The fundamental question for specialty coffee is this: what does the future of the coffee consumer look like? In other words, how are consumers going to be making coffee at home in the coming years? Those companies who are able to anticipate this trajectory will be the winners. Where should you place your bets?
Consumer events are popping up all over the country, affording coffee lovers the opportunity to experiment with top-of-the-line equipment, as well giving them the chance to get answers to all their brewing questions. Two coffee consumer events that happened this fall may give us a glimpse into the crystal ball of at-home consumption, and I’ll share some of my observations here based on my experience at these workshops. Barista Nation, a free educational event typically focused on coffee professionals, dipped its toes into the consumer ocean for the first time on October 17th, hosted by Seattle Coffee Gear in their new Portland, Oregon retail location. This was the first time that Barista Nation offered a home barista-focused event with classes every hour, ranging from making the most out of buying coffee at the grocery store to pulling the perfect shot to making latte art with your home espresso machine.
One week later, Williams-Sonoma and Blossom Coffee, Inc. hosted a follow-up educational event called Coffee School at the Williams-Sonoma flagship store in San Francisco. As the founder of Barista Nation, I was able to get a bird’s-eye view on the conversations and questions from consumers at these two events.
I found that the barista really is the ambassador to the home coffee enthusiast. They are the missing link to creating return customers, sales of home coffee products, and education. The home consumer wants to recreate the good experience they have with coffee at home, to share with friends and family, just like they’d want to recreate a wonderful meal they had at a restaurant. These coffee enthusiasts are not trying to replace the barista, or stop shopping at a particular shop, they are looking for a fun new hobby and sense of community. However, some consumers feel tension from baristas when they ask too many questions, or want too much information. Coffee professionals take note: the inquisitive home consumer loves what you do so much that they want to know as much about it as possible.
I was surprised to find that pumpkin spice lattes, single-serve coffee pods, and flavored coffee are more than just a convenient source of caffeine: they are veritable gateway products for most home consumers. More and more, these consumers evolve to the next level of coffee education quickly, but find there are not enough educational outlets to help them keep progressing.
These consumers are hungry for coffee education; they are eager to know where their coffee comes from and how they can connect to it. This desire has paved the way to the success of the Caffeine Crawl events produced by The Lab out of Kansas City. The Caffeine Crawl events go from city to city, offering a taste coffee culture and educational sessions from each stop. Jason Burton, the founder of the Caffeine Crawls, says he was inspired to tackle “a lack of interaction between barista and customer vs. bartender and customer” when starting the events. According to Burton, “The education the shops provide is priceless. They are there to answer questions and make ‘Crawlers’ feel comfortable asking questions. They do a great job. Attendees walk away with a better understanding and appreciation for coffee.”
My final take-away from Barista Nation Portland was a look at what equipment consumers are moving towards. Home coffee equipment is evolving. Consumers are moving from inexpensive tools to quality home espresso machines like the Rocket, the Crossland Coffee espresso machine, and the Unic Stella dual boiler espresso machine. These prosumer espresso machines range from $600 to over $3000 per unit.
Bill Crossland of Crossland Coffee sees a trend away from capsules and pods as consumers evolve toward fresh coffee, and away from the waste these pods and capsules create. “Home consumers are hungry for education so they can make a great espresso at home,” according to Crossland. Bill goes above and beyond for his customers by sending a grind sample to make sure they have the right tools for their home machine purchase. Home baristas are increasingly relegating blade grinders to their intended use of pulverizing spices, opting instead for Baratza grinders (and the like) with stainless steel burrs and integrated digital scales.
Well-heeled coffee enthusiasts are evolving their brewing choices rapidly as well. The days of old-school Mr. Coffee drip-coffee makers are fading fast before more refined options such as Chemex and Hario brew sets. What’s next, the Blossom precision brewer for your home? For a market segment which is willing to invest in a semi-commercial Viking stove—why not? This leads us to the next home coffee event, Williams-Sonoma Coffee School.
The Williams-Sonoma Grand Cuisine cooking school at their flagship store in San Francisco is nothing short of a chef’s heaven. With $45,000 La Cornue ranges and every cooking gadget you could ever desire, it is a truly magical mecca for food geeks. Budding home chefs can register to attend cooking classes at the school to learn everything from the art of Cordon Bleu to making the perfect fall soup.
But on the weekend of October 25th, the picture-perfect space turned into Coffee School. With a trio of Blossom One brewers topping the 80-square-foot marble kitchen island as the stage, five coffee roasters, Artis, Peerless Coffee, Contraband, Caffe Vita, and Chromatic presented two-hour educational sessions to consumers craving advanced knowledge about coffee origin, brewing, grind profiles, and what makes the perfect coffee blend.
Are coffee consumers ready to upgrade the coffee they take home and the gadgets they brew it with? In a chat with Elvis Lieban, owner of Artis Coffee in Berkeley—open one year in December—he described the three types of consumers that come into his shop. The Explorers: Millennials looking for new coffee and new experiences who are willing to try something different. The Collectors: mid-age consumers that connect with labels and are loyal to brands and rituals. And lastly, The Connoisseurs: experts looking for the ultimate experience. The connecting point between all three of these consumers is that “they demand quality and transparency,” and “they need a place to touch, feel and understand coffee gadgets.” George Vukasin Jr., president of Peerless Coffee and Tea—a company with over 90 years of retail experience—agrees. “Consumers now come in with more information they find online, thus they want more advanced coffee gadgets and education on how to make the best coffee from them.”
The trend is clear, consumers want more, and are willing to spend more for quality. However, powerful questions remain: Is the current renaissance of technology enough to fuel their passions? Can specialty coffee education rise to the occasion and turn consumer flirtations into real romances? Or will the tide recede un-captured, leaving pods and pumpkin spice lattes to rule the future of consumer coffee experience?
Anastasia Chovan began her career in coffee as a barista at Stauf’s Coffee Roasters in 1997. She moved to Seattle in 2000 to work in the heart of the coffee industry for Espresso Specialists. Currently she is the Director of Brand and Business Development for UNIC USA and the founder of Barista Nation.