By Peter Giuliano, SCAA
Baristas have the best job in coffee. They get to experience that magical and important moment in coffee’s lifecycle, that final moment of truth, when months and years of work by farmers, millers, exporters, importers, roasters, and the myriad other professions in coffee comes to fruition. That moment, when a harried mom on her way to work smiles while breathing in the aroma of fresh coffee, or when a college student expresses relief and gratitude for a hot cup of coffee after a long night of studying, or when a budding coffee explorer first excitedly tastes fruit in a cup of coffee—that is the defining moment of the specialty coffee experience.
It is easy to forget the importance of this moment. We tend to think about specialty coffee in terms of microclimate, or cultivar, or absence of defects, or point scores, or roast level. These are a part of the specialty coffee story, of course, but they are each like instruments in an orchestra. And in this analogy, the orchestra is there to create the feeling of being swept away and overcome with beautiful music. This, we believe, is the best and clearest way to think about what specialty coffee truly is. It’s a complete experience: multisensory, emotional, and connective. And that experience is had by the person who actually gets to drink the coffee we produce, the coffee consumer.
It’s said so often in specialty coffee circles it’s become a truism: quality is only created at the beginning of the chain, and our job as an industry is to preserve and enhance that natural quality. But as true as that might be, it is also true that value is created at the very end of the chain, at that moment when the consumer pays for their coffee. And how much they value that experience directly affects how much they are willing to pay, and therefore how much we are able to push back through the entire chain. It’s an immense moment, that point of a consumer’s interaction with our product.
We chose to look deeply at this at this year’s Symposium: how consumers experience coffee with their senses, how they use information to help value coffee, and how the coffee space—the place where many consumers experience coffee—influences that crucial moment. This exploration was compelling. One of the most shocking images was a slide from speaker Helene Hopfer’s talk, shown above. This graph represents the flavor preferences of wine experts. On the right is a graph representing the flavor preferences of wine consumers. The difference is clear, and shocking: wine experts are consistent in their preferences, but consumers’ preferences are much more broad. Could the same thing be true for coffee? Could it be that we have a lot more to learn about consumer preferences, and these things would help us craft a consumer experience with more impact, and therefore more value?
In this issue, you’ll find an exploration of the consumer experience from a multitude of perspectives; from the equipment they use in their homes to the way they experience coffee in their minds. This only barely skims the surface; we could—and perhaps should—be talking about the consumer experience of coffee ceaselessly. What you hold in your hands is just a beginning of a conversation that will last as long as we’re serving coffee to the human beings we call consumers.
Peter Giuliano has been working in the trade of Specialty Coffee for 25 years, beginning as a barista and working as a trainer, retailer, cupper, roaster, coffee buyer, and business owner. The SCAA has been a constant inspiration for him during this time, and he now serves as director of Symposium for SCAA, committed to helping cultivate and develop new ideas and leadership in coffee.