The confusion of expensive coffee

The confusion of expensive coffee

Price is the best-known shortcut for quality. Pay more, get better stuff. Speciality coffee has long battled pricing, for the most part, fearful of putting people off for something that tastes more delicious. For years we’d been cautious of appearing too expensive, running a bare few percentage points more expensive than the global chain competitors. In some places we’re more expensive, maybe 30-40% more expensive. There is one exception: speciality coffee does, from time to time, get really, really expensive. The recent news cycles have seen incredibly high priced geisha lots, very, very expensive cups of coffee served at restaurants and coffee shops, and something about it unsettles me. 1

Coffee now spends a lot of time being compared to wine, much to the chagrin of many. I appreciate the arguments that they’re not the same, that they make for a poor comparison. However, I’m still going to compare the two.

Wine is very expensive because people have been mining out the value in it for decades. There is a large, sufficiently affluent audience for it, all chasing the best value they can get. This has driven up prices and, broadly speaking, the good stuff is much more expensive now because it is good.

As such consumers might reasonably expect that spending more on wine gets you better wine. Spending a lot on wine gets you fantastic wine. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, but it is broadly accurate.

Coffee does something different when it gets very expensive. It doesn’t necessarily get better, it gets weirder. The most expensive coffees aren’t the sweetest. The most expensive coffees aren’t the most complex, structured and delightful.

The most expensive coffees are the most esoteric.

Many take delight in the weirdness of Geisha lots, of other rare varieties, or strange cups. I’m always interested to taste coffees like these, to experience something new. However, we’ve come to position these coffees as a substantial upgrade to one’s daily morning brew, rather than a dramatic detour into strange territory.

This isn’t really aimed at Geisha lots specifically, but at all super premium coffee. I believe that we’ve come to disproportionately value weird, strange and unusual coffees, coffees that require context. I think this means that we don’t celebrate the straight up exceptional as much as we used to (I think of the early days of the Cup of Excellence, which promoted these kinds of coffees).

I’m not saying we shouldn’t sell weird coffees. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be expensive. I am saying that I think we need to be careful with how we communicate their value to us and their value to our customers. The challenge will be that the two won’t always line up.

  1. Well, more than one thing – but this piece is about just one  ↩︎