Story Coffees

Sometimes the smallest things set your brain off thinking down a particular track.  For me it was the last post on the Sweet Marias blog, which got me thinking about the rise of what I call Story Coffees over the last few years.

From the outset I will make it clear that I love to know as much about a coffee as possible, and particular enjoy coffees that have an interesting tale.  Serving single estate in competition was part of this.  I think we enjoy telling the story because it not only demonstrates the traceability but also allows us to feel a little more rooted and connected to a greater part of the coffee chain.

However this threw up a few questions that I thought I’d ask, and I’d like to make it very clear from the start that these are not accusatory.

Is the quality of story becoming another points box on a cupping form?  Will a great human story push a coffee a couple of points below where you’d like it to be over the top.  What weight should the story get when buying?  I will admit that in the past I had shied away from coffees, when building a competition blend, that I couldn’t really talk that much about – but that was tempered  by having a large number of excellent and interesting coffees to choose from.

For consumers – how important is it that a coffee has a story?  Would you be put off a generic and untraceable lot, even if there were assurances the coffee was great?  How much impact does the story of the coffee have on you? Previously different kinds of story coffees have done well for reasons other than genuinely excellent cup quality (JBM, Kopi Luwak).

Thoughts?

7 Comments

  1. Hi James

    That’s really strange, as I’m just putting together an article for someone which touches on this. Story coffee on its own is not enough, but it does act as a hook for the consumer, and makes them think about how and where their coffee comes from.

    Toms post made me stop a little and ask the same question, I guess I’m spoilt that I’m lucky enough to have the best of both worlds, but there have been occasions I’ve found a gem in a dung heap of some offerings and just gone out there with them. They tend to be slow movers though unfortunately no matter how much I big them up and tell people how good they are, the story coffees move better every time.

    If you give me the choice of two equally great coffees and one has some great info and background and the other doesn’t and I can only take one, well I think you will know where I will go.

  2. James,

    In my market (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), the struggle is to get people to appreciate coffee for more than a vehicle for caffeine. I could start to tell people about this Mexican coffee, for instance, let them know about the group of Zapatista-aligned Catholic pacifists who grew this very coffee and I get disinterested “mmhmm”s. Then they ask me if it has more caffeine because it’s a dark roast. And then what do I tell them when they want a one-word answer?

    A friend of mine brought to my attention the phenomenon of American consumers who are willing to spend more money on food then being willing to swallow whatever half-baked story they’re told to assuage their consciences. She explains it better here>/a>, but hopefully you get the idea.

    People want stories, because stories are good, and for a variety of reasons. But people are often busy or lazy, so if one has to find a story, it’s less likely to be told.

  3. Hi James,

    it seems that people really like stories and that a good story affects the expectations in such a way
    that a coffee is rated better. As far as I can tell this also depends on the skill of the customer. The
    less the skill is the more it comes to story telling.

    I have a concrete example for this in a store I know very good. They are selling the same coffee
    using two different brands. One brand has a “plain vanilla” look, nothing special, just telling the
    ration of the ingredients (x% arabica, y% robusta), while the other brand has a full story around
    it. The story tells about the region in italy where the coffee is roasted, about the family’s roasting
    tradition and further details.

    The pricing of the story coffee is slightly higher and guess what, it is bought more often.

    It seems that people are not only buying the product itself, they are also buying an imagination,
    something they are using to tune the mind into relaxation.

    For me the question is, who is right? If the customer is fully satisfied, who am I to tell him he shouldn’t.
    Bying coffee from an italien roaster seems to fit better than buying an (much fresher) coffee from a
    local roaster (until you are really up to coffee).

  4. Stories have always sold products – that’s how marketing people make their living. Increasingly these days stories are manufactured by multi national companies – what looks like a tiny little company with an interesting product increasingly turns out to be a spin off of a huge international company.

    With coffee the consumer is sold stories in retail – in the UK see Coffee Direct etc. In a cafe bar or a specialist retailer there is only the opportunity to have a story that stacks up – the credibility of the place would be lost otherwise.

    I dont agree that buying coffee from an Italian roaster is better than buying fresh from a local roaster – build a story around your local roaster that not only talks about freshness but origin, craft and supporting the local economy and you can win easily.

  5. I know one roaster who tells great stories and really romances his coffees with great verbage. In his case, it’s part of selling the coffee as well as the enitre business. That’s his schtick. he does get good lots occassionaly, but his larger business is fair trade/organics though

    IMO, if it isn’t a good grade and expressive, I probably wouldn’t take the time to learn the story behind it in the first place. I do know that story is becoming more and more important and that often seems to be the only thing that bleeds down to the barista and end consumer.

    In this industry, as it grows, there’s so much empty hype and noise, it becomes increasingly hard to sort through it.

  6. I’ll offer a slightly different perspective here, although I agree that most consumers (and myself) are generally swayed by a good story.
    Our cafe (which is owned and operated by the coffee company) is at the high quality end of the spectrum in our city, and has now been around for 2 1/2 years. I’ve been the head barista since the day we opened the doors, and we have a fairly discerning clientele. Most of our customers, whether buying beans or having a cup in the cafe, will happily try whatever i tell them to, but will always let their tastebuds decide. And the best part is, if I recommend something and a customer doesn’t like it they’ll soon let me know. I always find it amazing we’ve developed such a mature (in terms of taste and knowledge) clientele in 2.5 years.
    I don’t think that our customers care that much about a story, if I tell them to try something they will, story or no story. It just a matter of cafes and roasters using good products, and baristas and roasters/sales people nurturing a trusting relationship with their customers, then you can sell anything you want. Just make sure you’re only selling coffees you know are great.

  7. Forget stories, I’m sad to say that we’re still in the dark ages where a somewhat interesting name gets people excited. “Oooh … Brazil Santos; that sounds really exotic. Must be a premium coffee.

    Having the background story certainly makes the whole experience more interesting, but I have to admit that focusing on coffees with an interesting story has made me overlook some phenomenal lots with generic labels.

    Cheers,

    Luca

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