Coffee isn’t cool

Coffee isn’t cool

It’s easy to let an idea take root in your thinking. It feels, for a moment, insightful and perhaps even useful. What happens then is most likely a case of confirmation bias – you begin to see things that confirm your idea, that support and strength your particular insight.

In my case, it is the idea that good coffee isn’t cool. I’m pretty sure that, for at least a little while, really good coffee was cool. It was hard to find, it was worth travelling for. It was experimental, it was passionate, it was anti-establishment.

What’s changed? Well, here’s an example: no one really cares if you get your espresso in a paper cup.

For a while, having your espresso in a ceramic cup was something extremely important to us. It offended us that you didn’t see that what was being served was different, was better, was notable and attention worthy; “Stop, just for a minute, and marvel at how good this tastes!”

It was a period of time where specialty was defining itself by what it wasn’t. It wasn’t cheap. It didn’t come in 20oz cups. You were not in charge of your beverage, your drink order was not an opportunity to define or express your individuality. Essentially we were trying to communicate that this wasn’t Starbucks, wasn’t the norm, wasn’t what you were expecting. We were, forgive the pun, the counter-culture.

By defining itself by what it wasn’t it became, inevitably, exclusive. People didn’t like that. Consumers were angry that we defined ourselves by what was wrong with what they liked.

However, it was passionate and it was compelling. It was exciting because it felt new and full of possibility. We became galvanised around taste, around experience. Great coffee infected people, and soon leached into the beer or wine they drank and the food that they ate. Baristas were wonderful keys, capable unlocking the hidden gastronomical delights in any city.

Two experiences recently brought into focus the idea that people saw great coffee differently. The first was quite small. I was on a BBC radio show and before going live the host was, while interested in me and what I did, delighted to tell me how she loved bad coffee. Not necessarily in a traditionally British, anti-snob sort of way. Instead, she talked as if liking bad coffee was the new anti-establishment position to take. Liking good coffee had become normalised, and this was a little rebellion.

The second was an advert for McCafe. Initially, I hated this advert, in part because it picks on customers a little too much and has a few stupid misses in its jokes. The truth of the ad settled a little time later. McDonald’s can’t get away with making you the butt of the joke if you’re actually cool. You need to be sufficiently mainstream, successful and normal to be an effective counterpoint for one of the largest food corporations in the world. You could see this advert as marking the moment that great coffee was so successful that the type of person who would buy a coffee from McCafe knows about it. This is not a demographic that would traditionally seek out coffee experiences.

We’re seeing the punk-like anger of youth begin to fade in the speciality coffee industry. We’re beginning to see the rise of passionate moderates. These are people who care about coffee, want it to be amazing but are more willing to meet people where they’re at. Exemplified to me, from a distance I admit, by business like Cat & Cloud or G&B/Go Get ‘Em Tiger. Both have owners/founders who are impassioned, but also coming from a place of humility. (I’m not saying these aren’t cool businesses – they both are, but that’s more about the strong aesthetic and vision they both have coupled with how clearly they communicate that. Also, they’re very good at making delicious coffee.)

It’s ok, I think, to miss the way things were. To miss the underdog feeling, the battle against low expectations, and to have something secret and special that you enjoyed sharing with people who care.

The world of coffee is changing. It has matured and continues to evolve, despite being a bit flat right now. (I don’t give coffee the excuse of being young industry – it’s old enough at this point to be developed and complex.)

Our situation has changed, expectations have changed and what worked before may not work anymore. People aren’t as willing to seek out a great cup of coffee, to travel, to research, to plan a visit. Coffee tourism is on the wane. That doesn’t mean success is impossible, or even unusually difficult. It just means now is a time of adaptation, and experimentation to find out what will allow us to effectively engage with the customers we’ve not found yet, or previously turned off from what we do.