Brewed coffee and the UK

This is something of a summary of the short talk I gave at the Allegra Strategies UK Coffee Leader Summit a week or so ago.  Please also bear in mind that this talk was directed at the UK market specifically so won’t necessarily hold true for other national coffee cultures.

For me this talk was a moment of crystalisation about how I feel about coffee right now, and what I want to focus a lot of my energy on.  I had initially planned to talk about how quality focused businesses were doing well right now, but in the process of writing the talk that seemed to shift.  I should add a final caveat to this by saying that I do love making and drinking espresso.

My talk was titled “How the coffee industry lost the public’s trust, and how good coffee can win it back again.”

My feelings about espresso changed dramatically around the time I first experienced coffee in Italy.  A few things struck me initially – the coffee was prepared reasonably well, it wasn’t astonishing or delicious and it was cheap.  I would later learn that the price of espresso to be consumed at the bar is regulated and never more than €1.  When I first made espresso for Italians I was initially confused by the fact that they never asked for espresso, they just asked for coffee.  Non-specific, without customisation – just coffee.

Like many people I had held a fairly romantic notion of espresso in Italy.  This was swept away and replaced by disappointment.  This has since given way to respect.  I think what changed my mind was a little perspective, and a better understanding of espresso’s history.  a

This poster is probably familiar to everyone in coffee.  For me it summarizes pre-1948 espresso.  The innovation that espresso offered at this point was speed.  Suddenly a cup of coffee could be brewed very quickly.  So quickly, in fact, that you could grab a cup whilst hanging out of the side of a moving train.  The cups of coffee are full to the brim, and have not even the vaguest whisp of crema upon them.  This was nothing like espresso as we know it.  This was like having a big tank of water with which to make multiple moka pots.

Then of course we have post WWII espresso, we have Achille Gaggia’s espresso machine and we have the first mentions of crema.  Again – at this stage espresso didn’t suddenly become perfect little 25ml shots, full of thick dense crema.  The real revelation for me about this period was an almost throwaway sentence in one of Kenneth Davids books on coffee.  Post WWII Italy was not an economically strong place.  It is unlikely that the coffees bought during this time, during the birth of espresso’s tradition as we know it, were anything other than cheap and readily available.  It is no great surprise that naturally processed coffees from Brazil and robusta became the bedrock of the traditional espresso blend but we’d do well not to assume they were chosen because they tasted the best.  Espresso is pretty good way to brew these coffees.

The point that I am slowly working towards is that for all the romance, history and tradition, espresso is not special.  It is not luxury.  It is not gourmet.  It is just a way to brew a small, strong cup of coffee.

That of course changed, and in no small part thanks to Howard Schulz.  It is worth noting that in any description of his epiphany moment in Italy, where he saw a barista craft both an espresso and a cappuccino in a convivial and charming manner, does he describe being blown away by the coffee.  It was the experience that stuck with him, and the experience he thought he could sell.  b

He was, of course, quite right.  He could sell the experience, he could package it up and replicate it almost exactly across the world.  I have no idea how many different stores they have worldwide, but with 700 in the UK it is hard to argue with him.  However we did something else as part of this process.  We made espresso expensive.

Let’s say a single espresso in London costs £1.50, which is a little high but not by any means unusual.  Assuming it is a 25ml shot that works out at 6p/ml.

If you were to go to a pub and buy a pint of espresso it would cost you £34.08.  Or you bought a wine bottle of espresso it would cost £45.  That is a phenomenal amount of money.  Think about the drinks you can buy for that sort of price.  They are either extremely delicious or extremely alcoholic.

The problem is that a price tag like this is a pretty hefty promise.  Selling an espresso for this much implies that the experience will be of equal value.  Sip for sip it should be as satisfying as a great champagne.  The problem is that in this country, in London, in the vast majority of businesses – it isn’t.

Charging this much and delivering something so awful as the average high street espresso destroys any trust between the coffee industry and the general public.  This kind of price/experience discrepancy makes people feel stupid.  It makes them resentful.  It turns them into the kind of people that get very angry and leave vicious and dismissive comments at the bottom of news stories about speciality coffee posted online.  We’ve all seen those comments online, globally I might add, that follow a news story about speciality coffee.  Angry, bitter comments about what a waste of time and money this ‘fancy’ coffee is, that it is nothing more than the emperor’s new clothes and that coffee is just coffee.  These opinions come from specific experiences, we – the coffee industry – have created some very angry consumers.

As soon as the economy started to dip there were a glut of articles on ways to live more frugally, how to strip unnecessary spending from your day to day habits.  In every single list was coffee.  By and large lattes on the high street are overpriced, they are worth cutting out of the budget.  The frustration is that they don’t have to be.  c  I wouldn’t advise dropping the coffee from your routine, I would advise finding a place that makes one that is worth the money.

Yet still the industry persists in telling us that espresso is better.  At the Allegra talk I listened to to Rebecca Hemsley, the head of coffee for Pret A Manger, talk about how they offer (for the price conscious) a cup of filter coffee for 99p.  She added that they weren’t cutting corners – they used the same blend as they do for their espresso.  I should add that a single espresso at Pret is £1.25.  What message does that send to the consumer?  How does that affect their expectations of both the espresso and the filter coffee?

So I’ve written quite a lot already about espresso, and haven’t really gotten onto the subject of brewed coffee.  At this point in the talk I began brewing a small press of coffee.  I wanted to talk about where I thought coffee could go.  In the first talk of the day Darcy Willson-Rymer, the MD of Starbucks UK, had described value as being a combination of price, product and value.  I quite liked this, and say what you like about Starbucks but they’ve cleared managed to price their experience right for it to be the success it is.  d

I chose a coffee to brew that had very distinct and interesting characteristics.  I talked about where the coffee was from, and how it had gotten to the UK.  I described the coffee as having strong notes of blackcurrant, cherry and blueberry.  For me this makes an obvious promise, whereas a price makes a slightly less direct one.  A promise like this is a fairly big one but they pay off is also potentially huge.  We all have a salesman in our life that we completely trust.  They might not be an obvious salesman – they could be a bartender, a waiter, a sommelier or someone who sells stationary.  We trust their judgement, and we are loyal to them.  That trust was gained through making promises and keeping them.  Making a promise like this with a cup of coffee was what pushed us to work with Marco on the Uber Boiler but that is a slightly different topic.

As the coffee finished brewing I explained how much I’d like to sell it for a cup:  £3.  This wasn’t because it was vac-packed, or because it was airfreighted, or because it came in a nice bag with a nice logo.  If you like coffee, then I think that that combination of price, product and experience is good value for money.  Buying and drinking this cup of coffee is worth every penny.  I offered that one 8oz press to the audience for sale, and I am very grateful (and was somewhat relieved at the time) to both Darcy and Louie Salvone for paying £5 each (to charity) to split the press between them.

Brewed coffee is capable of such flexibility, such a range of experiences – from the satisfying, to the interesting, to the exciting, to the downright weird – that I think it is the most overlooked and underestimated weapon in the arsenal of those of us trying to build consumption of great coffee.  I am not saying it is better than espresso, but I do think a great cup of brewed coffee is less elusive than a great espresso.

Most operators believe espresso is somehow better than brewed coffee, and that brewed coffee is a second class experience that is suitable only for bulk brewing the nasty, weak coffee they serve at events where people aren’t paying for coffee.  Restauranteurs insist on having espresso machines even though the flow of a restaurant and its layout make serving great espresso virtually impossible even if the brewing is impeccable.

So I should wrap this up by saying that in the next year or two the proliferation of great brewed coffee, ideally by the cup, is a big goal for me – both personally and professionally.  If you are reading this and you can help then I really hope you do because I think everybody, from grower to consumer, wins.

  1. Though I should say that my espresso history is far from authoratative!  (back)
  2. Can I just take a moment to have a quick rant about the constant use of the word ‘theatre’ around espresso.  Theatre is entertaining, but there are only so many performances of the same thing that I am prepared to sit through and pay for.  If you have bought a commercial espresso machine mainly because of the theatre then your business may be in for some difficult months ahead.  (back)
  3. That said, a large part of me is enjoying a market with more value focused, quality conscious spenders.  (back)
  4. I am aware that is a childish and snarky dig at their product, but the whole point of this post is about serving great coffee which I don’t think they do.  (back)

43 Comments Brewed coffee and the UK

  1. The Onocoffee

    I wonder if we are falling into the trap that everyone on our side of the bar (in our niche of the industry) seems to fall into. A love of our coffee product that blinds us to everything else.

    You mention that the amount we charge is a pretty hefty promise. Let’s presume for a moment that we offer that level of product quality and charge accordingly, are we living up to the expectation of that price point?

    Starbucks has done extremely well, and while they’ve achieved their position by offering good quality product, is it merely the quality alone that shapes their customers’ experience? I think it’s more than the quality. It’s the interaction of their people with their customers. It’s the environment they create for their customers.

    Visit most “Third Wave” shops and I think we’ll find great coffee but everything else is disappointing – from the environment to the dress to the attitude of the staff. It seems that we’re more interested in vindicating ourselves as being “right” than creating an environment of hospitality for our customers.

    I think back on my restaurant experiences. Is the value in a US$500 per person meal at Thomas Keller’s Per Se (or Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck) merely in the ingredient and product quality? I think not. It’s in the environment, the presentation and (to my mind most importantly) the hospitality. If I really pushed for a well-done steak at Per Se, I think the captains would try to steer me in a different direction but if I pressed, I believe they would accommodate – while lesser establishments are too busy justifying themselves and condescending to their clientele.

    I’m a proponent of fantastic quality. I just wonder if we sometimes lose sight of the potential for hospitality and environment to be critical factors in whether or not we are offering something of value for the prices we charge.

  2. coffeeprince

    Food for thought James,
    Give the markets predisposition to the equitable distribution of their capital. I wonder if we shouldn’t rethink our share?
    Thanyou, look forward to more tweets.

  3. anthony rue

    I’ve long thought that the root of Starbuck’s problems came in their positioning themselves as a luxury brand when they were delivering, at best, a pedestrian product. The moment people realize they’ve been swindled, the backlash is persistent and intransigent. But as a relatively new espresso bar owner (woot! One year this month!), I know that to deliver consistently good espresso I need to invest a significant amount of capital into two different directions– some very expensive equipment that allows for consistency at volume, and (more importantly) training. Of course, the expense has to be amortised in the cost of the drink served, and thus (at least a component of) the high cost/mL ratio. [Side note: we have no problem selling chocolates at a higher cost/weight ratio…] But I’m with Jay on the side of delivering a quality “experience” along with a quality drink, especially where by “experience” I mean creating a service experience that helps to frame the drink experience. Especially when we’re basically talking about staff management and service protocol enforcement that requires a fraction of capital investment. Perhaps I’m the odd-man-out in that I came into coffee very late in the game, but in our shop there was never any question that brewed coffee would be served with the same attention to craft as espresso.

  4. James Hoffmann

    I have felt frustrated for a long time by the lack of interest in giving exceptional service. It seems, sadly, that many people associate giving exceptional service with being subservient, or servile, rather than being incredibly good at your job. When we finally have a retail space I intend to plow extensive resources into getting the level or service up to where I want it to be – and I’d be happy to have as good as reputation for service as we did for the coffee itself.

  5. Hugo

    FWIW… telling big brand chains that carefully brewed, exceptional quality coffee is the way forward is in danger of undermining precisely what we (you) want to achieve.

    They will do what all major chains do if they think it’s a go-er; find the cheapest, shiteist impersonation of the real thing they think they can get away with and sell more of it for a better margin than the rest of us will ever achieve.
    The general public will queue up, fully primed by a comprehensive and convincing marketing campaign and buy a cup of their carefully branded, shoddily brewed shite and walk away underwhelmed and feeling ripped off with their £3 muddy puddle.

    We must stop thinking the high street coffee chains are any different to Macdonalds, Burgerking and the like. They will never do it properly because there isn’t enough profit in it and they’re never catering to discerning cutomers…

    I got out of the wrong side of bed…

  6. dsc

    Hi James,

    £3 for black coffee? dunno if it’s going to fly. Here’s a list of possibly ‘whys’:

    – most ‘ordinary’ people don’t really drink black coffee, that’s why *$ sells loads of milk based buckets

    – “I described the coffee as having strong notes of blackcurrant, cherry and blueberry. For me this makes an obvious promise” sounds good, but again I doubt most people will be able to tell the difference between this and something less expensive. You really think people will be able to find those notes of blackcurrant/blueberry?

    – I’m guessing a cup is usually around 250ml, brewed at 60g/1L you use around 15g of coffee per cup, which means the cost is less than £1 even in case of expensive coffees. Because drip/FP is quite easy to do yourself and you don’t need fancy equipment some people might think ‘heck I can do this myself for a fraction of the cost’

    – I’m not sure people really care about where the coffee comes from or how it got here. Sure some do, but most just want their cup full and don’t want to spend too much. Yeah I hear you ‘we don’t do it for the masses, we want our clients to be aware of what good coffee is and appreciate how good it is’. I’m on board with you, but you might quickly realise that the ‘coffeegeek’ clientèle is too small to sustain your business.

    Just a few thoughts, it might all be rubbish, but remember, just because we geeks care about good coffee doesn’t mean that the rest does. Onocoffee is right about 3rd wave cafes being a bit disappointing, perhaps even a bit posh and arrogant?


  7. anthony rue

    dsc– I run a new shop in a relatively small market, and over the last few weeks I’ve sold at least 7% of the Brazil CoE winner Fazenda Kauquend available through Intelli at an average of $5 per cup. The coffee, even at that price, seems to appeal equally to cops, teachers, university students, and internet geeks– in other words, across all of the demographics that we see at the shop. We’re down in the trenches trying to make this work, and I honestly don’t see any of the problems that you’ve outlined.

  8. James of Manc

    The thing that Howard Schultz absolutely got right was the selling of an experience. The £2 coffee is not therefore so much about the coffee as the half hour experience that you have whilst you’re drinking it. Its entirely different to sell the coffee itself as having inherent worth. So as a coffee lovin community who want the appreciation of the bean to get the love it deserves we have to work harder on the context in which it is sold. When you buy a bag you can go to Primark or you can go to Chanel. . So how do we project the coffee version of the experience that can be had shopping at Chanel (I understand the experience, but I cant afford to shop there!) Heres the opportunity. Its not £2500 for a bag, but its £3 for a cup of say…Tegu AA in a Moka (mmmm) and we MAKE the experience worth the money. Chains cant do that.

  9. James Hoffmann

    I think the level of cynicism that most consumers now have towards the chains advertising messages means that even if they do bite and buy the shoddy cup – as you point out – they’ll walk away ripped off.

    Chains can’t do great brewed coffee, which is why I think it is of such value to those competing with the chains. The main focus of my talk was about rethinking value, and espresso, in the current market. I don’t think the chains are interested in diversifying. I did chat to Darcy about Starbucks rolling out the Clover in the UK, but seeing as the quantity of brewed coffee they sell is such a tiny part of their business (compared to the US) I don’t think it is likely to happen.

    I wanted to post this because I want to start talking about making brewed coffee valuable again.

  10. James Hoffmann

    I am not saying everything you sell should be £3 a cup, I am not suggesting an exclusive business model. I am saying that if you want to get to £3 a cup then brewed coffee is a much better way to do it. For those that value a coffee experience – and as Anthony points out they come from all walks of life – then we should be able to offer it and deliver it. I’d very happily sell approachable, effortlessly enjoyable cups of coffee alongside the expensive stuff because there I times when I too just want chuggable coffee goodness.

    I think we criminally underestimate the public’s demand for great coffee, while at the same time we overestimate the driving forces behind why. I think traceability is important as a retail tool, part of the retail experience of great coffee, but I don’t think it is enough alone to drive people through the doors to drink coffee.

  11. triptogenetica

    James, there’s also a really good example of the trust required, here in your article.

    You were able to stand up, say that this coffee had these particular notes, and name a price. (Since the audience were more interested in coffee than your average, they went up a bit from £3, but no matter).

    The point is, you could say to the customer that this coffee was good, that they would enjoy it – and they could trust you.

    I think you’ve posted about this before – coffee shop owners need to stop and think, “if i had a great coffee, could I say ‘I have a great new coffee, it tastes like this, £2, how about it?’ to my customers – would they believe me?”

    And the poor ~£50-a-litre espresso people have been serving has been the worst insult imaginable, to that trust. Perhaps brewed coffee is the way to restore it.

  12. Edmund

    I think that there are 2 types of coffee drinkers, ones that want their caffeine fix and ones that are after a really tasty coffee. Unfortunately the ones that are after the caffeine don’t worry so much about the quality thats why there are so many shoddy places out there and still in business selling sub standard coffee. If anything these drinkers will put the quality of the milk over the coffee hence the popularity of any milk drink over 12oz.

    Perhaps if coffee didn’t have caffeine in it then the quality of the drinks would go through the roof!

  13. Al

    It’s one of the big disappointments of coffee culture, especially in the UK that it’s hard to get a great cup of brewed coffee.

    Espresso always seems to be the focus and even this is a misnomer since, from casual observation, the majority of espresso is used in lattes and cappucinos. For those of us who are not fussed by milk based drinks and just want to linger over a mug of coffee you are left with Americanos or stewed filter coffee.

    Americanos to me always seem to be a compromise, never quite living up to the range of flavours of say a syphon or manual pour over coffee while losing the sheer intensity of a shot of espresso. If only more brewed coffee via a range of methods was available surely this would extend the interest from the method of preparation to the coffees them selves.

    Even the coffee forums, maybe even especially the european ones, seem to focus on espresso, espresso machines, grinders, technique and problem solving with the occasional recommendation of a good single origin to use in your machine.

    Offering different brewing methods and varieties of coffee IMO makes the coffee the focus rather than the method of preparation.

  14. facelift

    I’m a proponent of fantastic quality. I just wonder if we sometimes lose sight of the potential for hospitality and environment to be critical factors in whether or not we are offering something of value for the prices we charge.

  15. Rich Westerfield

    Couple of interesting anecdotes we’ll share regarding the same Brazil Kaquend CoE that Anthony has at Volta. We LOVE this coffee in the shop. Best we’ve had in the past year. So the whole staff is behind it and can tell a good story to customers. Decent in-store promotion. It’s available as Press, Chemex, Solo, Melitta.

    The first week it was offered we only bought a kilo. That week we only sold a eight cups and had one repeat customer. One.

    We’ve been down this road before with Esmeralda. We didn’t do well with that despite all the publicity that coffee received. We chalked that up to the Esmeralda being so “uncoffee-like” that it was an anomaly.

    Despite our past failures, we decided to double down. Bought another 9.5 lbs. of the Kaquend and put all our marketing wit and energy into getting customers to try the coffee. We used a half pound to do sampling in the shop on a busy morning (brewed on a Solo – it was phenomenal). Served in ceramic demitasse, your first sip had to be black. At first a many customers (latte buyers) were reticent. Didn’t understand what CoE was (couldn’t believe there were auctions for coffee!), didn’t get the descriptors, weren’t interested in trying it black, didn’t want more caffeine than what they already planned on consuming.

    So my wife changes the pitch to, “Would you like to try a sample of some $50/lb coffee?”

    Boom, lines starts forming. People are actually tasting. Comments are good – smooth, not bitter, surprised they could drink it black, identifying some flavor notes, definitely tasty.

    But not worth $50/lb. Typical comment: “This is good, but no coffee is worth that much.”

    We take it to the street. Here’s where it gets surreal. We’ve got a farmer’s market going on outside, we brew up some Kaquend, put it in an airpot, then brew up some Maxwell House Master Blend in another airpot. We take a case of demi cups onto the sidewalk, set up a table and ask passersby to taste both and tell us which is the $50/lb coffee. We gave no explanation. Just that one question. We did this for 30 minutes.

    Most of the tasters were not customers, just regular folks out on the street. We had no idea how this was going to turn out.

    Half the samplers said the Maxwell House was the $50/lb coffee. Here’s why: it was “bolder”, “darker”, “spicier”, “had more depth”, “tasted more like coffee” than the Kaquend.

    There is no chance – none – that that would’ve happened between a $50 bottle of cabernet and a $6 bottle. Even someone who knew nothing about wine would be able to pick out the $50 bottle.

    So if we’re going to grow appreciation for better coffees, it’s going to take more than just our ability to brew or source great coffees. We have to destroy and annihilate existing perceptions.

    I’ll agree with earlier posters that I think quite often we’re talking in an echo chamber with all our brew methods and one-upsmanship. We talk about how stupid customers are who order drinks that don’t meet our standards. We push expensive coffees when our servers look like they haven’t showered in a week and got dressed in a Goodwill bin (guilty!). But there’s simply not much talk or action on what the average shop could/should be doing to change the way people perceive coffee.

    Certainly there are shops that self-define their clientele through menu, price, methodology. Caffe d’Bolla, 3Cups, Elysian and others come to mind. And that’s certainly one way to deal with the public. However, we’re more interested in the 99.5% that currently don’t see coffee as anything but a daily wake up ritual. The ones with a 2-hour old Mr. Coffee urn burning on the plate. How do you begin to get them to listen? Those people are convinced what they’re drinking now is perfectly fine.

    I’d bet those same people can discern the difference between a porterhouse and a cube steak, a bottle of Chateau Montalena and Hardy’s in a box, a Sam Adams and a Coors Light. And they know why each of the former is better than each of the latter, even if they don’t consume those items daily.

    They simply don’t know (and don’t care) why such-and-such coffee is better even when it’s right in front of them.

    If you can change the minds of 5% of those people, imagine what it would do for business, not just at the cafe level, but at the farms.

  16. dsc

    Hi guys,

    good post Rich!

    That was just the thing I was talking about earlier, most people simply won’t care. Sure some of them might taste the difference, but most will not, which means it can be risky selling expensive (good) coffee. It’s funny how people see something bitter, dark and ‘heavy’ as coffee-like, yet can’t really understand when you say that coffee can taste like apricots or raspberries. Dunno if you can change that though, remember it’s how they’ve been looking at coffee for quite a while (20-30 years?) and it’s hard to fight it.

    Regarding these comments:

    “Even someone who knew nothing about wine would be able to pick out the $50 bottle.”

    “We have to destroy and annihilate existing perceptions.”

    “They simply don’t know (and don’t care) why such-and-such coffee is better even when it’s right in front of them.”

    Well I guess it’s all about taste and something I’d call taste-memory? 50% people said that Maxwell was the expensive coffee because they liked it better. Yeah I know it’s hard to believe, but that’s how it is and it is hard to change their mind. This is one of the reasons I think it would be quite hard to sell a £3 cup of black coffee, even if it’s something great. Heck even I think paying £2.50 for a cup of drip is not too little, but I usually change my mind after the first sip.


  17. luca

    First of all, Rich, that story is just tragic.

    James, I like where you are heading, but one issue that needs to be addressed is lying. I am in love with the word “lying”, which my friend Nim so aptly used to describe one of the big problems with coffee at the moment. Let’s call a spade a spade.

    Lying takes place at all levels of the supply chain and it hinders the development of the market that you want to cultivate. You know as well as I do that the instant some trend setter starts selling great brewed single origin coffee, carefully cupped, selected, roasted, packed, stored, shipped and brewed to present a fantastic cup, we get rent seeking behaviour. Roasters and retailers jump on the bandwagon and assault the consumer with a bunch of false promises. They might know that they are wrong, or they might not. Ethically, I’m not sure which is the worse way to show complete and utter contempt for the customer. In the former instance, it’s clear and cynical exploitation. In the latter instance, it’s shirking the responsibility of any professional to actually know what they’re talking about. For every shop selling “Brazil Fazenda Kaquend” or “Ethiopian Aricha Selection 14”, there are ten out there marketing poor quality “Brazil Santos” and “Ethiopian Djimma” as a premium product. For every barista behind a multi-boiler machine taking the care to dial in the temperature, there are a few out there waxing lyrical about how superior that machine is and serving their customer burnt shots. At the moment, there are so few people out there in my local market doing brewed coffee that it’s not worthwhile speaking of, but as sure as eggs are eggs, for every carefully prepared and delicious cup of brewed coffee that is sold, there will be a larger number of cups of dishwater (and any bet they will be described to the customer as having an impossible cornucopia of different flavours, probably copied from whatever description google spits out with first, rather than being an honest description of what the retailer is actually tasting).

    The good news here is that, slowly but surely, everyone in the specialty coffee industry is getting better at their job. It’s heartening to see that the places that do a better job tend to have higher patronage, though when they drop the ball, few customers seem to pick it up. Nonetheless, there will always be people who don’t put in the effort to do a good job, engaging in rent seeking behaviour at the expense of the businesses that deliver the highest quality product and to the detriment of the consumer to whom they direct their lies. I’m sure that at least some of their customers will lose patience for the whole specialty coffee thing after a few cups of dishwater that fail to deliver the notes of “mandarin,” “orchid” and “ambrosia” promised.

    This is a big issue, and I’m not sure exactly what can be done about it. I do think that there is some hope, though. Whilst Rich’s people off the street might not get it, time and time again I have seen people who are interested in specialty coffee, but not obsessed by it, pick up their spoons at their first cupping and pick out the same coffees that the pros do. So I’m certainly not suggesting that everyone just gives up in futility.

    For now, though, there are a lot of people running coffee businesses that read this blog and perhaps that’s a good place to start. If you’re reading this post and you sell coffee, do one thing for all of us – taste your own coffee and make sure that the information that you present to your customer matches what is in your cup.

    Like Gwilym said “If we’re going to sell speciality coffee, can it actually BE speciality coffee?”



  18. John Piquet


    You are right on point with your thoughts. It really comes down to appreciating the product we are working with, and bringing that to the customer. The value can best be realized by attention to both craft and service. I agree wholeheartedly that brewed coffee should be served by the cup. This is what we have done since opening nearly five years ago.
    Nowadays, there are so many wonderful coffees available, and with CoE and Best of selections, the potential flavor nuances and subtleties are amazing. It both pains me and baffles me as to why anyone using or sourcing coffees of this nature would serve it in any manner other than by the cup. In order for us to effectively communicate the specialty of the coffee we need to be more concerned about serving something that will make customers step back and take notice… even before they drink. Too many owners are concerned about losing a section of customers and continue to offer the bulk, automated, drip style coffee…. even with some wonderful coffees. As I said before, the coffee available is amazing, and should be priced accordingly, and for the customer to get value for their money, it needs to be treated as a high end beverage.
    Make it by the cup. Serve it black. Encourage everyone to stay and enjoy it in ceramic… or just don’t serve anything to go. Treating the coffee special will directly lead to treating the customer special, and that is when they will feel they should be paying more.

  19. Free Credit Card Reports

    First of all, I am really impressed on Jim’s way of delivering this speech/post in his blog. I almost consumed 1 hour of my day just reading this post and the comments all people are writing or saying about Jims blog post. And I am fascinated how you people really debated or lets say clearing things out about our coffee.

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    coffee is not just a drink, but its a part of our daily needs if you got a best cup of coffee in morning you will be happy all day. If you don’t have all day you will be unhappy.

  21. anthony rue

    Rich, it is really disheartening to read about your experiences with the Kaquend. Getting back to the original drift of this post, though, I do have a few questions (and please take these not as hostile, but rather as someone who is working very hard to understand a wide set of changing dynamics…). How is the rest of your brewed coffee program structured? Do you brew all of your coffee by the cup? Do you offer a house blend or some other sort of reduced-rate “standard” brew? I certainly don’t think that these things are intrinsically bad, but I think that anyone would be at a disadvantage in building an audience for “reserve” coffees if/when you still offer a commodity product (even if that commodity is carefully brewed and higher quality than elsewhere). Just as a shop would get hammered if they had previously offered 20 ounce lattes and then made the cut to only offer 12 ounces, I really believe that more places are going to have to take the leap, face the backlash, and cut cheap brewed coffee from the menu to better build an appreciation for reserve coffees.

    A friend opened a new beer bar down the street from my shop. He’s searching far and wide to offer amazing beers, lambics, and ales. He’s not going for a “thousand beers of the world” shop, but rather offering a carefully curated selection of beers that he considers to best represent different brewing styles. In a college town where cheap beer is the norm, he made the decision to not carry any commodity domestic or “familiar” imports. I’ve heard plenty of other bar owners in town make the case that you have to offer $1 Bud to make money from a college crowd, but my friend is killing it with an average bottle cost between $6 and $15. There’s a lot going on there that I think I can learn from– from building a reputation as a curator of taste to holding the line on quality. In the end, I think it shows that you can frame your customer experience to compete on quality instead of price and find significant success.

  22. Rich Westerfield

    I understand and appreciate your points. Without getting into a lot of detail, if we were starting a cafe now, we would do cup-only brewing and we’d do in a much smaller space (and do it downtown, not in the ‘burbs). But we’ve been doing this for five years. It’s a big space. More than just coffee. Staff of nine that we’d prefer not to add to (two can hold down a weekday morning rush in current setup – doing only hand-brew would take three, negating any potential profits).

    We know the argument that folks like you and John P. favor and we’ve analyzed our options thoroughly. We even had a well-publicized Clover demo way back when (where your bud Luke was introduced to it). Went over like a lead balloon with customers – even some with pretty good palates.

    So this shop will remain a hybrid until we decide to move on. We are looking at other more urban locations where we could be purely coffee-focused with a model heretofore unseen in this city.

    Fwiw, our current prices are already the highest in town for coffee not brewed on a Clover. There is price separation between the SOs and the house coffees. Our Chemexes are priced higher than yours.

    Also, we didn’t get into this just for the coffee presentation. We serve Direct Trade coffees because we believe in that model for reasons beyond just flavor. Been that way since day one. We have a lot of great coffee conversations. Maybe not as many as we’d like, but enough to get off a few times daily. And we have fun.

    But you’re missing the bigger point that I was trying to make. When presented with a cup of CoE and a cup of Maxwell House, if half the people think the Maxwell House is the expensive coffee because it’s “bolder”, that’s got nothing to do with our shop or how we brew coffee. That’s just average people saying what they prefer in a non-judgemental, non-pressure situation. And an indicator of how much work there is yet to be done by the entire specialty coffee market to overcome the legacy of substandard coffee (and as someone mentioned, “taste memory”) – if they care to take it on. But to do that would mean taking off the gloves. The SCAA isn’t going there. Who will?

  23. Steve

    When presented with a cup of CoE and a cup of Maxwell House, if half the people think the Maxwell House is the expensive coffee because it’s “bolder”, that’s got nothing to do with our shop or how we brew coffee.

    I need to get back to this in more detail after lunch, but there’s been a great debate with Starbucks over in the US, and their offering of pike place roast. They claim it’s a smoother, nicer cup of coffee – brewed customers want the bolder options. To me that shows a lack of connection between the customers and the providers in terms of what the customers want and what the retailers think they should want.

  24. anthony rue

    Rich, I do appreciate your situation. I certainly hope that I’m not being read as evangelizing for any one way of running a shop; I’m still trying to figure this all out and don’t profess to have the answers for anyone else. That said, I do believe that context is everything. The point I was trying to make is that if you want to focus on by-the-cup brewing of reserve/CoE/microlot/in-season/whatever coffees, it would be much easier starting from scratch than trying to change an existing business model. As for the maxwell house problem, (especially among inexperienced cuppers) outlying coffees do stand out on the cupping table. In our public cuppings, I’ll often throw in some baggy, stale, defect-ridden coffee that I’d roasted up on my home roaster against the quality stuff. Without fail, a large number of first-time cuppers will go for the bad stuff– if only because it doesn’t taste like anything else on the table, and people _think_ that they are supposed to like the most-different coffee. And there’s the trap. Once you put the Kaquend against the maxwell house, and someone picks the palette-smacking maxwell house over the nuance of a CoE coffee, you’ll not only never get that person to pay the fair price for the Kaquend, you’ve created a counter-marketing force that will surely spread the word amongst friends that _they_ preferred the cheap supermarket stuff. There’s not enough of a pay-out to take that bet: the result of the comparison is either going to be “of course I can prefer the $50 a pound coffee” or “I like the cheap stuff,” neither of which really builds your customer appreciation of the better coffee.

  25. Rich Westerfield

    Not trying to take over Jim’s blog here, but as long as we’re going down this rabbit hole…

    All fair points on the last comment, especially on the head-to-head with no context. To explain more thoroughly, in our little half-hour street test we didn’t tell people we didn’t know which was the premium cup, we only asked them to try each cup, then vote and then tell us their reasons for why they thought X cup was the $50. In that regard it wasn’t counter-marketing. It was having conversations about coffee – which we found enlightening. (And it’s a devious way to get a lot of complete strangers to drink black coffee!)

    But this is a great conversation to have on a number of levels, from education to shop layout to promotion.

    We’ve also put dreck out at cuppings/tastings but they never get picked. I think that’s because in a cupping/tasting context we’re asking to describe tastes (and some of the faces when they get the dreck are priceless!), so once they’re confronted with rubber or caustic tastes, they seem to get the point that those tastes aren’t desirable.

    But in the bigger picture, there does seem to be a disconnect between what’s perceived as quality (or comforting/acceptable/enjoyable) by the general public and what many of us here and on other forums are trying to promote. I guess what we’re wondering on our end is whether there is – as in the case of wine/beer – an opportunity to truly have product/quality differentiation understood en masse. And what steps need to be taken to get that understood.

    The one element of the wine analogy that we really do think is applicable is that some sort of heirarchy is somewhat understood by John/Jane Q. Public. You don’t hear, “It’s just wine,” or “It’s just beer.” No such understanding exists with coffee, although you might hear Colombia because of Juan Valdez. But that’s about as much thought goes into coffee for the average person.

    We don’t have a “Coffee Aficianado/Spectator” magazine. Coffee isn’t a headline on any of the foodie magazine covers like wine or beer. Instead, we get ad campaigns suggesting that a Senseo or Nespresso can produce something equal to your favorite coffeehouse. We constantly see articles and spots like Dan Humphries’ recent Today Show appearance that focus on fresh beans and grinding it yourself. And that’s true, but what beans should you buy and why are they better?

    Why not go for the throat in some of this PR? Does your coffee taste like rubber? Do you HAVE to put milk in it to bear the taste? Do you actually enjoy that cup beyond the caffeine? If these are true, your coffee sucks, Kathy Lee. You wouldn’t serve a jug wine at a dinner party, but you’re ok serving the jug coffee equivalent? (And that’s no offense to Dan who did a fantastic job staying on point given the situation).

    Add to that some other recent experiences and an overall complaint about what I can only suggest is “elitism” in our own little slice of the industry. One of the more obvious elements is the crowd that sees unique tastes such as those developed in dry process or wild coffees as defects that need to be removed. We don’t agree with that across the board – it smacks of dogma. This past year we had a Nayarit DP that was just astounding in both right and wrong ways. A difficult coffee with which to achieve consistency, but what a great array of tastes to experience. Many 3W roasters wouldn’t touch this stuff with a 10 foot pole. But we sold out of it continually – even as we told customers we weren’t entirely sure what they were going to get (and it was direct trade). In some ways that experience reminded us of our love for Conundrum wine, which is rarely the same lot to lot or even bottle to bottle, but is always enjoyable to us, just for the pleasure of searching for what’s in “this” glass, but isn’t universally acclaimed (and is sometimes derided) by wine critics.

    Finally, I’m compelled to note that as a “hybrid” shop we do all right. We can move anything under $20/lb ($16/12oz) if the taste is there and staff is fully behind the coffee. There does seem to be a ceiling above that price point, and that’s OK in our situation.

    P.S. There is some component of personal taste involved. I’m an IPA guy. I wouldn’t buy lambics from your friend because I usually don’t enjoy them (especially at the price). But, I’ve tried them (and paid for them) enough to know it’s not my pint of choice. We believe one big part of our challenge is simply getting people to try different coffees without fear of judgment. It’s a journey, not a single stop. We don’t see a lot of that.

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    The £2 coffee is not therefore so much about the coffee as the half hour experience that you have whilst you’re drinking it. Its entirely different to sell the coffee itself as having inherent worth. So as a coffee lovin community who want the appreciation of the bean to get the love it deserves we have to work harder on the context in which it is sold.

  27. anthony rue

    Interesting that the Guardian just started a series about How to Drink Tea that has ignited a comments flame fest on par with any discussion of coffee. Hundreds of years of tea drinking culture in the UK, and it seems like anything better than PG Tips is nothing but pretension. (Of course the tone of the article doesn’t help, starting with an average blending-grade tea from Cornwall priced/marketed like Jamaica Blue Mountain.)

  28. Chris Deferio

    Great post James.
    I am giving a talk at Coffee Fest Vegas on the subject of loyalty through excellence and a lot of the same ideas being expressed in this thread are mentioned.

    On the subject of how the average person perceives coffee…
    are we not over burdening the customer with farm info, machine info, etc…in a backdoor attempt to validate our geekiness? Shouldn’t this shop talk culture we have be kept mostly to ourselves?

    When Julia Child saved us all from terrible food…she did it not by burdening the audience with pedigree of the cheese, flour, and wine…but by appealing to the tests already in place in the mind of the viewer…it’s easy, it tastes good, it’s french! …in fact she always said, “if I can do it so can you…”
    What is it that made people open to learning?…PERSONALITY!…then product. They loved Julia and thus they loved French food…if Julia was a sour angry, angst filled, so-and -so…peoples opinion of French food would not have been so great.
    If your best friend was way into art…even if you never had an inclination before your friendship towards art, because he is your friend, you make an effort and may even become savvy in the process.
    Now if your friend endlessly harped on you all day about art and how he loved it and you should too and what paint brush was the best and coped an attitude cause you can’t tell the difference between Bob Ross’ happy trees and Van Gogh’s Stary Night etc…you may find yourself resenting both art and your friend and pushing away.
    Who cares if you have a Clover, or a re-built GS2, Aurellia WBC, dedicated boilers, with COE coffee picked by angels and roasted by the flame of the Olympic torch?
    Only those who have learned to care about you…they will appreciate it because it is important to you…
    and that only happens when you first learn to care about THEM.

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  33. Colin Loh

    Hi James,

    This post and its subsequent comments have to be one of the most interesting discussions on coffee I’ve read this year. A pre-requisite read to this article would be “Trust.”

    “How the coffee industry lost the public’s trust, and how good coffee can win it back again”

    I hail from Singapore, and in these parts, the majority of the public drink hainanese coffee, which is served in almost every corner, in quite a few ways, eg. with Carnation (brand) milk, with sugar, less sugar, no sugar, condensed milk, black, stronger, etc. And how is this coffee roasted? It’s roasted, no, it’s charred to the darkest, well beyond the darkest french roast, (extremely carcinogenic) with butter/margarine, sugar and sometimes maize or barley added into the mix. The reason for these additives we were told being that the butter/margarine lends to its buttery fragrance, and the sugar its sweetness. [LIE]

    The real reason (I got it from a source whose family was one of the pioneers in the Singapore coffee trade) is: The additives stretch the weight of coffee, and as they are all much cheaper than coffee, it means more money. The beans are roasted to charcoal because they were lousy greens to begin with. The butter/margarine simulates the coffee oils, while the sugar lends to the Malliard Reaction the coffee would have given if properly roasted. While home roasters have learnt that coffee loses weight during roasting, Singapore coffee actually gets a lot heavier after being roasted.

    Unfortunately, the public doesn’t know squat and Hainanese coffee continues to be the number one coffee drunk in Singapore. And I know if I were to conduct Rick Westerfield’s taste test with good freshly roasted specialty coffee and Hainanese coffee, Hainanese coffee will still win hands down.

    In summary, over here, it would be “How the coffee industry swindled the public, and how good coffee won’t even matter much.”

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    Visit most “Third Wave” shops and I think we’ll find great coffee but everything else is disappointing – from the environment to the dress to the attitude of the staff. It seems that we’re more interested in vindicating ourselves as being “right” than creating an environment of hospitality for our customers

  35. Coffee Brew

    I have always loved brewed coffee over the espresso. I loved this post very much. Thanks for making my opinion strong. Love your blog by all means. Cheers…over Coffee!

  36. Kurt

    On a recent flyfishing trip to the Indian Club on the Little Manistee River here in Michigan I enjoyed a cup of coffee brewed on a Mr. Coffee by my fishing partner in the cabin that was silky smooth, had a creamy, elegant mouthfeel with grapefruit like acidity and a nutty finish. Turned out to be Folgers Colombian. This coffee was better than many of my peers and frankly, better then some of my shaggier roasts. Was it the water, the brew, the stars or can canned coffee be pretty good at times? Or, are these guys getting really really good coffee? I like to think our industry is better than the big boys but maybe we’re just a bunch of self-absorbed, out-of-touch narcissists.

  37. RichW

    “I like to think our industry is better than the big boys but maybe we’re just a bunch of self-absorbed, out-of-touch narcissists.”

    There are some of those to be sure, but they take great pains to announce themselves as such.

    As noted in other threads, we do street tastings between coffees we like/offer and supermarket offerings. We did Folgers regular a couple of weeks ago. Undrinkable to me (really, had to spit it out), but to many older folks it was the preferred brew. That said, we did one with Maxwell House Master Blend that I could drink black and that actually had detectable appealing flavor notes other than burnt tire and plastic. So it could well be that they’re getting better with their non-generic offerings.

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