To say that Specialty Coffee is a trend-driven industry is far from a controversial statement. From equipment, to brewing to techniques, to shop build-outs, motifs and ideas have a tendency to spread – and often change – rapidly.
That’s not to say that this is a bad thing; if you think about it, any standard procedure of today started as a trend at one point.
That’s also not to say it’s always good. Hasty decisions and form without function can be problematic as well and homogeneity can dilute the creativity inherent within the industry
We find these ever-evolving trends fascinating and we’ve got opinions on them.
So, let’s get to the point. In this two-part series, we examine what we feel are the top five best, and top five worst trends we’ve seen in Specialty Coffee in the last five years.
Pt. I - The Bad
1. EK43 Shots
Popularized by Aussie-coffee-wunderkind and the object of much barista fan-boying/girling, Matt Perger, espressos prepared using an EK43 grinder aren’t inherently bad, however, their implementation in cafes has been mostly awful.
“EK-shots” as they’re often known within the industry have proven to be able to provide a higher extraction-yield than many traditional espresso grinders – and can be very tasty – but most of them that we have had in cafes have ranged from thin, sour, and acrid, to “meh.”
Many cafes have used the addition of EK-shots to their menus as a means toward the end of offering a huge variety of espresso options. Keeping up with dialing in a couple of espressos and keeping up with the changes inherent to espresso production is a tall enough task on its own without complicating matters by trying to see how vast an espresso menu can be.
Lastly, for cafes doing anything even approaching high-volume, EK-shots simply aren’t conducive to quick and efficient service – particularly without adding after-market gadgets and do-dads. Additional steps like pre-weighing doses and purging between coffees outweigh the advantages.
EK-shots, in the context of café service have largely seemed to be a case study in “if you don’t fully understand why it is better, just don’t do it.” Or maybe just leave it for the lab.
2. Geshas Galore
For much of the Specialty Coffee world the cultivar Gesha was introduced in 2004 by way of Panama’s Hacienda La Esmerelda’s submission to the Best of Panama competition, however, Gesha was originally discovered growing in Ethiopia’s Gori Gesha forest.
Today, Gesha coffees are highly sought after, extremely expensive, and seemingly everywhere.
Our beef isn’t with the cultivar itself, but rather some of the effects of its proliferation throughout the industry.
Achieving higher prices for coffee is a good thing (as you'll see in our next blog) both for green coffee, as well as roasted coffee, but the marketing around Gesha coffees has often been uninformed, and at times even disingenuous.
Wanting to capitalize on the buzzword, many roasters and cafes have sold sub-par coffees at high price points essentially just because they can. Whether these coffees were grown at too low of elevation, or not properly profiled (the cost of the coffee has at times caused some roasters to spend less time on r&d and profiling for fear of wasting money), it’s problematic in that it’s actually counter-productive to the mission of conveying the value to consumers that leads to higher prices.
If we are going to ask consumers to pay more for a product and build elevated expectations surrounding unique coffees, the quality needs to be there in the cup to assure them that the experience was worth it.
And that’s not to mention what has happened within coffee competition circuits such as World Brewer’s Cup, where scarcely any competition finalists are NOT brewing a Gesha, but that’s inside baseball and a topic for another time.
3. Homogenized Cafe Aesthetics
Perhaps this isn’t necessarily a new trend. If asked to imagine a “90’s coffee shop” most people’s minds conjure images of couches, large mugs, and grungy-yet-comfy aesthetics. To an extent, these sorts of trends are merely symptoms of their place and time
That said, when we can fairly accurately assume what a trendy new café is going to look like before walking in, it can get old.
If asked to imagine a 2010’s café, we see subway tiles, Edison bulbs, re-purposed science equipment like beakers, denim aprons, minimalist bordering on sterile design, and on and on, and when we have visited cafes over the last half-decade we have, in fact, seen these things. We’ve seen them over and over again.
What's lost in this land of carbon copy cafes is the capacity of brands to express their unique identities, opting instead to play it safe and redundantly cater to an image of "what a coffee shop should look like."
As we move into the 2020s, we hope we see brands express their unique identities visually through their spaces and bank a little less on the idea that a Specialty Coffee shop has to look a certain way.
4. Label Abuse
More than ever, consumers are driven to purchase products that align with their social values. For example: organic food sales continue to see substantial growth year over year and as an industry segment is worth over $50B.
Coffee consumers are more likely to be considering factors like environmental impact and the economic stability of producers than they have been in years past and – while most aren’t going to put in the effort of hours upon hours of research – the number one place they are going to be obtaining the information to rate coffees on these metrics is on the coffee bags themselves.
Roasting companies have caught onto this and have increasing affixed various labels and certifications to their bags like so many pieces of flair on Jennifer Anniston’s Chotchkies apron in Office Space.
The problem with these certifications is that the reality behind them often does not reflect what consumers are led to believe.
The “Fair Trade” certification, for example, issued by Fair Trade International, claims to generate a more economically advantageous position for producers. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, the actual results of this put in the practice are ambiguous at best, with many accusing the organization of operating off of a self-beneficial profit motive and many studies showing the results for producers to be negligible.
Another good example is the Organic certification. Plenty of coffee on the market is produced organically but cannot be labeled as such due to the expenses inherent within the process of achieving certification. Additionally, many steps involved in the certification process are to a large extent only possible for larger-scale, more industrialized farms. While the certification itself may not be untrue, it certainly doesn’t speak to quality and potentially puts smaller scale producers at a market disadvantage.
Perhaps the most nefarious of the commonly abused labels isn’t an official certification at all – “Direct Trade.” Again, at face value, direct trade sounds great, typically referring to a direct relationship between a roasting company and a producer. In theory, cutting out the middlemen (brokers, importing companies, etc.) allows the roaster to obtain coffee at the same, or even a cheaper, price while simultaneously enabling the producer to achieve a higher price.
Without any standardization defining this term, different companies use the phrase with wildly differing definitions. For some companies it means that they’re regularly visiting farms, monitoring, and perhaps helping to improve, quality, participating in community initiatives at origin, and ensuring fair payment of producers and their workers. For others it may mean they visit a farm once and snap some photos of their staff with locals to use for marketing materials, amounting to little more than poverty porn. For some, it may simply mean they got an email address and placed an order from their laptop.
In all of these cases, the situation is essentially the same: companies are taking advantage of consumer trends to line their own pockets, while diluting the value that others are genuine adding as a result of actual effort to do better business.
5. Health Trend Coffee
A lot of folks take their health serious these days with new blogs, books, and fad diets appearing seemingly daily. At times, coffee has been roped into the dietary trends with – often dubious – claims made about how doing this or that to coffee will provide an array of health benefits.
Most notably, Bulletproof coffee generated high levels of attention when it hit the scene several years ago. Bulletproof coffee is a “Keto coffee” concoction of coffee, MCT oil (marketed by the Bulletproof brand as “Brain Octane Oil”), and ghee (sometimes substituted with grass-fed dairy butter). Allegedly, Bulletproof coffee catalyzes ketosis, burns fat, inhibits food cravings, and provides mental clarity. All while making your coffee gross!
Another recent health-coffee trend is “mold free coffee” which is allegedly free of mycotoxins, tiny fungi which can grow on some crops in certain conditions. While it is true that the mycotoxins which may relate to coffee, aflatoxin B1 and ochratoxin A, are known to be possible weak carcinogens, at the levels that can occur within the context of coffee consumptions, they are easily neutralized by the liver. Brands like Bulletproof (there they are again!) claim that mycotoxins also cause lethargy and reduce brain function – and that they make coffee bitter (wrong). Luckily, Bulletproof is here to save the day by offering coffees that under-go a top-secret process to rid them of these pesky mycotoxins (note: they are not the only brand marketing similar products).
Some mycotoxin facts: levels present in food products are regulated by over 100 countries, the washed process greatly reduces them, the roasting process eliminates more than 90% of them, and a Spanish study discovered that individuals consuming 4 cups of coffee a day were receiving 2% of what is considered a safe level.
This isn’t a judgment call on the dietary preferences of anyone but of companies like Bulletproof capitalizing on the growing tendency for individuals to care better for themselves by perpetuating bogus health information so that they can charge huge premiums for mediocre coffee.
Ok, we’ll stop complaining now.
This wasn’t meant to be a critique as much as a self-reflection on where we are at as an industry. Within all of these trends lie positives for the industry as well – but that wasn’t the focus of this blog!
Luckily, for all the glass-half-full-types, our next piece will examine what we view as five of the BEST trends in coffee over the last five years.