Coffee Cup Design Series explores the specialty coffee brands with unique designs that stand out and fire the imagination. This week, we spoke to Caffe Sospeso about how they use their packaging to bring customers closer to origin.
Think of a coffee origin and chances are Alberto Song has been to it. Colombia, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Madagascar – the list goes on.
This is because Caffe Sospeso’s founder is not only a self-confessed “coffee geek”, but also a fervent believer in direct trade. For him, finding the world’s best coffees and putting them in front of a Mexican audience is about forming relationships with the farmers who grew them.
Above all, it means he can experience what goes into producing these coffees first hand, before passing this knowledge onto his customers. This, he says, is the only way to convince people that spending $6 rather than $2 on a cup of coffee is worth it.
“The big issue in Mexico is that people don’t want to pay for a good cup of coffee,” he tells me. “It’s really expensive to import a Kenyan or Ethiopian coffee. But customers have their habits and they are difficult to change.”
Caffe Sospeso was launched in Tijuana in 1999, around the same time that the specialty coffee movement was really taking off.
It is named after the Neapolitan tradition of paying for two coffees but only receiving and consuming one – known as a sospeso or “suspended coffee”.
At first, Caffe Sospeso catered to a range of tastes, allowing customers to order drinks with the addition of syrups and milk. But after becoming a certified Q grader, Alberto decided to ditch anything that would affect the inherent characteristics of his coffees – much to the disdain of his customer base.
“It was very difficult because I pretty much lost all of my customers,” he says. “I used to do dark and medium roasts, and I changed to light roast which a lot of customers didn’t like. A lot of people like to have sugar and milk, but I don’t offer that. People got angry that I wasn’t offering it. It was one of the main problems.
“It took me probably 10 years before I saw profits again. It had a big impact on my life in general. In all honesty, I didn’t expect people to react like that.”
However, since 2017, business has picked up as consumers in Mexico take an increasing interest in the specialty coffee scene.
Bringing customers closer to origin
A significant part of converting consumers to specialty coffee and its higher market prices is through education.
A customer who initially baulks at a coffee priced three times more than they are used to will usually come round to the idea once the barista explains precisely why it costs more.
It’s with this mentality that Caffe Sospeso has designed its bags, which include a whole host of information, from processing techniques to altitude and variety.
“I try to use the space on the bags to showcase as much information as possible,” Alberto says. “We include a diagram about how it is roasted and a graph that starts from the day the coffee was roasted until day 45. This is to show how the coffee ages and at what point it reaches peak freshness, so that the customer has the best experience.”
As someone who values direct trade, Alberto says it’s also important to make the coffee traceable. He does this by adding details about the farmer and how he has sourced the coffee. However, he says it’s not easy to convey everything.
“The first time I went to Ethiopia, I had to rent a car with a driver because nobody speaks English. It’s a different world out there, but it can be tough to get this across to customers with packaging alone.”
That said, Caffe Sospeso attempts to bring consumers closer to origin through not only written information, but attractive visual design.
For example, their Panamanian coffees are sold in bags featuring a red and green macaw, a bird native to Panama. Similarly, their coffees from Chiapas, a region in Mexico famous for its spectacular Mayan ruins, are packaged in bags featuring a traditional Mayan mask.
“When people understand more about the origin, it can help them connect with the coffee,” Alberto says.
Showcasing truly special coffee
One of the first things that strike you when looking at Caffe Sospeso’s bags of coffee is the bright colours.
While many specialty coffee brands opt for a more minimalist approach – often little more than a kraft paper bag with a white label – Caffe Sospeso has gone in the opposite direction: their labels are bursting with colour and the sides of the bags are a deep shade of orange.
As a result, their packaging naturally stands out on the shelf, no matter which way you look at it. This effect is only heightened by the front and back of the bags, which are black.
As well as reinforcing the colours, Alberto tells me he chose black for its premium feel. “I went with black because of its elegance,” he says. “For this reason, it’s also my favourite colour.”
The Caffe Sospeso logo tops it all off. A simple yet distinctive “S” in gold, the logo seems, at first glance, to represent the steam rising from a cup of coffee. However, Alberto explains that it has more than one meaning.
“The ‘S’ is like a crown,” he says. “The crown is because I’m sourcing the best coffee from around the world. This way, people know that the coffee is special. Truly special.”
Did you enjoy this edition of The Coffee Bag Design Series? Next week, we’ll be speaking to Process, Irish coffee roasters who use nostalgia to invoke an emotional response in their customers.