For many of us, coffee was once just a means of getting caffeine into our blood stream. Call it a “caffeine delivery system.” Indeed, that’s what companies like Folgers, Yukon, Maxwell House, and others have been doing for years. When big companies like this started experimenting with blends of beans and testing different markets, they found that caffeine delivery was the most important part of the equation. Taste was secondary. This is compelling for several reasons.
First, because better caffeine delivery can be accomplished with cheaper beans- robusta versus arabica. Second, it shows our consumer hasn’t actually changed that much over the last 50 years. And third, because it shows that doing something special doesn’t always mean making the most profit- but in providing a special experience.
I don’t want to get too deep into the plants here, but robusta coffee has (generally) a higher level of caffeine, is easier (cheaper) to grow, and has an underdeveloped (to most aficionados) flavor when compared with arabica coffee. We’ll go into a little more detail another time, but grant me those basic points and we’ll move on.
When Maxwell House did market research on what coffee consumers wanted in the 1980s, they found that most consumers didn’t really know what they wanted. They would say they want less bitterness and more flavor, but then during blind taste tests rated more bitter and less flavorful coffees higher. The conclusion of their tests was that a combination blend of robusta and arabica beans satisfied the most consumers. These blends were cheaper for the brand to make and their adjusted blends made the brand more profitable. They increased their market share by 15% (at the time) at their competitor’s expense. They were cheaper because they relied on more robusta beans that contain more caffeine and less flavor. The arabica beans were not valued by the consumer as the flavor they were looking for.
Fast forward to today, 2016. Starbucks is the big coffee elephant in the room. Espresso is a huge seller in Seattle, and drip coffee big in the northeast United States. For the rest of the country, lattes, mochas, frapps, and other sugary drinks rule the day. Consumers want the caffeine, but not really the special coffee notes available in specialty coffee. This should sound a little familiar. The consumer wants the rush of caffeine and the sweetness of sugar. Those are the most popular drinks.
So what’s the point? My point is this. You can make a cheaper cup of coffee that may sell even better than what you’re doing. You may sell more sugary drinks that aren’t very healthy to a populace who blindly chases after some concept of flavor they don’t really understand. Or, you can keep moving forward, educating palates one by one and trying to build something special while the masses around you chase after profits.
We’re going to keep chasing something we feel is special. I think it’s worth putting a single origin arabica bean in my cup. I think it’s worth experimenting with subtle flavor notes as Mike changes the roast profile on a favorite bean. And I think it’s worth sharing with people. I’ve seen the change and the enjoyment in experiencing specialty coffee.