Coffee's S.O.S. (Single Origin Scare)

A recent Jay Rayner article stirred me up a bit recently. Nothing surprising or even weird, just another article having a poke at speciality coffee. Now, I don’t think that speciality coffee is uniquely persecuted... but it is my field, and I’ll defend it’s validity.

To sum up the article; Jay Rayner tastes some speciality espresso at some renowned places (Workshop, Kaffeine, Square Mile, etc…) and finds them sour. He hears the reasons we roast and brew the way we do from some industry big wigs and still is left wondering why we should purposely brew coffee the way we do.

I don’t hate the article. He’s spent some time with the right people and just doesn’t like our take on coffee. Just the fact that he’s researched this a bit puts him head and shoulders above most pieces of writing that lampoon the speciality industry.

For me, the crux of the article lies here:

    He serves me a cup of something from Ethiopia. He talks about the "bergamot qualities" and it does indeed taste a bit like Earl Grey tea. I mutter that if I wanted something that tasted like Earl Grey tea, I'd probably just have a cup of Earl Grey tea. He acknowledges the point, but says he wants me to understand how complex the flavour of coffee can be. “Coffee can taste a whole heap of ways. People expect it to be a bitter, woody thing that needs milk and sugar to make it palatable.”

What kills me is this: Earl Grey tea is literally flavoured tea. This Ethiopian coffee is a single ingredient that at least equals that complexity. Furthermore, it’s coffee, something that very few people would have associated with floral notes ten years ago. As a food professional, I think it’s slightly irresponsible for Jay Rayner not to recognize the significance of this. Even if he doesn’t love it, it’s at least interesting that coffee has this type of flavor. Let’s zoom in...

I mutter that if I wanted something that tasted like Earl Grey tea, I'd probably just have a cup of Earl Grey tea.

This is it. This is the complaint against the industry. The coffee he’s given doesn't meet expectation. If he wanted a different flavor, he would have had something different. He expected a generic coffee flavour and got something more floral and nuanced. And while it’s worrying that a food critic is unable to change his expectations even while being informed as to what he might expect… there is a wider point here. The article continues.

The big change recently, the huge change, is the one Salavatore Malatesta pointed to: the favouring of a much lighter roast, to bring out the fruitiness of the bean. "If you're used to a darker-roast coffee, then ours is a different drink and you will be disappointed." You don't say. I've spent the past couple of years being constantly disappointed.

A great point, actually. We need to manage customer expectation. Terms like, “Better” are loaded with expectation. I hear so often that speciality coffee is like coffee, but better. That’s like saying wine is like grape juice, but better. I remember my first experiences with wine. It wasn’t like juice at all, it was bitter and sharp and rough. Now I call those things complex, piquant, and tannic. If you had handed me a glass of wine and told be it was grape juice I would have freaked the hell out. Doesn’t matter that wine is so much more exciting, or complex, or interesting… it’s not grape juice. It’s sour, our food critic friend might say. At least compared to grape juice.

I think our industry suffers from trying to replace the coffee that people know and love. People who enjoy that cultural experience may not look fondly on someone who is trying to replace it. Speciality coffee won’t replace commodity coffee. We should stop pretending it will. We should stop pretending it should.

We’re threatening a customer base that isn’t our own and we feel surprised when they lash back out at us. We say, “try it you’ll, like it”, or “you’ve had coffee before, just not good coffee”. It’s the absolute height of arrogance, no matter how nicely you put it. You’re telling people what’s good and what’s bad. Worse, we often just sell our drinks without any explanation at all. Masquerading as commodity coffee, serving wine instead of grape juice with no warning at all. Customers see these changes and don’t realize that commodity coffee isn’t going anywhere. We don’t do anything to reassure them, we just tell them things are getting better… but they don’t like what’s on the horizon.

What’s the alternative? Clarity and honesty. Our goals are different than commodity coffee. We are exploring the wide spectrum of coffee’s potential. For us that means roasting lighter to highlight the differences between different coffees. If you want the dark roasted blend that you’ve come to know and love… we don’t have that. We do have something that we like and find interesting, and we’re happy to share it. Some people don’t want to explore coffee, they like the coffee that’s established. That's not wrong, or even unusual... it's a preference.

Sometimes I feel like we’re trying to sell sushi to someone who ordered fish and chips. We’re never going to replace all of coffee with specialty coffee. Even if we did, there would still be a grading system and there would still be a top 20% that some of us would be most excited to serve. Speciality coffee isn’t going anywhere, but we’ll receive more backlash the more we try to arrogantly “fix” everyone’s cup of joe. Let’s just do what we do best: brew exciting coffees from exciting places. If that idea excites people, they’ll buy from us. If that idea doesn't excite certain people, don’t make them drink our coffee… that’s how we get a bad press.

Jason Gonzalez