Differing Perspectives, Common Goals: Demystifying Specialty Coffee

By Lily Kubota, Communications Specialist, Specialty Coffee Association of America

Specialty coffee is deeply rooted in a complex and intricate value chain, made up of individuals whose passion and dedication to quality is evident. The specialty coffee industry hopes to communicate this commitment to quality at each step in the supply chain, to distinguish specialty coffee from lower grade commodity coffee. Most of us who work in the industry can identify this intangible distinction quite readily, as ambiguous as it may sometimes seem. As an industry, we have operated in this realm for some time, developing and applying standards and protocols wherever possible to create some structure and consistency to our methods, but at the same time recognizing their technical nature and how they may translate (or fail to translate) to the end consumer. The conversation has surfaced about how to best convey the message of specialty, and how to make it approachable and accessible for those seeking a unique and special experience.

At the SCAA’s 4th Annual Symposium in Portland this past April, Tracy Ging, deputy executive director of the SCAA, illustrated this challenge, providing analysis on findings from a recent qualitative study in which the SCAA conducted a series of focus groups in Los Angeles and Portland, with the goal being to find a selection of specialty coffee drinkers and profile their behaviors for further research. In conjunction with this study, the SCAA held a roundtable discussion with a selection of Portland coffee professionals to gain their perspectives on these central questions: Who is the specialty coffee consumer? What are they buying? What are their perceptions of “specialty”? What motivates them?

The differences between these two viewpoints were evident, as would be expected, but the message from the consumer and the coffee professional was surprisingly similar: Exposure, not education.

What the Specialty Coffee Customer Said

Tracy’s presentation at Symposium began with a video clip in which a selection of people from the streets of San Francisco, with coffee cups in hand, were asked questions about what they drink and why. One of the questions: “What does specialty coffee mean to you?” The message was clear, as Tracy stated after the video, “There seems to be some confusion over the term specialty.” The focus groups indicated the same message, and not only is there confusion around the various terms that are used to describe coffee – specialty, gourmet, premium, etc. – but there exists some rejection of these terms across the board. The groups dismissed them as fluff terms and claimed that companies are using them so loosely in their marketing language that they have ceased to mean anything substantial in the minds of coffee drinkers.

Perhaps specialty coffee consumers are not using these terms to describe their coffee experience on a daily basis, but it became evident that the groups did recognize and identify various factors that contribute to a better cup of coffee. The focus groups cited freshness, roast level, bean quality, aroma, and flavor as qualities they look for when purchasing coffee. They noted that service and atmosphere contributed to their positive or negative perceptions of a beverage. “We know something is resonating. We can see the market respond to quality.  We know that many coffee drinkers are paying premiums for a product or experience that they perceive as special. Who are these customers and what exactly are they buying?” Tracy inquired. As it turned out, the study seemed to suggest that pinpointing demographics around specialty coffee consumers is not as clear-cut as one might think. She continued, “There was no significant demographic concentration, which tells me that this is not a narrow band of consumers.”

The message of quality was not lost on these folks, and they were actively seeking out these experiences, but they were what Tracy referred to as “lightly knowledgeable” when it came to identifying or describing what was special or better about their choices, expressing some hesitancy around the amount of detail that can be included on roasted coffee packaging or that a barista may offer up at the counter. But they are curious, and although they may not have all of the vocabulary, Tracy noted that, “Even with very few words, they were able to convey a deep and personal bond. People who drink specialty coffee have the capacity to love it deeply.”

Despite an initial rejection of too many details about any given coffee, participants did note that they might be curious to hear about these details if the context were right. Perhaps if the information were being delivered by a passionate, friendly barista, and if they were not in a hurry, and if they were in the right mood to have such a conversation, then they might want to know more.

One young woman from a Portland focus group said simply, “If it matters to you, it will matter to us.” Her sentiment was echoed in the group: they don’t want to have to be the expert, but they do appreciate being served by someone who is. Tracy concluded that, “Exposing them to more experiences is not the same as educating them. In fact, they were very clear that they do not want someone to tell them what they should like, but they are very interested in learning how to develop their own likes and describe their own tastes.”

What the Coffee Professional Said

Immediately following the consumer focus groups in Portland, SCAA held a roundtable discussion with a small group of coffee professionals from the area. The purpose of this discussion was to explore consumer behavior from the perspective of the barista, the coffee retailer, and others who work with these customers everyday.

The discussion circled around consumer “education” and how to bring the customer up the specialty ladder. However, there was a strong rejection of the word, and the somewhat condescending approach that they felt many were taking when interacting with their customers. They noted the importance of treating this interaction as an opportunity to expose the customer to a new coffee, a new drink, or just a variation on what they were already ordering. They felt very strongly that the barista can quickly turn someone off by throwing too much information at them, and that it’s crucial to introduce them slowly and build their trust. “Rein it in,” was their message. They encouraged coffee retailers to take cues from their customers and gauge their level of interest before diving into a conversation about the coffee.

They noted that it takes time to develop this relationship, just like a dating relationship. It can be awkward. You may wonder why they were so rude or distant that day. Maybe they’re wondering the same thing. The group suggested that patience and respect are essential to creating a comfortable environment for the customer to venture outside of their comfort zone. The group suggested offering samples of an alternate beverage or coffee offering to encourage them to explore other options, while not pressuring them into feeling like their choice is wrong or bad. This also provides an opportunity for the customer to describe the coffee to the barista and give their impressions, instead of the barista telling the customer what they should be tasting. They felt that being ready to engage in conversation about what the customer tastes without putting words in their mouth creates a shared experience and can be a very powerful way to expose them to the next rung of the specialty coffee ladder. “Be nice, make sense, deliver quality,” they insisted.

One of the many interesting observations made during the discussion was that: “As an industry, we are a bit too reactive rather than proactive.” It is difficult to make a living by converting one customer at a time. The specialty coffee industry must ultimately cultivate customers who are buying bags of beans to prepare at home. This is where supporting the consumer in their at-home brewing behaviors and exposing them to proper techniques becomes very important. We, as a specialty industry, have a responsibility to create common reference points for consumers as to what is “bad”, and to help consumers identify how to improve and avoid bad practices in their own routines at home. The group put forth that the way to reach this goal is to simplify our language and make people feel comfortable with their ability to make coffee at home. If the consumer feels like they have the tools and knowledge to create a great cup of coffee at home, the group felt that this would be positive on many levels.

A New Reality

For almost 30 years, members of the Specialty Coffee Association of America have sought to identify and develop a common language for quality to ensure that those who seek to serve a better cup of coffee are able to effectively engage with members of the industry at all points in the supply chain. Operating with this common goal of improving coffee quality (from production to service, and every step in between), we’ve developed extensive educational curriculum and certification programs for coffee industry professionals, establishing a knowledge base for members to draw from and to learn the language of quality. However, as the industry becomes well versed in this language, we are recognizing the need to craft this message in such a way that a customer feels welcomed into this world of specialty coffee, whether or not they use the term.

Today, specialty coffee roasters and retailers are widespread and available across the country, appealing to a new generation of coffee drinkers. The product that we know as coffee has shifted from years’ past, as higher quality and attention to detail have become the new norm. Companies previously focused on lower grade, commodity coffee have raised the bar and are making efforts to improve quality. Coffee is not your grandparent’s coffee, and our industry will need to respond to this shift to further distinguish specialty.

The landscape of specialty coffee is ever evolving and changing. As an industry, we are required to be very nimble, while simultaneously establishing and implementing consistent standards and protocols. With the nature of this industry, we must recognize that the consumer is just trying to keep up and speak our language. Connecting with the consumer is a two-way street, and we need to work on being good listeners. Let’s make it fun and engaging. Let’s ration the technical jargon and spice up the romance. Let them fall in love.

Lily Kubota began her career in coffee at age 15 with her first job as a barista and became increasingly interested in coffee and café culture over the years. As communications specialist for the SCAA, she has been privileged to observe and reflect on the intricacies and nuances of the coffee industry on both the consuming and producing side of the supply chain and gain a deeper understanding of this exciting community.