Friday, March 14, 2014

Solipsistic Narcissism

Here's a post from Sprudge that perfectly captures the kind of reportage (if you can call it that) about specialty coffee I see everywhere today.

It's a riff on a New York Daily News piece that questions the value of a $10 caffe latte. The drink in question is called the Lakkris Latte, and it's described in a link from the main article above:

Lakkrís Latte, a very sweet concoction made with licorice syrup and licorice salt on a base of Tim Wendelboe coffee from Finca Tamana, Colombia.

The balance of the short piece is a bunch of muddled snark about how different coffees are of course worth different prices, about how coffee "expert" Oliver Strand (who's never worked in the coffee industry but apparently qualifies by writing about it and kissing sufficient Third Wave ass) is looking forward to a latte worth $10, and so on. Nowhere in this article, or in any of the writing I see on Sprudge - or by Strand and his ilk, for that matter, does customer perception of value and quality even enter the discussion. The opinion of the folks footing the bill for all of this doesn't even enter the equation. That is what I mean by solipsistic (focused solely on one's own experience) narcissism (smug self-love) having become the main mode of discourse in what passes for coffee journalism these days. 

Do I even need to mention that cinnamon-roasted Colombian coffee doused in licorice syrup, salt and milk is just the kind of terroir-driven, transparent experience of taste of place that coffee farmers everywhere ought to be delighting in? And what a great way to build a consumer base willing to pay for the flavor subtleties inherent in great unadulterated single-origin coffee (the milk and licorice surely just enhance the transparency). 

But as we know, any pricey coffee experience is worth its asking price - as long as it's proffered by a company who "partners" with Sprudge. No wonder they won the S.C.A.A.'s distinguished author award; that kind of integrity just can't be bought. 


  1. Small world! I know both of these owners had no idea they opened this place. They live up the street from me, I actually saw Crystal on the subway yesterday, Elliot is a great musician, but I think the next time I see him he is going to get an earfull.

  2. I'll also say that I went into Blue Bottle in my neighborhood to get an iced coffee (what can I say, I like it!). I was about to stomach paying the usual $3.50, but alas! The price went up $1.00 AND they are charging tax on top of it now. I am by no means cheap, but I was pretty pissed. Not worth it, not going back.

  3. I avoid any mention of the website you're talking about here as much as I can; it's for my own sanity as much as anything, but I'm glad to see you're identifying a truth (that also, btw, exists with Coffee Review): sponsorships at certain websites garner benefits.

    I will however, slightly agree with the premise you're debating against - coffees should be priced differently, depending on source, region, and of course, quality. The trick is getting the customer to understand that, just like whiskeys, bourbons, scotches, wines, heck, even honey, the quality quotient equals (and deserves) a price jump.

    I say "slightly" agree because I really railed against the ridiculousness a few years back of the $100+ a pound Panama Geishas and the $15 cup of "promotional coffees". I have just a smidge more respect for those coffees and the message they bring about, that I do for Kopi Luwak.

    I have no horse in the race of quality coffee other than I try to teach consumers, via CoffeeGeek and via my Vancouver lab, about quality coffee, because quality coffee is a passion of mine. When people started to "perceive" me as an expert in 2002, it bothered me, so I did something about it - I took courses, I learned, I did various SCAA educational things, learned to judge coffee formally, and one of my pride points is I was the first Canadian to become WBC certified and take the sensory skills test and pass. I did all this not to benefit a roasting company or sell beans or espresso machines. I did it to fuel my passion and have some legitimacy in what I say and do about coffee.

    I say I have no horse because that's a qualifier - I want the public to experience the joys in quality coffee I have, and I do what I do for just that sorta-selfish reason.

    I say all the above in response to your comment about Strand and the others: "...does customer perception of value and quality even enter the discussion. " Almost everything I do, say, write, opinionate on regarding coffee is from and for the customer standpoint. Years ago, I wrote "I fight for the consumer" to a coffee pro who didn't like me calling his company out on a particularly pretentious action... anyway, I digress.

    So in promoting quality coffee to consumers, educating them directly or providing a venue for peers amongst consumer enthusiasts to educate each other, I'm pretty keenly aware of what works in converting a "coffee achiever" to a coffee enthusiast, and what turns them away. Snobbery and pretentionistic behaviour turns them away, much more than prices or difficulty in brewing methods.

    $10 lattes, $15 cups of Panama are seen as being effete, pretentious, elitist, exclusionary things in coffee. They do no good for me trying to convince an on-the-fencer that coffee equates quality.

    At the end of the day, showing someone that this coffee tastes remarkably better than that coffee or that brewing method, yada yada, that provides epiphanies and conversions. Which benefits the entire specialty market. And where we differ (I think) Kevin is that I firmly believe different price points help cement the idea that there are good coffees, great coffees, and shitty coffees. So personally, not only do I not have problems with a coffee menu concept where some cups are $2.50, some are $3.50 and some are $5, I do have problems with the $15 cup when everything else on your menu is $2.75.

    Don't get me started on the artificial flavours in the coffee in the linked article. That's just bullshit.

  4. Hi Coffee Geek,

    Once again we're in complete agreement. I'm all for a variety of prices both by the pound and by the cup reflecting actual costs, rarity, value and so on. As with the other beverages you mention though, there needs to be a clear statement by the retailer that there isn't a linear relationship between price and quality.

    A reasonably informed consumer knows that a $450 bottle of Bordeaux isn't going to be 30 times better than a dynamite $15 old-vine Grenache brought in by a top importer like, say, Eric Solomon or Kermit Lynch, and both wines might score, say, 93 points in Robert Parker or Stephen Tanzer. The exponentially higher price for the Bordeaux reflects market conditions, hype and various other things.

    Taking this analogy further, critics like Parker and many wine shops go out of their way to feature high "bang for the buck" wines under $15-20, but this value-oriented approch has become rare in coffee retailing and seems to be non-existent among Third Wave places. Mr. Peet used to mandate that Papua New Guinea and Ethiopian Yergacheffe be priced pretty much the same as House Blend and Colombian in order to let people know that truly great, undervaluec coffee could be enjoyed on a daily basis.

    There are only a tiny handful of origins that are priced in thee green market based on flavor uniqueness: Kenya auction lots, top washed and natural Ethiopians, Yemen Mocha, a handful of Indonesians and the Gesha varietal. None of these coffees except the Gesha command prices that preclude daily enjoyment.

    Anyway, getting back to the overall thrust of your comments, your interests and mine are the same. The focus of all of my work at both Starbucks and Allegro was to break down the barriers between the cupping room and the retail counter - to turn the consumer on to the kinds of coffee experiences professionals enjoy at home on a daily basis. That's what we need to see much more of in order for today's roaster-retailers to represent genuine progress, and to build a consumer base, however small, that is truly in love with the taste of place as reflected in their morning cup.