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Is Specialty Coffee Just a Fad?
Posted by Kim Thompson on

Is Specialty Coffee Just a Fad?

Coffee evokes strong emotions. It is more than a drink, for some, it is the foundation for a community, and for new Specialty coffee enthusiasts, it can become a serious infatuation and the beginning of literally a new life direction. Connoisseurs come in all shapes and sizes, ages, and nationalities and their thirst for knowledge are deep and personal. I believe, the desire to belong, to become part of a like-minded group of people, a community, is as deep a reason to “find coffee’ as the actual coffee itself. 

Specialty versus Commodity is a term used to designate the quality or grade of the coffee, and specialty signifies a score out of 100 that is higher than 80, and the price increases significantly as the score increases. But it is so much more than that. It is the management of all the variables involved to produce a great coffee, everything that goes into, and impacts the totality of the cup. Specialty roasters often have a transparent supply chain, direct trade if they are lucky, and hopefully involving social enterprises and long term mutually beneficial sourcing practices where sustainable practices benefit both parties. If we use our relationships at origin and our knowledge, we can share the story of where your coffee comes from, to give the farmers and their families a voice but also to help you identify with them, which enriches and adds to your sense of connection.


We buy Specialty coffee from many countries and it is synonymous with the Arabica species. But did you know that when you say you love coffee from Colombia for example, that all coffees from Colombia do not taste the same? The seed varietal, the altitude and soil health, the weather, sunshine, and rain are all factors that influence the flavor of the coffee, exactly like grapes or apples. And very importantly once the coffee cherry is ripe and picked it is how that coffee is processed, which develops the characteristics you might recognize from a country of origin. Processing knowledge and experimentation are thriving, with terms like anaerobic fermentation or carbonic maceration, and you could be excused for assuming we were discussing other artisan beverage production methods found in wine or champagne. So, it can also appeal to your “geekiness” and many third wave cafes have been designed around creating that vibe, with their cold drip stations, syphons and pour over stands.

 

Here at the pointy end of the supply chain, facing the end consumer, it is often highly subjective to measure who is delivering their coffee consistently well, and realistically your opinion may come down to Nationality, your neighborhood location, a particular barista who knows exactly how you like your favorite coffee prepared or a brand you identify with. I would rather discuss here the evolution of specialty coffee and the Specialty cafe scene here in the UAE and whether you are aware that while we are submerged in our own country’s coffee growth, and how it is evolving, we are not re-inventing the wheel. Everything the specialty coffee scene is going through here is following the same trends and curves elsewhere in the world has experienced. We are not an anomaly, even though we are located in an area so rich with coffee history. Theoretically, we could learn from countries that are ahead of us, or who have a more developed specialty coffee scene and learn from them. 

 

Recent history has seen some very interesting developments in our Specialty Coffee world; Blue Bottle Coffee was purchased for 700 million dollars by Nestle; Coca Cola bought Costa Coffee; Starbucks launched Starbucks Reserve and brazenly opened a branch in Milan; we have famous coffee personalities with YouTube channels sharing their knowledge to hundreds of thousands of followers internationally and through this sharing of information we are seeing rapid leaps in quality and knowledge.

While people dreaming of opening a café may be a little more cautious than usual at the moment, there is still a strong temptation, a draw or lure new people into Specialty coffee, it is trendy to be involved in Specialty coffee and even though there are many café’s that don’t make it financially (and who have not reopened since the March lockdown) just maybe new entrepreneurs hope their business model may be stronger, their location better or their timing better.

The world of specialty coffee is so appealing for so many reasons and not just the obvious sensory ones. So, as a consumer finding your spot, your café, the place that makes you feel part of a community, a sense of belonging, that ticks your boxes is tantamount to finding your modern-day tribe. The same reason many people decide to open a café is the same reason there is so much personality put into your selection, it could be compared as an extension of your home, where you welcome your friends and guests into your living room.

At RAW Coffee Company we have created a space in a large rectangular industrial warehouse where we can do the job that is our core business, which is storing lots of sacks of green beans, freshly roasting these coffees, supplying these coffees to home aficionados and commercial cafes, and supporting our origin partners to grow and be successful. We also have a busy training department where we share our knowledge and love of coffee and a technical department that serves and maintains everything we work with and represent here. But our space also needed to feel right so that it would attract our tribe; it needed to not only be functional and cope with heavy workflow, but also be welcoming and give them a sense of ownership, to feel like it was their place, their people and their community. We aren’t particularly designer or pretty, more “RAW” and no-frills, so that will not appeal to everyone, but we do have good coffee, we are genuinely immersed in delivering a really good coffee experience. 

Most importantly to us, this experience should be authentic, and not a copy of somewhere we visited (for example in Melbourne) where we loved the design or menu. We take our role as market leader very seriously, there is a responsibility attached to this, to ensure we mentor our team and our café partners, and to help their businesses to be successful and give them that competitive advantage. To do this we have to dive deep and focus on all the variables and details involved in not only what is inside the cup, but also the overall experience. Sometimes it feels like our Specialty coffee community is not very welcoming or friendly, but this is to be expected when the market is relatively small, with many new operators vying for the same business. But this is not unique either to the region especially as our niche is going through rapid progress.

Our regular customers know our team’s names and we know their’s, we know where they prefer to sit and what they like to order before they even ask. We are extremely careful when we travel to origin to source our green beans, to select an extensive range of coffees and to have unique offerings with a complete range of flavours, so that we can attract all Nationalities and palettes. We then take these green beans, and roast by single origin in our 18kg roasters, always ensuring optimum freshness and consistent quality.


We selected our espresso equipment carefully, not just for aesthetics (although this is also a consideration), but also for our trust in them to give us dependability and functionality. Grinders surprisingly are more important than the espresso machine, and grinder technology has advanced so much in the 13 years since we started our coffee selves. Like buying a car, you get what you pay for, but continuing along with this analogy, it would be a waste for me to buy a McLaren sports car, as I don’t have the skills to drive this or get the best performance out of it. 

For coffee, the importance of understanding your water can not be underestimated, importantly for the taste of your beverage but also for the health and longevity of your equipment. The quality of all ingredients going into the cup should be recognised and respected equally, while we believe coffee to be the most important, it is a part of a whole. For preparing your coffee at home we have run extensive tests and would recommend the water companies owned by both Coca Cola and Pepsi (Arwa and Aqua Panna), as both these companies also understand the importance of water for their beverages.

We have built our own water treatment plant and make really good chemically correct water that we can rely on when we make our coffee, and we also offer our customers complimentary still or sparkling water when they come in to dine with us, which we present to them while they check out the menu. This is something we grew up within New Zealand, where it was unheard of to “buy” drinking water when we were younger, it was a right that we took for granted, that water from the tap should taste good. 

Environmentally and morally we have moved away from single-use plastic, all our disposables including our hot and cold cups, lids, and straws are biodegradable and non-plastic. We have chosen to be ethically conscious in every aspect of the operation of our business.

A strength of our business that differentiates us from many other companies is the incredible talent and loyalty of our team. We made the decision to educate and empower our team, investing years of on-going training. It is actually impossible to deliver Specialty coffee correctly without skilled baristas who care about what they do, which requires support from owners and recognition of their skill and the revenue they bring into a business.

If you make your coffee at home and just beginning your coffee journey, experimenting and spending time online learning, beware, as this is how many of us started and it is alike purchasing a ticket for a roller coaster ride that you will not be able to get off.


2020 has presented each of us in the Specialty Coffee industry with enormous challenges and if we had to measure how long this pandemic and subsequent economic fallout will last, nobody at the moment really has a clear answer to that.  Here in the F&B world, we play in, our industry was one that was hit pretty hard and pretty early on, but we were not unique in that. Lockdown in March saw many good businesses close their doors, and for good and so many good people, lost their jobs and good people lost their businesses. Something we are acutely aware of is that we want to support our farmers and partners at the country's origins, as these people have become our friends and much of our success is due to their amazing dedication and work. Most of the best Specialty coffee grown in the world comes from third world or poor countries where the coffee is the country’s most important export and many of those farming struggle to etch out a sustainable living. Another reason why for us we have chosen to buy our coffee directly, to pay social premiums, and to offer continuity and pre-commitments.  Without these amazing farmers, there would be no Specialty coffee. 

Locally we also have a very important new coffee player who could strongly influence the UAE increasing its international importance in Specialty Coffee.  DMCC, who have an established and very successful tea trading business, and who correctly recognised the potential to add coffee trading to their group. Not just trading in green beans, they also offer barista training, contract roasting, white-label roasting, a base for international businesses looking to enter the Middle East market, and to be seen as an Internationally competitive coffee hub.

Trends we expected this year heavily focused on Cold Brew and Nitro infused cold coffees; bottled ready to drink coffee; coffee as an ingredient in cocktails and mocktails; Manual brewing or hand-poured coffees; Non-dairy milk; and there is also more importance on the processing methods your coffee went through at origin. 

You can now add to these trends the new Covid-19 influenced businesses that have arrived. Almost overnight we saw maybe a dozen new Online aggregators focusing purely on coffee and coffee-related paraphernalia, all here in the UAE and all aggressively positioning for market share. But if you look at the F&B industry as a whole, aggregators not only take % of profit but more importantly they are then the point of contact between you and your customers. Apps that help with contactless ordering and payment have a place in these times of social distancing and will be helpful if we have to go back to the possibility of curbside pickup. Our belief is that this nonvalue add model isn’t sustainable for pure specialty coffees. We recognised early on in lockdown people were looking to upskill and have educational experiences from home, they had more time to spend either making sourdough, or banana bread or cooking, and coffee could be included in this sensory learning, so we developed interactive virtual barista sessions. They have proved very popular and helped people at any level of skill with a wide range of home accessories and equipment, to get the best out of their coffee. 


As an extension of social distancing and quarantine, maybe even working from home, the need for connection and community these days, is even more pronounced. Cafes that are able to offer a space where customers feel safe, where they can trust processes and sanitation, are some of the first spaces many people feel happy to re-enter society. And with many people on reduced salaries, where they decide to spend their money will be motivated by many of the factors those of us in Specialty coffee have already chosen to focus our time and energy on. It may be subliminal, but if big players have recognised what we do well in Specialty compared to the franchises, and these same big players have started to use our Specialty terminology and language, we can 100% assume we are onto something.

So, is Specialty coffee just a fad? Absolutely not. 

Is it possible to switch back from appreciating a beautiful cup of Specialty coffee to inferior Commodity coffee, and drink it with the same pleasure? Absolutely not, it is the same way that it is very difficult to go back when you appreciate anything fine, or better quality.

Can the UAE reach the expectations the new DMCC Coffee Center has of becoming an influential and important player in the world coffee scene, and will all of us with our own businesses be part of that journey? Absolutely!

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