Brewed coffee and the UK

May 30th, 2009

This is something of a summary of the short talk I gave at the Allegra Strategies UK Coffee Leader Summit a week or so ago.  Please also bear in mind that this talk was directed at the UK market specifically so won’t necessarily hold true for other national coffee cultures.

For me this talk was a moment of crystalisation about how I feel about coffee right now, and what I want to focus a lot of my energy on.  I had initially planned to talk about how quality focused businesses were doing well right now, but in the process of writing the talk that seemed to shift.  I should add a final caveat to this by saying that I do love making and drinking espresso.

My talk was titled “How the coffee industry lost the public’s trust, and how good coffee can win it back again.”

My feelings about espresso changed dramatically around the time I first experienced coffee in Italy.  A few things struck me initially – the coffee was prepared reasonably well, it wasn’t astonishing or delicious and it was cheap.  I would later learn that the price of espresso to be consumed at the bar is regulated and never more than €1.  When I first made espresso for Italians I was initially confused by the fact that they never asked for espresso, they just asked for coffee.  Non-specific, without customisation – just coffee.

Like many people I had held a fairly romantic notion of espresso in Italy.  This was swept away and replaced by disappointment.  This has since given way to respect.  I think what changed my mind was a little perspective, and a better understanding of espresso’s history.  1

This poster is probably familiar to everyone in coffee.  For me it summarizes pre-1948 espresso.  The innovation that espresso offered at this point was speed.  Suddenly a cup of coffee could be brewed very quickly.  So quickly, in fact, that you could grab a cup whilst hanging out of the side of a moving train.  The cups of coffee are full to the brim, and have not even the vaguest whisp of crema upon them.  This was nothing like espresso as we know it.  This was like having a big tank of water with which to make multiple moka pots.

Then of course we have post WWII espresso, we have Achille Gaggia’s espresso machine and we have the first mentions of crema.  Again – at this stage espresso didn’t suddenly become perfect little 25ml shots, full of thick dense crema.  The real revelation for me about this period was an almost throwaway sentence in one of Kenneth Davids books on coffee.  Post WWII Italy was not an economically strong place.  It is unlikely that the coffees bought during this time, during the birth of espresso’s tradition as we know it, were anything other than cheap and readily available.  It is no great surprise that naturally processed coffees from Brazil and robusta became the bedrock of the traditional espresso blend but we’d do well not to assume they were chosen because they tasted the best.  Espresso is pretty good way to brew these coffees.

The point that I am slowly working towards is that for all the romance, history and tradition, espresso is not special.  It is not luxury.  It is not gourmet.  It is just a way to brew a small, strong cup of coffee.

That of course changed, and in no small part thanks to Howard Schulz.  It is worth noting that in any description of his epiphany moment in Italy, where he saw a barista craft both an espresso and a cappuccino in a convivial and charming manner, does he describe being blown away by the coffee.  It was the experience that stuck with him, and the experience he thought he could sell.  2

He was, of course, quite right.  He could sell the experience, he could package it up and replicate it almost exactly across the world.  I have no idea how many different stores they have worldwide, but with 700 in the UK it is hard to argue with him.  However we did something else as part of this process.  We made espresso expensive.

Let’s say a single espresso in London costs £1.50, which is a little high but not by any means unusual.  Assuming it is a 25ml shot that works out at 6p/ml.

If you were to go to a pub and buy a pint of espresso it would cost you £34.08.  Or you bought a wine bottle of espresso it would cost £45.  That is a phenomenal amount of money.  Think about the drinks you can buy for that sort of price.  They are either extremely delicious or extremely alcoholic.

The problem is that a price tag like this is a pretty hefty promise.  Selling an espresso for this much implies that the experience will be of equal value.  Sip for sip it should be as satisfying as a great champagne.  The problem is that in this country, in London, in the vast majority of businesses – it isn’t.

Charging this much and delivering something so awful as the average high street espresso destroys any trust between the coffee industry and the general public.  This kind of price/experience discrepancy makes people feel stupid.  It makes them resentful.  It turns them into the kind of people that get very angry and leave vicious and dismissive comments at the bottom of news stories about speciality coffee posted online.  We’ve all seen those comments online, globally I might add, that follow a news story about speciality coffee.  Angry, bitter comments about what a waste of time and money this ‘fancy’ coffee is, that it is nothing more than the emperor’s new clothes and that coffee is just coffee.  These opinions come from specific experiences, we – the coffee industry – have created some very angry consumers.

As soon as the economy started to dip there were a glut of articles on ways to live more frugally, how to strip unnecessary spending from your day to day habits.  In every single list was coffee.  By and large lattes on the high street are overpriced, they are worth cutting out of the budget.  The frustration is that they don’t have to be.  3  I wouldn’t advise dropping the coffee from your routine, I would advise finding a place that makes one that is worth the money.

Yet still the industry persists in telling us that espresso is better.  At the Allegra talk I listened to to Rebecca Hemsley, the head of coffee for Pret A Manger, talk about how they offer (for the price conscious) a cup of filter coffee for 99p.  She added that they weren’t cutting corners – they used the same blend as they do for their espresso.  I should add that a single espresso at Pret is £1.25.  What message does that send to the consumer?  How does that affect their expectations of both the espresso and the filter coffee?

So I’ve written quite a lot already about espresso, and haven’t really gotten onto the subject of brewed coffee.  At this point in the talk I began brewing a small press of coffee.  I wanted to talk about where I thought coffee could go.  In the first talk of the day Darcy Willson-Rymer, the MD of Starbucks UK, had described value as being a combination of price, product and value.  I quite liked this, and say what you like about Starbucks but they’ve cleared managed to price their experience right for it to be the success it is.  4

I chose a coffee to brew that had very distinct and interesting characteristics.  I talked about where the coffee was from, and how it had gotten to the UK.  I described the coffee as having strong notes of blackcurrant, cherry and blueberry.  For me this makes an obvious promise, whereas a price makes a slightly less direct one.  A promise like this is a fairly big one but they pay off is also potentially huge.  We all have a salesman in our life that we completely trust.  They might not be an obvious salesman – they could be a bartender, a waiter, a sommelier or someone who sells stationary.  We trust their judgement, and we are loyal to them.  That trust was gained through making promises and keeping them.  Making a promise like this with a cup of coffee was what pushed us to work with Marco on the Uber Boiler but that is a slightly different topic.

As the coffee finished brewing I explained how much I’d like to sell it for a cup:  £3.  This wasn’t because it was vac-packed, or because it was airfreighted, or because it came in a nice bag with a nice logo.  If you like coffee, then I think that that combination of price, product and experience is good value for money.  Buying and drinking this cup of coffee is worth every penny.  I offered that one 8oz press to the audience for sale, and I am very grateful (and was somewhat relieved at the time) to both Darcy and Louie Salvone for paying £5 each (to charity) to split the press between them.

Brewed coffee is capable of such flexibility, such a range of experiences – from the satisfying, to the interesting, to the exciting, to the downright weird – that I think it is the most overlooked and underestimated weapon in the arsenal of those of us trying to build consumption of great coffee.  I am not saying it is better than espresso, but I do think a great cup of brewed coffee is less elusive than a great espresso.

Most operators believe espresso is somehow better than brewed coffee, and that brewed coffee is a second class experience that is suitable only for bulk brewing the nasty, weak coffee they serve at events where people aren’t paying for coffee.  Restauranteurs insist on having espresso machines even though the flow of a restaurant and its layout make serving great espresso virtually impossible even if the brewing is impeccable.

So I should wrap this up by saying that in the next year or two the proliferation of great brewed coffee, ideally by the cup, is a big goal for me – both personally and professionally.  If you are reading this and you can help then I really hope you do because I think everybody, from grower to consumer, wins.

  1. Though I should say that my espresso history is far from authoratative!  ↩︎
  2. Can I just take a moment to have a quick rant about the constant use of the word ‘theatre’ around espresso.  Theatre is entertaining, but there are only so many performances of the same thing that I am prepared to sit through and pay for.  If you have bought a commercial espresso machine mainly because of the theatre then your business may be in for some difficult months ahead.  ↩︎
  3. That said, a large part of me is enjoying a market with more value focused, quality conscious spenders.  ↩︎
  4. I am aware that is a childish and snarky dig at their product, but the whole point of this post is about serving great coffee which I don’t think they do.  ↩︎

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