As specialty coffee continues to become more popular, consumer demands are naturally evolving. People want more from each cup of coffee they drink.
As part of this, consumers are becoming more educated on how coffee can be prepared at home, with a growing focus on brewing “café-quality” beverages.
Consequently, more and more coffee companies catering to the home market are adapting to these evolving consumer expectations, and their messaging is changing as a result. An example of this is the emergence of the phrase “barista-grade”, whether it refers to equipment, instant coffee, or even plant milks.
The term implies a product of a higher quality standard, and one which caters to the more discerning coffee drinker. But what does the word actually mean? What makes barista-grade products stand out from their competitors, and how are these products developed?
I spoke with two industry professionals to gain their insights. Read on to find out what they told me.
You may also like our article on buying home espresso machines.
Does “barista-grade” mean “specialty”?
Despite the recent surge in popularity of the specialty coffee sector, the term “specialty” was originally coined in 1974. In an issue of the Tea and Coffee Journal, Erna Knutsen described specialty coffee as being high-quality, with unique flavour profiles.
Today, the word “specialty” is used by baristas, roasters, and coffee businesses alike – typically as an indication of both higher-quality coffee and a shift in coffee culture. And while the word “specialty” can sometimes be erroneously interchanged with terms like “third wave” and “independent”, consumers largely associate specialty coffee culture with quality and better service.
Another term that stakeholders in the coffee industry are starting to use is “barista-grade”, albeit this is far less prominent than the word “specialty”.
“Barista-grade” as a term has most likely come from the growing appreciation for the role of the barista in the specialty coffee segment. This phrase is typically associated with coffee products, brewing equipment, and plant-based milks which are formulated for specific use in coffee beverages.
Muna Mohammed is the founder of Eight50 Coffee, a specialty coffee brand based in Ottawa, Canada. She tells me how he would define barista-grade coffee.
“Generally, [it’s equipment or a product] which helps to achieve a quality beverage that mimics one prepared by a skilled and experienced barista.”
Broadly speaking, the knowledge and skill of the barista are have become more admired by consumers, and was something many missed during Covid-19 lockdowns around the world. Subsequently, as more people attempted to recreate café-quality coffee at home, they naturally sought to replicate the expertise of their favourite barista.
Toby Weedon is the Barista Development Manager EMEA at Oatly. He believes that the term “barista-grade” generally resonates more with younger coffee consumers, who are naturally more aware of the specialty coffee market.
“Today, people in general have a more informed relationship with coffee and naturally associate the term ‘barista’ with high-quality coffee,” Toby says.
“The barista community has done a great job over the past few years building consumer interest in higher quality coffee.”
So, what about barista-grade products?
As the coffee industry has grown over the past decade, so too has the diversity and quality of products marketed as “barista-grade”.
One of the most prominent examples of this is the plant milk sector. According to a report from Future Market Insights, the global dairy alternative market is expected to hit over US $30 billion by 2031. Further reports from Mintel indicate that some 44% of UK consumers aged between 25 and 44 opt for plant-based milks – often in coffee shops, too.
Naturally, with the rising demand for non-dairy milks in the coffee sector, companies have sought to develop plant-based options which replicate the taste, texture, and foaming capabilities of dairy.
“The demand for plant-based products is increasing rapidly, as more and more people are looking to make more sustainable food choices,” Toby tells me. “This is reflected in the popularity of Oatly’s Barista Edition milk.”
Overall, oat milk sales in the US increased 212% during 2020. According to marketing research firm Nielsen, this was the largest increase of any food item compared to the previous year.
The ever-growing demand for oat-based options can partly be attributed to the popularity of the Oatly brand. Oatly first launched in the US, not through supermarkets or smaller grocery stores, but in specialty coffee shops.
Oatly’s barista-formulated milk became a benchmark for plant milks in coffee shops. It was widely well-received by baristas for its foamability and creamy texture.
“Oatly Barista Edition is designed specifically to work with coffee and other hot drinks,” Toby explains. “It has a higher fat content than our other products, which means it steams, textures, and pours really well.”
The addition of the acidity regulator dipotassium phosphate also ensures that Oatly Barista Edition mixes well when added to coffee.
Toby adds: “As well as having a rich creamy taste which balances well with espresso, Oatly Barista Edition has also been developed so that it doesn’t curdle or split when combined with light roasts or more acidic coffee.”
Do barista-grade products help make quality coffee more accessible?
Generally, specialty coffee shops adhere to higher quality and sustainability standards, including with beverage preparation.
Baristas are typically trained for weeks to months on how to prepare high-quality coffee using commercial coffee shop equipment – which is largely inaccessible for everyday consumers.
But as specialty coffee becomes more popular with consumers, more people are attempting to prepare better quality coffee drinks at home.
Muna points out that coffee equipment manufacturers are increasingly catering towards the rising demand, and launching “barista-grade” or “home barista” models of their equipment.
“There has been huge expansion in the last few years focusing on ‘barista-grade’ coffee equipment that can be used at home,” she says. “This is everything from electric kettles to milk frothers and even quality espresso machines that can [deliver quality from a home kitchen].
“The manufacturing quality, lower price points, and ease of use have made it so that [replicating] barista-quality coffee is more attainable at home.”
As well as insinuating a higher level of quality, the term “barista-grade” also offers less experienced consumers an accessible way to learn more about specialty coffee.
Toby also notes that the increasing awareness and use of the phrase “barista-grade” can help to break down barriers between barista and customer, improving wider coffee sector education as a result.
“It demystifies the coffee industry and invites consumers to become more educated,” he explains. “We also have a great opportunity to educate coffee businesses in sustainability and plant-based alternatives so that they can help people to make more informed choices.”
Muna adds that it’s important for coffee businesses to disseminate knowledge to consumers, and to educate them – it makes customers appreciate the work of the barista even more, and helps to lead to greater awareness of the sector.
“If you want people to use and enjoy your product, you need to also give them the tools to be successful,” she tells me. “We want our customers to be equipped with the resources to prepare drinks using different brewing methods to achieve the best tasting coffee.”
Improving consumer knowledge
From “sustainability” and “third wave” to “artisan” and the proliferation of the word “specialty”, it’s clear that the coffee sector responds to terminology that some might call buzzwords. The increasing use of the word “barista-grade” in product branding is just another example.
It’s also safe to conclude that emerging terms like these do have an influence over consumer purchasing behaviour and product development within the sector.
But the growth of the term “barista-grade” could moreover be indicative of a gradual shift towards consumers learning more about coffee.
“Developing barista skills requires a lot of training, practice, and creativity,” Muna explains. “The more you learn and create, the better your skills become – whether it’s in-store or at home.
“With so many recipe videos on TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook, many consumers are turning to social media to find how-to recipe videos for the latest drink trends.”
Insights from market trends company Foresight Factory found that since 2015, Instagram posts of “photogenic” coffee have increased a staggering 4,500%.
Undoubtedly, these have come to include images from consumers preparing their own coffee at home as beverage preparation skills improve.
Toby, meanwhile, tells me that the growing use of terms like “barista-grade” can help consumers understand the differentiation between products of different quality in the market.
While its definition will vary from brand to brand, and it is arguably still a marketing buzzword, there’s no doubt that we’re seeing more and more “barista-grade” products emerge in the coffee sector.
We can conclude that its growing presence across the sector is the result of increasing awareness and interest from consumers in the quality of their coffee and the equipment used to prepare it.
Whether the phrase will evolve in the future remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: it shows that more and more people want to replicate the café experience and the skills of the barista from the comfort of their own homes.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on how to make barista quality espresso at home.
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