Countertops are precious space. It’s a beautiful, effective point to merchandise a product. Close to the till, a great moment for a last minute impulse purchase. What we’ve chosen to do with that space, in pretty much every cafe, is sell pastries. Im not sure I agree that this is a good idea.
I like pastries. Rare as it is, a well made croissant is a thing of beauty. I think I’ve eaten three or four in my life. The almond croissant, as someone who loves almonds, always seems like a good idea. Then, halfway through the sweet, soggy experience the regret kicks in. The pain au chocolat does its best to legitimise breakfast time chocolate, but I spend most of the time wondering where the faux-chocolate is hiding and I can’t think of a memorable one.
Every cafe sells pastries, as if there’s a line in the contract of every coffee shop lease ever written demanding they be available. We sell them because everybody sells them. Which is a pretty good place to start my short list of why I am skeptical of them:
- Everybody sells them. You’ve chosen to sell a product and you’ve got no USP in the market. Price expectations are fixed, and fixed quite low, and there’s nothing you have that no one else has. Butter-laden french pastries go well with coffee, but they are not the only thing that goes well with coffee.
- The margins aren’t that good. If you’re buying them in then you’re probably not making much money on them. You’re making less when you look at the wastage. Not much margin on a low priced product does not, in my book, earn it the best spot in the house for retailing and merchandising. Of course you can bake off premade ones in house but the margin is only a little better, there’s still wastage and there is now some added staff cost.
- The people selling them often don’t love them that much. No one is excited to sell yet another pastry, and I think that reluctance is somewhat shared by the consumer. They’re a last resort, a replacement for a forgotten or skipped breakfast. Acceptable sustenance. We all know that they are so rarely excellent, yet we continue to sell them knowing they’re not that great.
So, what is the solution? Unsurprisingly, I don’t have a complete one. I don’t think we’ve really had a conversation about what else we could be doing. I’d suggest the following:
- Evict them. I don’t think they pay their rent, and I don’t think moving them would dramatically impact sales. They don’t deserve the best spot in the whole cafe. Something more profitable does.
- Start looking for alternative options. Imagine they were no longer for sale. What qualities would you look for in an add-on item, aside from a better margin? Fat and sugar, and not too much acidity, are about the only requirements when it comes to being friends with coffee. There are choices, explore them and then own the ones you choose.
- Places like Du Pain et Des Idées and Lune Croissant are excluded from this argument for being wonderful ↩︎
Growth is always considered a good thing, and it is impossible to escape the good news that speciality coffee is growing. Its dollar value continues to swell, especially at the retail level in first world countries. However, if it continues this way then we’re going to have to deal with a surprising quandary sooner rather than later.
I received a long, semi-anonymous email from a reader of the blog, from Brazil. It was a response to a talk I gave at Tamper Tantrum, and was about the stickiness and persistence of ideas. They raised the importance and value of “specialness”. Speciality seems to be inextricably tied to specialness but growth puts rather a tricky dampener on that idea.
Some have defined Specialty Coffee in an aspirationally objective way. If a coffee scores a certain number of points, or more, when being tasted then it is Specialty Coffee. More and more coffee being grown is scoring in this zone, which is great news, as it is happens to coincide with a massive growth in demand from new and existing roasters. However, every time this section of market grows it becomes less “special”.
I’m curious to how immune we feel cuppers are from contextualised scoring. Every time we’ve assessed cuppers’ ability to be accurate and consistent in a controlled environment, it has shown most of our practices are a little flawed. If coffee in general is getting better, does that benchmark of acceptable taste not inevitably get lifted too? Will there always be a sector of the coffee growing market stuck in that nightmare of Tantalus, with the prize forever being just out of reach?
Over the years I’ve been repeatedly asked for my definition of speciality coffee. The best I’ve yet been able to offer is that “speciality coffee is coffee which is sold for a premium above market price, based on its taste”. We can pick apart its many failings another time, but there’s something in this idea I believe to be true and useful but that same thing in this context makes it flawed in this particular context: the idea of market price.
How much does a cup of coffee cost? Over the years I’ve looked at data to answer this question in London. London now has several hundred cafes that would usually fall into the definition of speciality. However, with some of the larger chains moving to engage with better (and more expensive) coffee we ought to consider that the market price is dramatically lifting. I had previously used “market price” to cover what was the majority of the retail coffee business i.e. non-speciality businesses. At some point the speciality market share gets large enough that there is nothing particularly special about it, and becomes the mainstream, the normal. I don’t think it has to be the majority (as a percentage) of the market for the effect to take place. Perception is the key, when it comes to that which we think is special.
There will be a point which we will cross in the not too distant future where speciality, as it is now, will be normalised. While it may still conform to quasi-objective definitions of specialty, it won’t be special.
In many ways – this is hugely exciting. Lifting the benchmark of acceptability for coffee to the point that we might just be able to build a sustainable industry, one where growing coffee is a genuinely good idea, is a very positive thing. For well grown, traceably sourced coffee to become “normal” (and I know we’re not there yet) makes me feel positive. Yet, I can’t escape the fact that the specialness is part of what made this trend, worldwide, so compelling.
I think the shift of perception from special to mainstream will happen soon enough that, for those of us driven by excellence, now is a good time to start considering how we will be more special than speciality in the future. The challenge is that breaking away from the herd will be difficult. Trends, new ideas, new language, new equipment – these all get co-opted and taken up by the market very quickly now.
Iteration isn’t going to get us to a new definition of what is special in coffee. Everyone else is going to have to think you’re crazy and brave at best, or just plain stupid and wrong at worst. It is going to be very lonely for the few that experiment, or push out, far enough from the new mainstream of once-speciality coffee. Someone you dismiss in the next few years, is going to turn out to be right in a way that changes the industry dramatically. I hope I’m not alone in being excited by that idea.
The World Barista Championship, and the World Brewers Cup in Dublin this year produced two worthy champions. They also produced a lot of discussion about one particular variety: Geisha .
The reason for the discussion was the dominance in the competitions of this one particular variety. Four of the six finalists, in both World Brewers Cup and the World Barista Championship, had a Geisha varietal coffee in their routines.
I should be clear from the off: this is not a criticism of the baristas who chose to use these coffees. I understand the appeal of them, professionally and competitively. It is also hard to argue the results of using this kind of coffee, which speak for themselves.
It is, however, worth considering the implications of this. We’ve continued to elevate this variety to ever loftier heights. A challenge facing the competition is whether they want to continue to foster and encourage this particular trend, as it does come with some implications and effects.
For those unfamiliar with the competitions, the reason coffees like this are popular is that they are very easy to describe accurately. You can use words like peach, mango, tropical, floral, citrus and your descriptions are not only evident in the cup but also entirely reasonable. Describing complex lots of varieties like Caturra from Costa Rica, or from Colombia, is more difficult. However, describability is not correlated to drinkability.
Outside of competitions, I want to examine the public facing side of our love affair with this variety. The reason this variety, in particular the lots that came from Hacienda La Esmeralda in Panama, has gained such notoriety and those astonishing prices at auctions is not solely because it tastes good.What really astonished green coffee buyers is that the cups it produced were so unexpected, and different from the coffees they had come to know from that farm, that region or that country.
To really appreciate Geisha in your first encounter, you need understanding and context.
However, when we champion this coffee to consumers we can’t be sure they have that same understanding and expectation of how most varieties taste, in the countries that grow them. If I’ve come from commodity coffee, or commercialised coffee, then a juicy, jammy cup from Nyeri in Kenya is just as weird as a lot of Geisha from Panama. How do we justify the price? More than that – how do we justify the price when we compare that Geisha, cup for cup, with a beautiful coffee from Yirgacheffe?
I think the single thing I love most about Geisha is that farmers are able to achieve significantly higher prices, in excess of the increased costs of production. I know it yields less than other varieties, but not that much less. As much as speciality in general tries to disconnect from commodity pricing, Geisha disconnects from speciality pricing in a whole other way – and I love that farmers are getting the prices they are asking.
Personally I’ve struggled to enjoy just about every lot of Geisha I’ve ever cupped and consumed. I’ve never had that “a-ha!” moment, it has never seemed revelatory to me. I think that many people roast to maximise a floral characteristic that leads to a heady cup that is great on the cupping table but I’m unable to finish a cup because it lacks real sweetness, and the astringency is just wearing me down. I’ll never say never – I would never refuse to buy or drink a coffee because it was Geisha, but I must confess I often feel disconnected from the excitement that surrounds it.
I’m not writing this as a curmudgeon. I’m not writing this as an attempt to claim some superiority in my preferences. I’m writing this because I’m not comfortable with the decision, that appears increasingly collective, that this is the thing we should champion. I don’t think the value proposition makes sense most of the time. I don’t think these cups are revelatory and mind-opening to enough of the people we’ve managed to tempt into spending a little more one particular cup of coffee.
I might stand alone on this, but I’ve spoken to enough people about it that I think it merits further discussion. The industry, from our competitions to our cafes, is steering a very particular course that I don’t believe will bear the fruit we are hoping for. Great Ethiopian coffees aren’t particularly different, feel like a bargain, and still haven’t swayed most people the way we seem to expect a Geisha lot to. Perhaps put another way, if a great Ethiopian coffee hasn’t excited me, why double down and charge me a lot more for something that isn’t really that different?
I’m not advocating abandoning the variety, not at all. I think the coffees that taste different (in a good way) from our expectations are powerful, enjoying and engaging cups. They just aren’t as universal as we sometimes seem to think. For a small, very engaged and knowledgeable part of our audience they’re a perfect fit. However, I’d like to encourage exploration of other opportunities in the hunt for more “a-ha!” moments as we grow the audience for what we do.
- I’m going to use this name for the variety throughout. I am aware of the Geisha/Gesha thing – but at this point it seems that (like it or not) Geisha has won out across the industry. ↩︎
I’ve brought up the idea previously of needing to grow the number of customers choosing to drink coffee at independent businesses. The growing number of business aren’t bringing enough new consumers to the market so are fighting over ever-shrinking slices of the pie.
Consumption as a whole remains strong. Plenty of people are buying coffee, but they’re choosing to do it in chain stores. In the UK, and in much of the rest of the world, growth in the branded coffee chain sector has been healthy and doesn’t seem to be suffering due to the growth of speciality.
We’ve tried in the past to appeal to the wider audience. We told them, loudly and proudly, that we served better coffee than the chains. The results of our marketing claims weren’t what we hoped. People liked the coffee they were buying from the chains, and considered us pompous and pretentious. Some just thought that we were trying to ride some new trend, that we lacked authenticity and called us hipsters. Very few threw down their cups in newly-discovered disgust, and headed to the nearest independent for a better tasting replacement.
So here’s the problem: what we perceive as our biggest asset to win and retain customers doesn’t work the way we want it to. Not enough people are interested in upgrading the coffee they drink. Now we have to find a way to convince people to change their lives, their routines, their route to work, or where they choose to escape the day, and to reject the cups coffee they were previously happy with.
We’d be far more effective if we did this as a group. I think there’s a lot to be said for customers embracing small businesses. Money tends to stay in the community, and almost always inside the national economy. Small businesses (mostly) pay their taxes, they contribute culture and value to their neighbourhoods.
The point of resistance is that a campaign around this will promote businesses we don’t want to promote: independent businesses who sell terrible coffee. There are plenty of these, and we consider them the enemy much in the same way we consider the branded coffee chains the enemy. Great coffee shops are not special because they are independent, too much other work has gone in and I think we’d be reluctant not to talk about that.
Perhaps it feels like giving in; to talk about something other than how good the coffee is.
The way I see it, there are a few options:
- Refine what you do, weather the storm, and hope that once a few of your competitors close they don’t get bought up by a chain too.
Experiment alone with different messaging, aware that quality remains important to your business, to your staff and your existing customers. Don’t compromise on what you are passionate about, but experiment with what lures potential customers through your door.
Collaborate with others. This is a problem that affects everyone in your industry. Getting good at marketing to people buying coffee from the chains has long term benefits to all independent businesses. It is both selfish and a little altruistic.
I’d fall into the category of the third group. I’m interested in collaborating, iterating and learning quicker than others who act alone.
I would summarise it all this way: we need to create opportunities for discovery. For people to discover great businesses, to discover (for themselves) a cup of coffee that tastes so much better than what they’re used to, for them to discover a cafe they can build a lasting relationship with, to discover their cafe.
The coffee served needs to be delicious, it needs to make the people who serve it proud and excited, and it needs to be done in an environmentally and financially sustainable way. I think we’re all getting better at that, and now we need to get much better at creating opportunities to showcase the best of what we do to new customers. I believe working together is a more effective way of creating such opportunities, and I’m open to support and collaborate with anyone and everyone on that.
What we see today as the role, or the definition, of a barista is going to change completely. This isn’t wishful thinking, this isn’t fear mongering. The impending role of automation is something we will have to come to accept. In the future the role of the barista will involve putting the customer first. (Matt Perger’s “The Death of the Death of the Barista” is a good place to start in all this.)
We’ve spent the better part of the last 15 years railing against automation in espresso brewing. We look down upon coffee businesses that outsource the brewing of espresso, and the steaming of milk, to simplistic robots. We’ve prized the hand crafted, the human and have come to see quality as incompatible with automation.
While we’ve come to accept, and increasingly understand, that espresso is actually too difficult to be done consistently without some assistance – we haven’t truly embraced that truth. We haven’t actively looked to replace ourselves, we haven’t pushed for more technology. We’ve merely acquiesced to that which the community has broadly deemed useful and acceptable, such as volumetrics or gravimetrics.
Our reluctance to push for more technology implies our deep desire to cling on to the hand made, to the “authentic”. That the process of brewing could be reduced to a single button push repulses and scares us. If you turn this around to a customer’s perspective, we don’t look so good: We would prefer to serve them variable and oft-disappointing coffee. We’d rather smother the work of farmer, miller, exporter, importer, roaster and everyone in between over making ourselves feel somewhat redundant.
You can dismiss this idea as glib, hyperbolic or perhaps even snarky – but there’s an important nugget of truth in here. Our love of the craft is selfish, and that may be incompatible with the future of our work.
The classic response to this idea is to reject it, citing the failures of the last attempts at super automatic espresso machines. I would say that, to date, no one has built a machine capable of delivering truly exceptional coffee consistently, and reliably. I know they often break right now, I know they’re expensive to maintain right now, and that you have many reasons to reject them right now.
However, a number of things have changed since the last wave swept through the industry: we understand the key variables of espresso better. We understand grinding coffee better. Technology has progressed, and at an ever increasing rate. Reliability will inevitably improve. There is a growing audience that might actually want a machine like this. This is essential, because without demand there is no incentive to create such a machine. No one would say that a machine like this is impossible, or even improbable. It just hasn’t been built yet, but I’d wager we won’t be waiting all that long.
The world is teeming with ideas about how automation is going to change work. As autonomous vehicles begin to loom, it isn’t just taxi drivers who are nervous. There are 3.5 million truck drivers in the US, and 5.2 million in trucking related jobs. Many of those jobs are going away, and I think it is fair to say that that is inevitable.
The job of the barista, as we define it now, didn’t exist 100 years ago. It barely existed 50 years ago. Why should we expect it to continue to exist in the future? The world is changing, and that change is gathering pace. This is true inside and outside of coffee.
Baristas will still be very necessary, but the role will perhaps shift to more of a hospitality focus. A barista might be a gatekeeper, a curator, a problem solver, or a tour guide. First and foremost, a barista will also be the person doing the tasting, as we’re a long way from machines being able to do that.
Chances are that if you order the expensive, rare single origin espresso you aren’t going to have to worry if the barista has it dialled in. No more espressos pushed across the counter, excused and ruined in advance by the barista confessing “it ran a bit quick”. If great green coffee continues to decline in production, and climate change only accelerates its decline, a cafe that doesn’t waste shots and manages to brew every coffee it serves very well seems like a very sensible idea to me. Knowing you’re able to deliver exceptional drinks is a great reason to increase your spend on the coffee your cafe serves.
A world where coffee is brewed consistently brewed well will have an interesting knock-on effect. It will apply a great deal of the spotlight onto the roaster, and their ability to be excellent. Roasting is a far more manual process than brewing, and as such it has its struggles with consistency and control. It doesn’t help that we’re still using technology that is decades old, and we’re hopelessly reliant on the poor data that comes from the temperature probes inside the machine. Technology in brewing will likely hasten the development and adoption of new technologies in coffee roasting. I look forward to that day.
What we prize now in the barista, what skill set we want from a professional, has changed and will change again. What won’t change is that our true role is to know about coffee, and to care about our customers. The demand for attention continues to grow more diverse, and so we’d be perhaps naive and foolish to believe that people will have more time to learn about coffee, or to have decision making occupy more of their time and energy.
There’s concern over where all the jobs will go, as automation seeps into the workplace. Right now, I’m not particularly worried. We all find joy in work, and what that work will be will change. We’ll hopefully work less, much less for some of us should a variant of Basic Income happen sooner than expected.
In this future I could believe a second movement, to reclaim the manual espresso brewing process, could appear. Proud, loud users of vintage technologies trying to leverage their authenticity in the market as a point of competition. I can’t help but wonder how much people are willing to compromise their coffee’s consistent quality, or to wait longer, when there’s a charming person who always sells them something excellent, with the help of a little robot, in the shop down the street. You may reject new technologies, but your competition won’t. Someone will take the opportunity, and out-compete you.
If I had read this post five years ago, I might have thought it sounded like scaremongering. I don’t want it to read that way. I hear the responses that decry the destruction of the art of coffee, that we’re just unweaving the rainbow. I can entertain these ideas more than those who might lament the loss of the “theatre” of coffee making. Those self same people who proclaim to find it so interesting are rarely fans of watching barista competition. I don’t think we’ll lose quite as much as we worry we will.
The moments of delight that I’ve had serving another person coffee have had very little to do with how the espresso was made, with how the coffee was tamped or the mass of espresso in the cup. They were moments when I got out of the way, when the guest had a delightful moment of clarity with the cup of coffee they were drinking. Those are the moments I prize, that I remember and that I’d most like to repeat.
Should we choose it to be, then the future may see us reap the benefits of genuinely delivering on our promises, and making great coffee something people truly see as valuable.
I’m going to be including a lot of supplementary reading on a variety of topics raised here in Issue #3 of the newsletter.
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