Why Is Coffee So Under-Rated Vs Wine?

Hands up if you’ve visited a restaurant or hotel that has provided an informative or useful description of the coffee being served?  None…okay. Have you ever been offered a choice of coffee suitable for day part - ie. a light bright lively morning coffee or full bodied, rich after-dinner coffee.  Nope, neither have I and it got me wondering why?

The wine category is very similar to coffee in that it involves agricultural production, processing and distribution and most importantly the geography affects the character and taste.  Yet in the hospitality sector our wine counterparts offer pages of choice, carefully categorised by style, taste and price.  The average cost of a bottle of wine in the UK is around £6 but the most expensive wine ever sold was a 1945 Romanee-Conti at £424,000.  The average price for 250g of coffee is around £6.  But the most expensive coffee ever sold was the Elida Geisha 803 from Panama at the equivalent of £250 for 250g.

Let’s consider what the potential barriers might be for coffee:

Coffee must be extracted at the point of serve

Whilst wine can be poured from the bottle and it tastes as the winemaker intended, coffee needs to be extracted.  This means additional machinery or serving tools are required by the operator. Even the world’s best coffees can be ruined without sufficient training available to the person brewing or extracting the coffee.  Hospitality operators must invest in decent tools and staff training to serve a decent cup.  However, new generations of batch-filter and bean-to-cup espresso machines remove serving inconstancies.

Coffee doesn’t improve with age

The world’s most expensive wines are generally in very short supply - firstly because they’ve come from tiny plots of excellent land; then they’ve been aged which introduces complexity and further reduces availability.  The world’s very best coffees also come from micro-lots where a a perfect combination of climate and terrain brings unique flavours.  But as soon as coffee is picked and processed it starts the process of degrading.  Before it is roasted coffee exists as ‘green beans’, which are dense and smell vegetal.  It is at its best for up to a year in this format, provided it’s stored appropriately.  As soon as coffee is roasted it changes dramatically and complex flavoursome oils are formed.  But these delicate oils stale when exposed to air or moisture.  Roasted coffee in whole bean form is at its best for around 4 weeks.  Once ground it only has a few hours of life.  So roasted coffee cannot be stored and stocks must be managed carefully by operators.

There isn’t a broad knowledge around different styles of coffee

Most people know what style to expect from a white, red and rose wine.  Or drilling down further most people could likely explain the attributes of a Sauvignon Blanc Vs a Chardonnay.  However very few people outside the coffee industry could explain the difference between a good Colombian and Kenyan.  The key point here is the coffee must of of an excellent standard to accurately represent the region.  Few suppliers into the hospitality sector have access to good coffees and these may be priced at a point that just isn’t attractive to them.  Coffee roasters need to evangelise more the taste qualities of great regional coffees

We’re still a bit hungover from instant coffee

For the last 100 or so years we’ve drunk pretty awful coffee, prioritising convenience and a low price over taste.  Instant coffee has come to represent a generic ‘acceptable’ coffee taste that can be managed with milk and sugar.  This has dumbed-down our expectations from coffee and for many it’s now difficult to shake this habit.  However coffee pod sales are revolutionising the at-home coffee experience with an estimated 30% of UK households owning a pod machine.  What’s perhaps generally considered a ‘special occasion’ coffee will likely become more frequent and hopefully we will see instant coffee sales start to fall.

Homogenous low grade commodity coffee represents an estimated 90% of global sales

Specialty coffee isn’t widely available as it’s limited in supply and distribution.  We find generic-tasting commodity coffee is ubiquitous.  The fact that Specialty coffee represents just 10% of sales is because a vicious circle has been created - farmers paid low prices for their beans are unable to improve farming and processing techniques that would enable them to sell into the Specialty market and achieve higher prices. Many farmers focus on coffee volumes not on coffee quality, which keeps them stuck in a rut where their sales prices are linked to the commodities exchange price and don’t reflect the cost of production.  Low grade commodity beans are generally roasted in huge factory roasters and available at a low price to operators.  Coffee suppliers need to educate their clients and provide suitable materials for them to communicate Specialty coffee’s regionalised taste credentials with a higher price point.

There is a perceived price ceiling

As a nation we’re pretty resistant to paying more than £3 for a cup of coffee.  This means we’ll always pay exactly the same price for an awful coffee as we would for a good one.  This is madness but suits the operators just fine as there is a strong incentive to buy cheap and improve profits.  The famous chef Alain Ducasse recently launched a £15 cup of Yemeni coffee.  The media went absolutely mad - journalists from all the major publications flocked down to trial this ‘nonsense’.  All the reviews I read suggested that it was actually an exceptional cup of coffee.  So we really have to start to separate the ‘wheat from the chaff’. Good coffee should be more expensive and bad coffee should be sold cheap.  In this way the customer will have better sign-posting as to where exceptional coffee might be available.  This will also inject much needed value into the production chain, supporting the coffee farmers and their communities.

Midnight Blue Coffee

We have developed our own little brand that focuses on what we believe is the world’s best coffee from the Jamaica Blue Mountains.  It’s not the world’s most expensive coffee although the price tag does reflect the limited availability and extra efforts along the supply chain.  The Jamaica Blue Mountains are a tiny production area where the climate and terrain are absolutely perfect and the persistent shroud of blue mist (hence the mountain range name) slows the ripening process enhancing taste and aroma.  Our brand with its luxurious packaging, story book and signed roasting certificate was launched for people who care about food with a product of outstanding quality, provenance and integrity.  A coffee that connects origin and local production with the artisanal skill of a local roaster.  We hope that our brand will play a part in developing the profile of the coffee category and allow it to fulfil its potential; a bit like great wine.

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