Friday, April 5, 2013

"Is anyone in line waiting for just drip coffee?"

Within months of the merger of Howard Schultz's Italian-inspired Il Giornale espresso bars and the retail stores of Starbucks, the question I've used to title this post was frequently asked by harried cashiers trying to move the espresso bar queue along. 

Among the many unintended consequences of opening the espresso Pandora's box in the midst of what was formerly a retail coffee store was the immediate demotion of coffee not made fresh, to order, and expressly for you (the best definition of espresso I know of) to a much lower status. 

The drip coffee in question, at that time (from the mid 80's to the early 90's) was pretty awesome stuff, too - think Guatemala Antigua San Sebastian, top Kenya auction lots, Sigri Estate Papua New Guinea - brewed strong and fresh on the best commercial equipment and sold within minutes of brewing. 

It was immediately obvious to me that the worst part of the perceived higher value of "espresso" - which of course really means "espresso-flavored milk drinks" was that it was the lowly drip coffee that was the real connoisseur's choice, as it was the only option for those interested in the actual taste of coffee rather than coffee as an ingredient. Denigration of drip coffee and its customer base might have seemed savvy given the higher profit margins for espresso drinks, but catering to the caffe latte trade also meant kissing the whole bean coffee business goodbye, and with it any consumer base capable of appreciating the farmer and roaster's hard work. 

The question even back then was how to upgrade the perceived value of coffee-by-the-cup to that of the milk drinks, and the obvious answer was and still is that said coffee needs to also be brewed fresh to order each time. Even back then the technology to deliver excellent coffee by the cup quickly existed (WMF, Wittenborg and other hi-tech brewers, as well as lowly but functional units like the FilterFresh machine that were clear precursors to today's K-Cups and the like), but it was held captive to awful brands of roasted coffee or franchise operations. 

The Bunn Trifecta

Today's single-cup market

From what I can tell the commercial marketplace, at least in the U.S., is very limited. There are machines that require you to purchase coffee from exclusive suppliers (Nespresso, Keurig, Filterfresh and the like), but the only "open source" machines that I know of are Curtis's Gold Cup brewer, which I haven't had any experience with and the Bunn Trifecta. The Trifecta is an excellent brewer, and I love the fact that it's available in both a $3000 commercial version and a $550 home brewer that makes all the sense in the world for those who can afford it. 

On the consumer side it's a fragmented market, with Keurig the clear volume leader. Ken Davids at Coffee Review has an excellent review of current options for the Keurig:

He's only testing the standard K-Cup machine here, and Keurig's new Vue unit seems to have addressed the major drawbacks of the older unit, increasing brew temperature to up to 197 degrees F and coffee dosage and consequent cup size to 12-18 ounces from the standard Keurig's 6, as well as offering recyclable plastic capsules. All that seems to be missing at this point is a craft roaster (or consortium of craft roasters) willing to put some truly great origin coffees into this format in order to have push-button coffee that rivals the best conventionally-brewed cups.

On the other hand, as Davids points out in his article, for less than the cost of a typical Keurig or Nespresso brewer you can own an Aeropress (my first choice) or Clever Dripper, decent burr grinder and a scale and brew great locally-roasted (better still, home-roasted) coffee with complete control of the variables and total freedom of choice with regard to coffee, degree of roast and freshness.

The daily cup: ritual or convenience?

Taking the long view, the rapid penetration of espresso into the mass market over the past 25 years has been a total game-changer in terms of consumer expectations of freshness, speed of preparation and ability to customize what one drinks. There's no going back.

The ideal cup of coffee would be ultra-fresh, ground and brewed to order in seconds, perfectly balanced in flavor and aroma, with plenty of variety of choices, consistent in quality - and affordable to drink and enjoy on a daily basis. At this point I think it behooves any medium-sized or larger roaster-retailer to have in their cupping room a Keurig, a Nespresso machine and both home and commercial models of the Trifecta and to regulary test their preferred in-store drip-strength options against these brewers not only for flavor but for speed and ease of preparation, consistency, throughput, user-friendliness and - last not least - suitability for consumer use to replicate the in-store coffee at home easily and affordably.

The Aeropress - the best single-cup home brewer - being used commercially

P.S. a nice late entrant to the home single-cup brewer world is what is essentially a porcelain Clever Dripper from Bonavita:

It'll be heavy and brekable compared to the Clever, but by preheating the porcelain extraction and finished cup temperature ought to be much better. These kind of work-arounds are necessary standard operating procedure anytime one attempts to downsize drip brewing, which really needs at least a quart-sized batch (but a gallon or two is so much better) for best results. This is pretty darn impressive for what it is, but I think most two-or-more person households would be better served by a Bonavita or Brazen electric brewer, or a Bodum Santos for the truly fanatical.


  1. Kevin,

    Sometimes I wonder if one of the reasons Starbucks (my employer) cares so little about brewed coffee in stores is because customers go straight for the cream and sugar once they get their cup. More and more customers are ordering grande coffees in venti cups then making a bee line straight for the condiment bar to load up on half & half and Sugar in the Raw. Even when ordering Pike Place Blend (which is as flavorless as coffees come) customers go straight for the cream and sugar. Honestly, I have to pay more attention to ordering half &half and Sugar in the Raw than I do 5 lb. bags of whole beans for daily brewing.

    It seems to me that no matter how much we invest in our brewed coffee our customers habits are set and we are nearly powerless to change them. I feel like this is why the Clover brewers are so slow to roll out to more stores. I also feel like this is why product innovation has to do with sweet flavors and not coffee. You said that going espresso was a game changer and there is no turning back. I feel like that is what happened to Starbucks. We became all about sweet drinks where the espresso is essentially undetectable, so much so that there is literally more syrup in a venti than espresso. Heck, the logo was redesigned to specifically omit the word "coffee". I mean, we are "innovating" in the coffee category to compete with McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts. I can't help but think that it's too late for Starbucks to employ your tactics. Worse yet, I don't think that is what our customers want. I think our customers are perfectly happy to overpay for sugar and steamed milk, or just keep on dumping half & half and raw sugar into their Pike Place Blend.

    I would love to see a roaster/retailer have the courage to make it about the coffee as you propose. I can honestly say the best coffee I have ever had came out of my French press at home. I would love to be able to help my customers enjoy properly brewed coffee at home but they would rather just get their caffeine delivered by way of cream and sugar.

    Thanks for another great blog post. Your thoughts and insights are very inspiring to a coffee lover like me.

  2. When bitter and bland are what's on offer, you reach for the milk and sugar. It's that simple. Starbucks has done this to themselves, but it wasn't always so.

    The French Press is Starbucks' most recommended home brewing method, and Sumatra coffee has historically been the company's best-selling single-origin coffee. Yet you can't walk into a Starbucks and order a cup or pot of plunger pot Sumatra. The disconnect between what people inside the company think is excellent and what is sold to pay the bills is quite complete.

    Look at where the innovation is these days: instant flavored coffee, pod brewing systems, non-cofee drinks. There is no there there anymore, and hasn't been for many years. Removing "coffee" from the Starbucks logo is just a rare example of truth in advertising.

  3. I purchased a 12 oz. pack of Nica Maracaturra from Sbucks and received a free brewing of same in the Clover. Disappointing. Another visit I got a "just" drip coffee, and it was awful. Took the Nica home, brewed it in my trusty plastic Melitta and voila - it's a surprisingly nice interpretation of that coffee. So the Mermaid can still roast well when it wants to.

    I consider myself "proudly Second Wave". My best coffee memories are from places like the old Santa Cruz Coffee Roasters - succulent Tanzania Peaberry roasted to full city and brewed by the cup by lovely hippies. Now it seems anything roasted beyond first crack is heresy. Sorry, I don't like sour coffee.

    It seems to me that the one avenue for bringing back the brew is through the mushrooming "Third Wave" joints with their siphons and Harios, but their utterly reactionary approach to roasting I think alienates a majority of us old farts who believe cupping roasts are for critiquing, not drinking.

  4. Thanks for your comments Robert. I looked up your bakery and the bread looks wonderful (and bread that good is harder to find than great coffee!).

    I agree with you about the roasting situation. You have to remember that most of the owners and staff at the newer places have come up from a barista culture with no real training in how to cup, source or roast coffee. The distinction between a cupping roast and a production roast dialed into specific brewing methods just isn't there in many cases.

    I think that what's healthy is to have a wide range of roast styles and brewing methods, but what we see now is a whole lot of people imitating Stumptown, Blue Bottle, Intelligentsia and the like, which means a lot of screamingly acid, overpriced, under-roasted washed coffees from a tiny handful of origins. It's a giant step backwards from the heyday of Starbucks, Peets and The Coffee Connection.

  5. I'm enjoying your post Kevin. I don't mean to move the topic away from drip brew but since you were talking about roasting profiles I thought I would chime in.

    I started out at Starbucks and then moved into the "third wave" coffee movement as a roaster. I have found it extremely challenging to grow my knowledge when most of the "respected" roasters are roasting just into first crack and I still insist on taking the roast to the brink of, (or right into), second crack. That means to the rest of the coffee world I roast "dark" and that this style of roasting is completely disregarded as a way of presenting coffee. Just wanted to say thanks for providing some wisdom and giving roasters like me a different influence to turn to.

    Thank you!