Why some coffee consumers are more discerning

Why some coffee consumers are more discerning

1 December 2013

Over the past five years or so, a new breed of coffee consumers has been surfacing in Australia. They are savvy, almost professional consumers: 'prosumers'. They are well informed and have their own palate to guide them in what they like. Armed with online rating apps, they pursue their favorite coffees, cafes and baristas. They are increasingly discriminating. They see coffee as being cool.

Alongside the emergence of these new-style consumers, has been the emergence of the unique antipodean barista culture and behind it the professional coffee roaster.

As mentioned in a previous BeanScene article, Australian and New Zealand baristas are sought after around the world. In very intense and competitive markets, these baristas live or die with their ability to keep up with a constant demand for primarily espresso and milk based drinks. I would say it is the most competitive espresso and milk based market in the world, bar none. With almost 90 per cent of orders as espresso and milk based drinks with some amount of milk, Australia and New Zealand lead the world in this market.

In America, according to Matt Milletto of the American Barista School, in specialty coffee outlets in North America approximately 60 per cent of orders are espresso and milk based drinks, while the remaining 40 per cent are traditional drip-filter and alternative brewing methods. In Italy, maybe 20 per cent of orders are milk-based, with espresso on its own the most popular. In emerging Asian markets like Korea, espresso and milk-based drinks probably represent around 30 per cent of market demand.

Australian coffee consumers are the beneficiaries of those wonderful post-war Italian immigrants, who lovingly reproduced their strong, smooth, rich, and chocolatey style of espresso. This style just happened to perfectly complement the milk-based coffee preferred by most Australian consumers who had grown up with instant coffee and milk; the ancestor of the now ubiquitous 'flat-white'.

These former titans of the Australian espresso market have moved on, and the new breed of professional barista is endlessly experimenting with brew ratios, temperature and pump pressure profiles, as well as different brewing styles, to see what new coffee flavours can be explored and enjoyed.

A small - but growing - number of consumers are coming along with these coffee professionals for the ride. Australian and New Zealand consumers are different to those in America and Norway, because the push from the specialty coffee world for different brewing methods is not necessarily what consumers are craving. It remains to be seen if any young gun baristas will keep faithfully serving their favourite style of coffee for the next four decades as Giancarlo Giusti of Grinders Coffee and Luigi Coluzzi of Bar Coluzzi did. For this is what it may take to change consumer preferences to any significant degree.

In many 'new wave' Australian cafes, alternative brewing methods only represent around 1 per cent of sales. This is in despite the fact that somewhere between 25 - 50 per cent of retail space is often being devoted to it. This is clearly not a sustainable business model. It does create some theatre and interest, but it is very expensive retail wallpaper.

While the motivation behind this new trend is laudable in terms of expressing curiosity and exploring new tastes, if it is only done to seek the approval of coffee peers rather than the customer, it's not really going anywhere. The operator may enjoy it, but no-one who matters (the customers), really cares.

The one exception to this appears to be cold-drip. This seemingly easy method of brewing produces a very low-acid, smooth style of coffee which is in stark contrast to the new light roast, acid-heavy espresso style which has been copied and pasted from the northern hemisphere.

It would seem that any new cafe opening now in Australia or New Zealand that wants to have any street credibility has to have, almost as standard, a temperature-consistent, expensive model espresso machine, a minimum three, preferably four grinders, and be serving several different coffee blends and estates. It helps if you have baristas with lots of tattoos (just joking), and consistent, advanced milk art presentation is mandatory. Although artwork doesn't necessarily change the flavour one iota, it does predispose the consumers' tastebuds that they are going to taste something good.

There is no doubt that consumers are increasingly discerning enough to pick between a good and a poor barista, making their judgements on more than just milk-art. They will be loyal to a barista who takes care and has more understanding of flow rates, grind variability and dosing consistency. Even though the customer may not understand the technical difference behind it, they will appreciate the taste difference. And they will go a long way out of their way for it. They will become 'coffee hounds'.

A typical 'coffee hound' checks out all the latest cafes and coffees in a given area of a city and reports back, either online or socially to their circle of friends, about where the latest new place is to get a good cup of coffee.

This is why just last week I heard of a new cafe opening up on Kirrabilli wharf in Sydney and in the space of a few weeks it was doing more sales than just about any other cafe in its immediate area. It takes a lot of experience and training for an operator to achieve this kind of success.

But this is also why I heard in the same week about another coffee brand distributor whose sales are down 20 per cent, and its warehouse is full of returned espresso machines that no one wants.

For consumers, there may be some understanding of taste variations. But even if consumers don't necessarily understand the complexity of how various farm processing techniques impact flavour, increasingly good baristas are wanting to work more closely with their roaster to ensure they understand it and can incorporate it into their offering through one of their many grinders.

This goes way beyond the idea of a 'single origin' coffee, which has become a pretty meaningless term. Coffee-savvy consumers aren't looking for a Brazil Origin as opposed to an Ethiopian Origin. They are increasingly becoming enchanted with the nuances of, say, a dark-honey processed high grown La Minita Estate coffee, as opposed to a washed Yirgacheffee Chelba Co-op or an Operation Cherry-Red Guji.

I'm not sure about the 'guest' coffee brand concept for Down Under, where a cafe features a rotation of a different coffee company to their typical supplier. I know it works elsewhere in the world, but I think by and large Australian coffee suppliers are going to be less likely to pour out their support for a cafe who is using their competitor's coffee in addition to theirs.

Rather, the supplier would most likely prefer to devote themselves to a more exclusive partnership of exploration with the barista and cafe owner, to discover all the wonderful complexities there is to experience with coffee.

This new coffee frontier seems to be working well for those who are embracing it.

This article was also published at BeanScene Magazine