17 years in coffee, what's changed?

SUNDAY, 09 JUNE 2024

I was recently being interviewed for a podcast, during which I was asked “in the 17 years you have been in coffee, what has changed?”.

It is always surprising to realise that I am not far away from two decades in coffee. In many ways it feels like it has flown by in an instant. At the same time, when looking at things that have changed, it feels like quite a lot of time has passed.

I think that at the core of things, the fundamentals are very much the same, coffee is in many ways an analogue experiential drink. Coffee is the seed of a fruit, that is harvested, processed, roasted, ground and brewed to make a drink. Essentially these fundamentals haven’t changed. At the same time, within the detail of these fundamentals there has been huge amounts of change.

Even though many of the actual details have seen change and revision, perhaps the biggest change I have witnessed is how coffee is perceived. Specialty coffee, or gourmet coffee, boutique coffee, or fine coffee, or whatever moniker you utilise, has evidently moved from small subculture to a wider cultural niche. Of course there are subcultures within that niche. This is a natural evolution of growth in a field, in that there is divergence and segmentation. I think what I am referring to is this group of viewpoints and behaviors that place an emphasis on coffee's value as an interesting culinary phenomenon, embracing its complexity and the different culture that can surround this. This has broken out into wider pop culture.

I am of course talking predominantly from a UK perspective when I talk about the last 17 years in coffee. Although I started my journey in Australia and I have spent a lot of time travelling and visiting different coffee cultures since then, most of my direct experience and observations are based in the UK. It is true that there is also a very global dialogue that has become more connected than ever. When we started our first shop in Bath, England, it really felt like a slog some days, not because people weren’t nice and open-minded, but because the idea of treating coffee as something other than a simple hot caffeinated drink was unusual. It was expectation jarring.

This has definitely changed. There is a wider awareness of the culinary rabbit hole of coffee, and this is accompanied by varying levels of interest. I have often been outspoken about the accessibility crusade in specialty coffee, in that I think the goal should be to engage and share rather than convert. Any field that has complexity and specialism will have limits on its direct adoption, as people only have so much time and there are many things to be interested in and to spend your time on. I think specialty coffee has followed wine in this way. The general concept of quality in coffee is widespread now and the level of participation is an opt in decision of the individual, depending on their inclination.

Defining specialty coffee is tough, but market definitions of specialty coffee have all shown and continue to predict years of growth. Whereas the market coined “commercial coffee” displays much lower growth numbers. Before covid the McDonalds advert which had pitted a satirical specialty coffee experience against their simply “just a cup of coffee please” offer, showcased a recognition that specialty coffee was widespread in the UK and had become a significant reference point. Covid seemed to supercharge the pursuit of specialty coffee. As people sat at home in lockdown and pondered how to make that tasty coffee they had been collecting daily from the local boutique indie, there ensued a buying spree on home brewing equipment and roasters saw online sales surge.

Social media and YouTube coffee content also saw unprecedented engagement and growth. I think if you could have shown all of this to the specialty sceptics I encountered at trade shows when I was getting into coffee, they would have been astounded. Back then in the mid 2000’s specialty was deemed a geeky micro niche with limited appeal or relevance. Don't get me wrong, brewing your own espresso at home is still not the mass norm but the passion for exploring and engaging with coffee in a specialist way has clearly soared. Either way, many of the traditional commercial coffee companies have started doing more with boutique coffee, whether through their own products and brands or through acquisition. In this way, seeing specialty coffee as a confined movement of independent businesses making up a community that “owns” the specialty narrative is a thing of the past, if it ever really was that concrete of a thing. Now specialty coffee is more diverse and dynamic than ever before.

With more and more people engaging with coffee, both as consumers and as businesses, this has supercharged the exploration of this drink. Often there is a temptation to talk in waves, allowing for a neat chronology of coffee evolving over time. I think the reality is that there has always been many aspects to coffee, very few of which have “emerged” recently. Instead, I think that the growth of the boutique field has seen a greater emphasis on certain parts of coffee. The science of coffee for instance has been around for a long time in the commercial world of coffee, whether it be the science of crop disease or the intellectual property of coffee brewing devices. Perhaps the difference we have seen in my time in coffee is the application of science in a more creative and open way based on an interest and passion for coffee as a drink. Often specialty coffee is driven by individuals or small groups pursuing an idea of quality. The challenge of brewing coffee in a percolated way has allowed for a rabbit hole of exploration that continues to wind its way. I say percolation because I think much of the complexity of brewing coffee comes from percolation style methods where variables such as grinding, and water flow become more impactful.

Although there is more focus on obsessive detail than ever before, there also appears to be a relaxing of orthodox specialty views around how to approach coffee. The purist approach is still very common but now less likely to be seen as the only way to engage with specialty coffee. It continues to be my primary approach and interest in coffee. I like to focus on the fundamentals of coffee with their endless complexity, but there is also fun to be had applying coffee in many different ways, such as mixing coffee into many other formats, soft serve and cocktails. I think this has partly come from a natural maturation around the idea of quality. There doesn’t appear to be as much need to showcase the individual quality coffee is capable of. I think this is something that has clearly happened in my time in coffee. Certain ideas have clearly been a priority and then they have over time gone from being new and novel to being established. This is a sign of success that an idea has landed and been adopted. Something that was once novel, over time either is lost or becomes inbuilt, either way it can’t stay novel and new.

Quality itself seemed narrower when I started in coffee, using the SCA points system and a relatively linear scale of flavour that rewarded clean and aromatic coffee. Natural and fermented coffees were always contentious. These days the contention is around co-fermented and flavoured coffees. I think what we are witnessing is a broadening of the concept of quality in coffee, with comparisons between wine and craft beer being drawn. The exploration of process manipulation at farm level is perhaps an indication of the appetite for bold, fruit driven flavour profiles as well as novelty within the specialty coffee market.

It is interesting to consider the idea of quality. It typically means defining characteristics and attributes. This means becoming very particular. Exploration of flavour and process challenges the particularity of quality. There is a wave of people hankering for the attributes of clean washed coffee, whilst others suggest these views are outdated and narrow. This tension is natural. What I think we are seeing though overall is a move towards a wider variety of flavour profiles within the specialty coffee cannon.

On this note, I have also seen the concept of subjectivity become more embraced and recognised by speciality coffee, diverging away from the notions that were held when I got into the industry that there was a narrowly calibrated objective quality in coffee.

The information sharing that felt like a central culture of the movement when I got into coffee has only expanded further and further. There is more access to information and more open discussion than ever before, with more people from different backgrounds taking part in the community dialogue. Back to the research and science piece, there is a lot more open research that is shared and disseminated from peer reviewed papers to white papers and individual data experiments.

Certain areas of research and technique in coffee brewing have seen continued discussion and review such as espresso puck preparation. For many brewers the key challenges to brewing good coffee continue to be similar culprits, such as water quality and grinding quality. Although coffee technologies have seen continued iterations and developments, in many ways there are still some key problems to solve, especially with coffee grinding. Roasting is a less mysterious domain these days but still an area for improvement. More people are taking part and smaller affordable technologies are appearing, there is still a lot that appears to be open for development in most of the coffee fields, like processing, storage, roasting, water and grinding. As we explore coffee conceptually, both through science and preference, this feeds into the technologies and techniques we are interested in seeing. There are still many barriers to seeing a product concept come to life, but there is clearly a higher commercial appetite to explore these ideas.

What we have also seen with things like hand brewing devices, is a wide range of iterations of essentially the same concepts. As the coffee community focuses on different details there is a quicker than ever response to this, with equipment and technologies being designed, made and launched very quickly. This is of course much easier with small tweaks to simple devices, compared to complex technologies that are much harder to get to market.

There is no doubt that many techniques that were seen as Avant Garde or over the top two decades ago, are now par for the course, such as weighing/measuring coffee and water in brewing recipes. The recognition of the key variables in coffee are now very well recognised, such as the importance of water, which was an elephant in the room when I got into coffee.

The sustainability of coffee growing was always a prevalent topic from the day I entered coffee. I think, however, this topic is more pertinent than ever. Both climate/environment and economic incentive to farm coffee are key divers in the conversation. In my latest book, I delve into this topic at length and observe the preponderance for success to be achieved at either scale. Even if the right locations are at a boutique premium position, this still requires reasonable scale. With an ageing farming population in most countries these changes will continue to be accelerated. As I write this, the coffee market continues to be a key focus in the industry as we await the prospect of frost in Brazil and the impact of robusta shortages.

The emergence of the superstar producer has really blossomed during my time in coffee. Of course, there were extremely famous farms when I got into coffee, but there are many many more now and there is a much greater engagement across the supply chain from producer to roaster and drinker. This evolution I think is down to several factors. There is a bigger appetite for these coffees and the stories of the people/brands behind them. Essentially this means there is more of a market for these producers to supply. It is true that much of the actual demand for high priced coffee is not in markets like the UK, but in South East Asia. The advent of more roaster brands focusing on these coffees as well as the coffee competition funnel that has rewarded these coffees has all contributed, but perhaps it is the use of the internet and communications platforms combined with travel that has really facilitated this. For these superstar producers their client base is spread across many countries. Long time roaster/cafe pioneers like George Howell from the US always maintained it was the farmer that its all about in coffee. This narrative feels like it has finally broken through. I did always think for this to happen you need engaged customers who want to share and learn about the coffee world, there appears ot be more of these customers than ever.

The curiosity and passion for great coffee has clearly grown and shows no signs of slowing down. This newsletter is not exhaustive in listing aspects of coffee and how they may have changed over the last two decades. I wonder what stands out to you - the reader - as having changed drastically since you stumbled across this fabulous drink.