When Speciality Stops Being Special

When Speciality Stops Being Special

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.