Is the specialty coffee market accessible?

Kahwei Yoong
January 7, 2022
barista serving specialty coffee

Since the 1990s, accusations of snobbery, elitism, and pretentiousness have plagued the specialty coffee market.

Many have considered its abundance of gadgets, buzzwords, and flavour descriptors to be barriers to entry, acting as a clear divide between those “in the know” and everyone else.

This perception has only been furthered by reports of “rude baristas” in specialty coffee shops, who have been accused of being disinterested in “regular coffee consumers”.

However, in recent years, these perceptions have started to change. A number of roasters, baristas, and café owners have gone to great lengths to break down these barriers and make specialty coffee accessible to all.

To understand more about how the specialty coffee market is becoming more accessible, I spoke with three-time South African Barista champion and Starbucks operations lead, Ishan Natalie.

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specialty coffee chemex pour over

What is specialty coffee?

Over the years, the coffee industry has significantly evolved. It has undergone what are known as “waves”: significant changes in global coffee culture and consumption behaviour.

In the first wave, coffee was considered a commodity, with consumption driven predominantly by convenience and accessibility. Mass consumer products, such as instant coffee, were widely available for people who wanted a “quick caffeine fix”.

Some decades later, large coffee chains emerged and café culture became an important part of peoples’ lives. Brands such as Starbucks played an important role in this second wave, positioning themselves as crucial to the idea of a “third place”. 

Around the 1990s, a third wave emerged, which is characterised by a greater culinary appreciation for coffee and all that it entails. Not only does this include roasting and brewing, but also the provenance of the coffee and the people behind it.

During this time, the term “specialty coffee” was used more regularly and, today, “third wave” and “specialty” are virtually synonymous.

In an attempt to create a universal definition, the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) declared that coffee which received a cupping score of 80 points or more on the SCA 100-point grading system could be considered specialty.

“There are many definitions for specialty coffee,” says Ishan, who has worked in the sector for more than 20 years.

“For me, specialty coffee is generally what I’d consider to be ‘quality coffee’. In other words, the top 5% of coffee in the world that maintains a certain grading system and degree of quality.”

filter coffee

What’s stopping the industry from becoming more accessible?

While the coffee industry has gone through several waves into one that focuses on quality and traceability of the supply chain, ironically, it has also become less accessible to regular coffee consumers.

Owing to the long history of coffee consumption, a vast number of coffee-drinking experiences have been shaped by instant and commercial coffee. To many people, dark, bitter and strong are known and expected tastes of coffee.

In contrast, a cup of single origin filter coffee that is acidic and floral may be an unfamiliar concept. Psychological factors such as familiarity bias and a fear of the unknown might  discourage consumers from seeking new experiences from the specialty coffee market.

Consequently, the knowledge and information gap widens, creating a further disconnect between what coffee is and what it means to consumers.

Often, drinking coffee is viewed as a functional rather than a pleasurable experience. In many instances, coffee is served to complement food. As a result, the sensory experience and essence of coffee are diminished.

“Specialty coffee doesn’t play a [huge] role in places that serve quite a lot of food. Specialty coffee unfortunately works best where coffee is the hero of the business, which is very rare and limited,” Ishan explains. 

At the same time, the way people work in the specialty coffee industry may also be a hindrance to achieving accessibility. He reflects, “The more a barista or roaster focuses on specialty coffee, I notice, there is a high level of over-confidence that their coffee is better [than others].”

“It’s almost like they talk down to customers or to other coffee professionals, and that, to me, makes specialty coffee unapproachable.”

Ishan also points out that pricing is another potential reason for inaccessibility. Pricing is a complex matter because on one hand, high prices signal quality, yet on the other hand, it lowers affordability thus impeding accessibility.

“[Quality] coffee deserves to be more expensive from a selling point but affordability is a major factor. It’s about how consumers are willing to spend that money or whether they can afford to spend that money.”

Further, an article by the SCA suggests, “preparation required by coffee before enjoyment is fraught with human inconsistency.”

In particular, brewing a cup of specialty coffee requires a level of precision in controlling a range of parameters (e.g. grind size, temperature). Inevitably, this also makes specialty coffee less accessible to a regular consumer.

recyclable coffee bags

Making specialty coffee available to all

Education is one of the most important aspects in promoting accessibility in the specialty coffee sector.

“It is educating customers that coffee is a flavoursome beverage with different aromatics, flavour nuances, and sensory experiences” Ishan explains. “Basically, removing the misconception that coffee is just a caffeinated beverage.”

To effectively communicate this message, he explains that specialty coffee roasters and baristas must be available to “bring consumers into the world of coffee sensory experience.”

For example, setting up a tasting flight for consumers can help them understand the differences between commercial and specialty coffee and experience the flavour nuances of specialty coffee.

“You’ll find that you generate more accessibility in terms of openness to learn from customers and the appreciation behind it, which makes them come back time and time again for specialty coffee,” Ishan says.

“Customers want that uniqueness – but if you don’t give them the chance to taste the difference, you won’t have the opportunity to convert them into the highest specialty range.”

It is important, therefore, for baristas to share their knowledge in a way that doesn’t overwhelm consumers. Essentially, it comes down to knowing your consumers and their level of experience with specialty coffee.

Agnieszka Rojewska, World Barista Champion 2018, did exactly that in her championship routine when she adjusted her style of service and approach based on the background of her audience.

Sometimes, cafés may practice a no tolerance policy over sugar, cream, or flavouring to demonstrate their commitment towards specialty coffee. However, this carries a risk of being labelled a “coffee snob”, which may turn consumers away.

Oddly Correct Coffee Bar had relaxed their policy against milk and cream to pursue inclusivity.

In an interview with BBC, the co-owner said, “We realised we had to move our fences out a little bit to guide people into that [coffee] experience.

“We’ve learned how to refine our language and our approach in ways that are still welcoming and accommodating, but not yielding to every single request.”

Further, specialty coffee roasters can also think of creative ways to promote accessibility. For example, UK-based roaster, Roastworks managed to find a sweet spot in the coffee pod market, thereby boosting ease of consumption and affordability for high-quality specialty coffee. 

sustainable coffee bag

For the specialty coffee market to become more accessible, it is a matter of educating and providing the much-needed guidance to lead consumers to what specialty coffee has to offer.

At the same time, it is important to reflect on how business practices and services can be more inclusive so that a specialty coffee culture that is open and accepting exists for everyone.

At MTPak, we offer a range of sustainable coffee bags for specialty coffee roasters. Made from environmentally-friendly materials like kraft paper, rice paper or PLA, our coffee bags are recyclable, compostable and biodegradable.

Fully customisable from the type of coffee pouch to design, we can help you find the best packaging that is appealing yet humble and approachable for your customers.

For information on our sustainable coffee bags, contact our team.

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