As we said in our last blog, it’s no secret that coffee is a trend-centric industry. We try to keep up with these trends and naturally, we have feelings about them – for better or worse.
We started with the bad news in our last blog, ripping the band-aid off by revealing what we felt were five of the worst trends in coffee in the last five years.
This time, it’s time to brighten the mood a bit.
A great thing about the coffee industry is that it is filled with talented, passionate individuals that are always seeking out ways to innovate and do better whether that means brewing tastier coffee, providing better hospitality to guests, caring better for employees in roasteries and cafes, etc. These new ideas disseminate throughout the industry as trends, some fleeting and some graduating out of trend-hood into industry standards.
So, let’s dive in, here are five of our favorite trends in coffee in the last 5 years.
1. COVID-19 Pivots
Coffee as an industry is always changing and evolving. Typically, large-scale changes occur slowly. Someone tries something, they wait and see the results, they refine their methodologies, others view what they’re doing and try it themselves, rinse, repeat.
2020 has been anything but typical. The COVID-19 pandemic is unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes, disrupting seemingly every aspect of our lives, and uprooting “business as usual” across every industry the world over. Including coffee.
As a result, many of the changes we’ve seen across the industry this year have occurred at unprecedented rates. We’ve seen operators truly embody the entrepreneurial spirit in their efforts to pivot their businesses in order to be able to more effectively continue to serve their customers safely and conveniently in light of the current crisis. If you ask us, it’s been pretty inspiring.
Some “Covid Pivots” that have struck us as particularly impressive:
Delivery – whether hot coffee beverages, pastries, booze and other food when applicable, retail bags, or even merch, many shops that traditionally operate in classic brick-and-mortar coffee shop format have taken their operations behind the wheel and taken their goods directly to their house-bound clientele.
New Products – Some shops have gotten creative with their menus throughout the pandemic, particularly during the spring months of mass quarantine. From toilet paper, to eggs, to raw meat, to hand-sanitizer, to fresh produce, we’ve seen many cafes step up and offer their customers many goods they were able to get through their restaurant suppliers which were otherwise quite difficult for households to obtain at traditional grocery outlets. Now that’s service!
To-Go Format – Many cafes historically focusing primarily on the dine-in format of their service were pushed to re-consider how to offer their goods in a take-out context throughout 2020. For some, this simply meant allowing guests to visit the counter and wait for their take-away coffee as per the usual, but some have pushed this concept further by implementing parking lot DIY “drive-thrus”, physically altering their buildings by adding drive-thru or walk-up windows, or even by creating totally hand’s free service.
E-Commerce – We’ve seen many cafes shift much of their energy online over the spring and summer, offering up fresh-roasted retail bags, coffee subscriptions, merch, and brewing gear online to keep their sales up despite lower levels of traffic at their storefronts. We hope this change remains in play long after COVID is a thing of the past.
2. Higher Prices
The fact that many producers work hard to create the best coffee they can muster only to then sell it for prices that may provide but a meager livelihood, if not merely to break-even or, worst case scenario, come in at a loss, is no secret. Conversations on the topic have been resonating throughout the industry for about as far back as memory reaches and over the last decade have increasing become relevant to consumers and their purchasing practices. It’s taken a long time for these conversations to develop to the point of identifying what paths toward meaningful action may exist but in the last several years, even in 2020 despite huge market uncertainties, the first steps toward actionable solutions have begun to manifest.
The coffee supply chain is huge and complex, but one thing is simple enough: for producers to receive more for their coffee, people throughout the supply chain must pay more for their coffee. While this can – and should – take place simultaneously at various points in the global supply chain, one of the most important places for this change to start is at the retail/café level. For coffee to command more value comprehensively, end-users must learn to value it more and to expect to pay more for it.
For operators, this can be a daunting task. Raising one’s prices often results in a consumer response of “I can just get it cheaper over here…” Scary.
Surprisingly enough, as the price tags on retail bags, cups of coffee, and lattes have gone up, and as concepts such as the “bottomless cup” have increasingly become things of the past, consumers have more often than not been on board, especially when these changes are made transparently and with the motivations behind them clearly articulated. It’s exciting to think that we are very likely seeing the conversations of better lives for producers transitioning from “what can we do?” to “this is what we are doing.”
3. Automated Pour-Overs
We love a good pour-over. Who doesn’t? We’ve all got our favorite recipes, brewer-types, filter media, etc. that lend themselves to our favorite profiles for our favorite beans. That said, ordering a pour-over at a busy café can be risky business.
Is the barista in a hurry due to high business levels in their café? Are they distracted? Are they really giving their full attention to the pattern of their pour, the numbers on their timers and scales, and the variety of other considerations that go into a great brew? Did they purge their grinder? Did they remember to set it to the correct grind setting?
There are many other questions we could add to this list and a slip up on just one of them can result in a coffee that fails to live up to what is often an elevated price-tag.
We’ve visited a lot of cafes and in even some of the most renowned and respected shops we’ve found ourselves thinking “maybe I should have just got a cup of batch-brewed coffee…”
This is why one of our favorite trends of the last five years is the increasing prevalence of automated-pour-over equipment from brands like Wilbur Curtis, Modbar, and Pour-Steady (check out our blog on our favorite of them all, the Wilbur Curtis Gold Cup). These machines, aside from their labor advantages, allow baristas to consistently execute cup after cup precisely by programming parameters such as water temperature, water volume, and pulse-pouring via digital interface.
While some may turn their nose up at the misguided notion that barista work is being outsourced to robots, we feel the truth is in the cup and hope that more operators continue to see the advantages of increasing both cup-consistency as well as barista’s capacity to focus on the customer, which is a perfect segue into the next trend on our list.
4. Hospitality Focus
Since time immemorial, baristas have had to fight against the stereotype of the too-cool-for-school, grouchy, hipster barista. The problem was, the stereotype was often correct.
Over the last several years we’ve loved seeing being nice become cool, with an industry-wide focus on hospitality and customer service.
From SCA classes on customer service, to the popularity of books like Danny Meyer’s “Setting the Table,” to podcast upon podcast of hospitality focused content, the tides have definitely turned and more often than not these days, the hospitality we have come to expect in cafes, even the most boutique among them, has been vastly elevated from what we’d come to expect just five years ago.
It’s likely no coincidence that over the same time-period we’ve seen the market share of the specialty segment of the coffee industry continue to rise exponentially with more and more customers visiting better cafes more frequently – and returning to them again and again.
Baristas often like to analogize their role within the industry to that of sommeliers in wine. It’s great to see them finally beginning to act like it.
5. Better Decaf
We’ve all heard the trite, yet delightfully alliterative, phrase “death to decaf.” What better way to alienate a segment of those trying to support us in our endeavors to serve our customers well and support our families doing what we love?
In our opinion, the predominant reason this phrase even came to be was because so many roasters were unwilling to put in the same attention to detail and focus on quality to their decaf coffees as to their caffeinated offerings. Decaf is more expensive due to the extra processing and it generally doesn't sell as quick as it's caffeinated siblings, which makes it less profitable for the roaster.
We’ve even seen many a roaster leave their decaf coffees off the table during QC cuppings!
Luckily for us all, this is one of many cringey barista aptitudes that has been dropped in favor of truly trying to serve our customers the best we can (see trend 4).
We’ve seen an increase in roasters taking pride in making their decaf coffees delicious, some even going so far as to release special edition decaf coffees, boxed sets of multiple decaf offerings, and we’ve continued to see more quality-focused decaffeination methods, such as Ethyl Acetate, gain more notoriety.
Whether for health reasons, late-in-the-day-cravings, or a menagerie of potential reasons that at the end of the day are none-of-our-business, we are happy to see more people putting more energy into ensuring that more coffees are as delicious as they possibly can be.