality, sustainability, and the consumer experience.
However, in the past few years, we’ve seen a progressive shift in the specialty coffee market as it attempts to shed some of its exclusivity. For those driving this shift, the idea is to make specialty coffee more approachable and to scale up this niche market.
To learn more, I spoke to Wendelien van Bunnik, David Lalonde from Rabbithole Roasters, Maggy Kemunto Nyamumbo from Kahawa 1893, and Abbigail Graupner from Chica Bean. They told me about why they’re on a mission to democratise specialty coffee, and how they’re doing it. Read on to find out what they said.
You might also like our article on the fourth wave of coffee.
Is specialty too elitist?
Behind the specialty coffee sector is a community of people united by a passion for good coffee and a dedication to excellence. There’s a great sense of community and loyalty, but this has the potential to quickly turn into snobbery and exclusion.
For the ordinary coffee drinker, specialty coffee can be daunting. Many view it as an exclusive club they don’t have the required knowledge or expertise to enter.
I asked Abbigail Graupner, business development partner at Chica Bean in Guatemala, if she thinks specialty coffee is too exclusive.
“Absolutely,” she says. “It’s based on being elite. It requires a lot of education and resources, and you have all that fancy brewing equipment that some people can’t afford.
“The reality is that specialty coffee is still dependent on a class that has more disposable income.”
Apart from entry barriers like price, equipment, and knowledge, the sector can also be quite judgmental. Darker roasts, sugar, milk, and anything that dilutes high-quality coffee are all frowned upon in many cases. There can also be little patience for ignorance or mistakes.
Wendelien van Bunnik is an AeroPress Champion and a coffee influencer. She tells me about the expectations she feels in the coffee industry.
“I love the specialty coffee industry, but I hate how insecure it can make me,” she says. “Now, as a champion, I’m under even more scrutiny, because I’m expected to have all the answers.”
What harm is there in remaining exclusive with coffee?
Some might argue that the beauty of specialty lies in its exclusivity. You have to dedicate time and effort to truly appreciate it. Like a fine wine, it’s dedicated to the connoisseurs.
The problem with this concept though is that it excludes the vast majority of coffee drinkers. This is an issue that runs a lot deeper than you might think.
It’s not good for the farmers
Coffee producers might sell specialty coffees for a higher price, but because that market is comparatively small, they don’t shift high volumes.
Most producers derive the majority of their income from the commercial and premium segments. The specialty coffee market segment is often more for the reputation, and less for the profit.
David Lalonde is the co-founder of Rabbit Hole Roasters in Canada.
“[Farmers] often don’t care that much what we do with their coffee,” he says. “They want a living wage, to be able to save money, and to sell their coffee at a decent price.”
It discourages the average coffee drinker
According to David, many people want to buy into the sustainable specialty coffee model but don’t feel welcome. Instead, he says they buy Fair Trade or Organic certified coffee, which is not necessarily of better quality or sold for a higher price.
“However, at least they avoid the judgement and feeling stupid,” he says..
Wendelien, meanwhile, worries that the elitism associated with the sector will not only discourage consumers, but also budding baristas.
‘There are so many people out there who are curious and eager to learn about specialty coffee, but who don’t have a safe space to ask, fail, learn, and grow,” she says. “I’m very open and honest about the fact that there’s so much I still don’t know. It’s how we learn.”
It’s an obstacle for growth
The specialty coffee community is comparatively small. Without new people, it runs the risk of becoming an echo chamber where people confirm things they already know, rather than innovating.
David tells me that a big problem with specialty coffee is that the people who drink it often advocate for the segment to remain small, effectively preventing it from evolving.
“They don’t think about how this can impact the whole chain, further down the line,” he says.
Why should we make good quality coffee accessible to all?
Scaling up specialty coffee might seem like a daunting prospect for those who fear that the sector will be swallowed up by large commercial roasters.
So, why should we make it more approachable?
Producers can shift higher volumes at better prices
Firstly, scaling up doesn’t mean commoditising specialty coffee. On the contrary, it’s actually about mainstreaming a business model that recognises coffee as a differentiated product from farm level and gives value to producers’ work.
This has the potential to disrupt the entire coffee industry and the way it operates, as dynamics will change from production to consumption.
“The power of making an impact lies with the masses,” Wendelien says. “When people learn about coffee as a differentiated product, they become more aware of what lies behind the cup and what it’s worth.”
Make sustainability mainstream and increase accountability
Abbigail says: “Specialty coffee is more than just about quality; it’s about improving the quality of life for everyone along the value chain.”
In the long term, scaling up specialty coffee could mean scaling up sustainability. If it starts to take up a larger segment of the market, other segments will have to step up their sustainable practices to remain competitive.
“We need to expand the definition of specialty coffee beyond taste,” David says. “Things like sustainable sourcing, a living wage for farmers, and a price point that means roasters and importers can stay in business, are equally (if not more) important’.
Democratise good coffee
Specialty coffee tends to cater to consumers from the global north that are educated and have a comfortable amount of disposable income.
Maggy Kemunto Nyamumbo is the founder of Kahawa 1893. She tells me that when she got into specialty coffee, she quickly realised that in her community of people of colour, most people saw coffee as something that was “not for them”.
She says: “They see it as a ‘white people product’ that isn’t part of our culture, which is weird, because it comes from Africa!
“Once, I gave friends some of my coffee as a gift. A month later, I went back and it was still there. It turns out they didn’t know how to prepare it,” she explains. “Later, when I gave my friend a V60, she poured the beans into it. She didn’t know you had to grind them.”
This, Maggy says, is what inspired her to enter the single-serve market, as a way of offering accessible specialty coffee that is easy to brew.
Is it possible to be both specialised and accessible?
The argument here is not for all specialty coffee products to become entry-level, but rather to exist as a gateway to introducing a wider audience to specialty.
However, many people in the sector still view products like these as being “sellouts”, rather than offering a bridge to newcomers.
“Colin Harmon once said something I’ll always remember, about how you have to build trust before you can change things,” Wendelien says. “If we don’t listen to consumer demand, then everything that we try to do as an industry will be in vain.”
David tells me that of course, Rabbit Hole looks to cater to people who love coffee with rare, expensive lots. This, he says, is because the curiosity is valid and it’s a way to reinvest that money into the other areas of the business.
“We have the winning lot from Cup of Excellence Mexico,” he says “We paid around US $155/kg for that and bought 15kg. This has the potential to be great for our business, and ultimately help us reach our other goals.”
However, at the other end of the spectrum, David says Rabbit Hole Roasters also offers a menu of darker roasts. Some people have told him it’s too much of a focus there, b ut David and his business partner Sophie say they are pushing for the acceptance of darker roasts.
“We’re seeing people in our community buy specialty coffee for themselves and supermarket coffee for their families,” David explains. “That’s such a shame. We want to make it possible for these people to find their fancy coffees and darker roasts in the same place.”
How do we do this?
I asked my interviewees how we can popularise specialty coffee and make it more accessible in the future.
Take yourself less seriously
Wendelien’s Instagram posts are a great balance between fun, relatable, and educational content. She says this is the perfect way to draw in new crowds.
“My Instagram persona is me addressing the barista I was when I started out 15 years ago,” she says. “I want to be someone that people who are starting out in specialty coffee can relate to and open up to.
“I remember how it was, trying to fit in and feeling bad about asking too many questions.”
Work with people who have the same values
David says it’s crucial to work with people who share your vision and to connect with brands that have similar principles.
“We don’t find many wholesale partners, but when we do, it’s a real match,” he says. “It’s all about creating a chain from seed to cup where we all align on one vision.
“We could just source from Brazil, give samples to everyone, and try to build wholesale fast, but we prefer to be selective and stay true to our mission of scaling up specialty and making it accessible to all.”
Educate and empower
Education and empowerment are important. Maggy tells me she has invested a lot in telling people about why it matters to support women in coffee, and offers customers options to help do that. She tells me that Kahawa 1893 coffee bags also have a QR code that consumers can scan to tip farmers.
“Initially, we sent the women a portion of our profit, but then we wanted to make our customers more active and get them to take ownership of this action,” she says.
Rabbit Hole Roasters, meanwhile, reinvests most of their profit into consumer education, according to David. For instance, he says they recently published some articles about Haitian coffee.
“We’ve never sold so much coffee as we did with that Haitian coffee,” he explains. “This was a direct result of our research and educational content. We had a transparency report, an article series, and broke down the taste profile on social media. All these things sparked interest and people went crazy for it.”
Cater to preferences & embrace different opinions
Wendelien says that the contradiction she can see is where specialty coffee shies away from anything “commercial”, but also that it needs it to survive as an industry.
“We need to get off our high horse, roast something that a larger majority can understand and start the education journey from there,” she says. “It’s OK to need a darker roast for business. It doesn’t mean selling out.”
Meanwhile, Maggy says that Kahawa 1893 does this by targeting major distribution chains – which is the main way that most consumers access coffee.
“We need to be at the point of purchase,” she says. “We need to expose as many people as possible to specialty coffee and scale it up.”
Finally, David says the aim for this is to understand that there are plenty of different and valuable perspectives in the coffee sector.
“It’s not about agreeing all the time, it’s about exchanging perspectives and ideas,” he says. “But not in a specialty coffee echo chamber.”
Making specialty coffee more approachable doesn’t mean losing what makes it “special” or decreasing its value. On the contrary, it’s about sharing the passion for a wonderful product with more people, and spreading value more equitably across the supply chain.
Making specialty less daunting to newcomers could help to grow a community that is already appreciative of the quality, skill, and labour required to grow, roast, and brew delicious coffee.
However, for this to happen, the specialty coffee industry needs to shed its fears of change. By doing so, it can embrace its potential and drive real, positive systemic change for the coffee sector of tomorrow.
You might also like our article on redefining “specialty coffee”.
Photo credits: Kahawa 1893, Wendelien van Bunnik, Meklit Mersha
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