The State of Speciality Coffee
Part 1: The Lull
This is the first of three parts, covering how I see the current state of the speciality coffee industry around the world. I’ve spent the last year thinking about this, and have had the chance to talk to people in the industry in cities around the world. I believe that much of what I’ll discuss has a global implication – even if not all of it is applicable to any one particular local market.
I’m aware that these posts come at strange time, as sentiment in the industry is generally incredibly positive. The SCAE recently ran a survey 1, and as part asked people about their feelings on the speciality market. 93.85% of those who responded felt positive about the current state, and 96.19% felt positive about the future. I sit in that very small minority on the latter, and I want to explain why. To do so I want to try and put my thinking into some sort of context covering how we got to where we are. This will, inevitably, be a little simplistic in places but I want to show my train of thought, see if you follow along and if we all end up in the same place.
The Rise of Speciality
I’m not going to talk in waves (because I believe it to be a good analogy, but US specific), so when talking about speciality in these posts I want to talk about the phase of modern coffee 2 that started in the early 2000s. Defined by a focus on the specific tastes of coffee, aiming to highlight the taste of terroir from which it came as well as the work of those who grew it.
This movement also drove a number of technological advancements in espresso and drip brewing (a sector of the industry that could be considered to be in a period of stagnation before this).
The goal was to produce the best tasting cup of coffee, the most transparent cup of coffee, and to share that with the consumer. The desire to surprise and delight them through the taste of the coffee was largely driven by the fact that those working in the industry had had revelatory moments: A cup of coffee that was shocking in its uniqueness and its taste. I think we believed that if we could only get consumers to taste really great coffee then they too would have a revelation, then they too would care deeply about the coffee they drink each day and ultimately would reward quality focused businesses with their loyal custom from that point onwards.
The rise of experimental coffee
I think this idea, this aspiration of selling revelation, can be seen throughout the tropes of the industry. Dairy and sugar became the enemy, as they would obscure the very thing we were so desperate to showcase and we quickly developed a reputation as condescending. Our clear frustration at people’s lack of interest in engaging intellectually with their coffee leaked out, coupled with our earnest desire to serve something truly unique, and slowly we became the new snobbery/hipster joke industry.
We designed and created businesses to try and showcase coffee in a new way. We built brew bars, we experimented with cafe layouts, we tried a raft of new things to try and build appreciation for great coffee.
We experimented with technology, chasing a cup of coffee that would somehow yield instant conversion. Pressure profiling, temperature profiling, unimodal grinding or unusual brewing technologies were all chased down and all had high hopes for producing something undeniably, irrefutably better. That search continues today.
You could well argue that, as an industry, we’ve been hugely successful. Speciality coffee has grown, in terms of total dollar value, at a startling rate. There isn’t a major city in the world lacking a cafe working hard to serve unique, traceable and interesting coffees. However, along with that there has been a phenomenon creeping in around the world that I think worthy of discussion…
I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that the industry has begun to stagnate. The number of experimental, innovative or unusual coffee businesses opening has undeniably decreased dramatically. I also think that the general level of excitement about coffee is dropping.
When great coffee was rare, the knowledge of where to find it was valuable. It was prized. When travelling it seemed that when asking for recommendations you would get a few places repeatedly and emphatically suggested to you: “Going to New York? You have to go to Cafe Grumpy, or Ninth Street or RBC.”
There weren’t many places, but now that has changed. There is great coffee being served in lots of places, and even more aspiring to serve great coffee. As such giving and getting recommendations has actually gotten a lot harder. I travel, and ask, a lot and people seem increasingly reluctant to give a strong recommendation. Usually the first response I get is someone asking which neighbourhood of a city I’m giong to be in, followed by a local recommendation. Once again convenience rears its ugly head – the idea of a destination cafe seemed to burn brightly, but has perhaps sputtered out.
The knowledge of where to get great coffee is no longer valuable, because it is so readily available. Available as books, apps or maps. A higher standard of coffee is sufficiently easy to access that it could be considered, to some extent, normal. The problem with normal is that it isn’t exciting. It isn’t, and I hate to bring this up, particularly cool either.
Along the way we also did something important, but without the consequence we hoped for: we served some really, truly, great cups of coffee. The problem is that people simply enjoyed them and moved on. They were happy with their purchase, happy to be caffeinated, and happy to have paid what they did. The earth didn’t move, the sky didn’t part, they didn’t hear a choir of angels. I don’t believe coffee cannot, or should not be, improved; it can and should always get better. I think we just need to readjust our expectations of what an isolated sensory experience can do. Yes, sometimes it can change someone’s life. However, it can’t do it every time or even most of the time.
I believe we have made a grave mistake by allowing an idea to take root. We’ve sowed the seeds of an idea, the idea that: if you serve great coffee then that’s all you’ll need to be successful. I think we’ve stopped experimenting and attempting to innovate because we’ve worked out this truth – though we’re rarely at the point of discussing it openly.
Conversations in the industry are starting to change. The more experienced owners in coffee businesses have moved their focus away from how they can serve coffee that would delight their peers in the industry, into how they can run sustainable businesses. Conversations around equipment are clearly evident of this – people are interested in efficient, less wasteful technology and the idea of having to swallow high levels of coffee waste in order to achieve the best possible quality is dying a death.
I cannot attribute these changes in focus, this renewed interest in financial modelling, to just The Lull. There have been other important changes in the market that are having a much larger impact on the way people are thinking about their businesses, and this is what I’m going to address in the second part of this series tomorrow.