Have you ever felt like you’re constantly being bombarded with news about the “latest and greatest” in one industry or another? It can be hard to cut through the noise and figure out what’s true and what’s just a passing trend. When it comes to specialty coffee, I decided to take a closer look and ask a question that has been in my mind for some time: has specialty coffee become just another trend?
To get the answers, I decided to explore this topic through the celebrity lens, as well as the perspectives of experienced coffee farmers, experts, and roasters. The driving force behind my inquiry was to find out if specialty coffee is just a passing trend or if it has the potential to stick around for the long haul.
The reason why I wanted to find the answer to this question in the first place is the very definition of specialty coffee. In the coffee industry, specialty coffees are defined as any coffee that scores above 80 points on a 100 point scale. This is based on an evaluation of a wide range of variables by professional sensory analysts to determine the quality of the coffee.
The Specialty Coffee Association epxands on this definition on their website, “Specialty coffee can consistently exist through the dedication of the people who have made it their life’s work to continually make quality their highest priority. This is not the work of only one person in the lifecycle of a coffee bean; specialty can only occur when all of those involved in the coffee value chain work in harmony and maintain a keen focus on standards and excellence from start to finish. This is no easy accomplishment, and yet because of these dedicated professionals, there are numerous specialty coffees available right now, across the globe, and likely right around the corner from you.”
Words such as “dedication”, “quality” and “excellence” highlight the meaning of specialty coffee, which goes beyond the cupping score. Of course, the cupping score is the result of the hard work of everyone involved, however, what I would like to focus on is the culture behind this score.
When I think of specialty coffee, I’m reminded of the tight-knit community of people who come together with a common goal to create something extraordinary. This culture reflects all that has come to define specialty coffee: the quality of the beans, sustainable farming practices, transparency, traceability and collaboration between all members of the supply chain. Evidently, I see other industries such as cocoa and tea embracing similar values, something that makes me wonder if this is all just a passing trend that’s relevant to many industries and is a sign of the times.
I wanted to share all of these thoughts with you, dear reader, in order to open up the conversation and explore what other people think is the future of specialty coffee. Will it remain a trend or will it become an integral part of the global coffee industry? Is this just another bubble waiting to burst, or is this something that could be here to stay for many years to come?
The Art of Trendsetting
If you look up the word “trend” in the dictionary, you’ll find it defined as “a general direction in which something is developing or changing.” In other words, a trend is an emerging pattern of behavior that can be seen across many industries and cultures.
Trends can come and go in the blink of an eye. One day it’s all about coffee capsules, the next everyone’s talking about cold brew. Deciding which trends to follow and which to avoid can be tough for any business, particularly in the specialty coffee industry where customer loyalty is key.
When deciding whether or not to follow a trend, it’s important to consider factors such as consumer demand, cost-effectiveness and potential market saturation. Trends driven by consumer demand may indicate an upsurge in sales if they’re adopted correctly, while those that do not reflect current consumer behavior may not have the same success.
When it comes to cost-effectiveness, businesses should consider whether or not investing in a trend will be worth the cost. For example, if the trend you’re considering focusing on is already too saturated, you may find that your investment won’t yield the returns that you want.
Trends in specialty coffee are often driven by both consumers and industry professionals. Consumers tend to determine which trends become popular, while industry experts can help bring these trends into reality through their expertise and experience.
On the consumer side, customer feedback and market research are key. Specialty coffee businesses often use customer surveys to figure out which trends their customers are most interested in, and then create products or services to match this demand. They can also look for clues in social media posts, articles, and other sources of consumer data.
From an industry perspective, businesses must be aware of the latest developments in coffee-making, equipment and ingredients. Keeping track of industry news can help business owners stay ahead of the curve and find new ways to cater to their customers. Additionally, working closely with coffee suppliers can ensure that a business is getting the best quality products for its needs.
When looking at trends in specialty coffee, it’s important to consider consumer behavior. How are customers interacting with products and services? Are they looking for convenience or a unique experience? Where do they tend to shop and why? According to the 2023 GlobalData report, “Purchase Drivers – Consumer Behavior Trend Analysis”, the fast-paced conditions of the current market are shifting consumer behavior, as they become more conscious of their spending and seek out affordable products that still cater to their needs.
The report mentions that people are also prioritizing hygiene, convenience and simplicity in purchase decisions, therefore companies need to keep up with those changes. The other top ten qualities driving shoppers’ choices include mental wellness, authenticity, physical health benefits, natural products, time-saving options, tailored to their interests and sustainable or eco-friendly alternatives.
Culture is another integral part of the specialty coffee industry and plays a role in shaping trends. Culture reflects attitudes, tastes, values and beliefs that form shared assumptions about what people should do or believe. It’s important to consider how these underlying cultural norms affect consumer preferences and industry developments.
Looking into consumer behavior can provide valuable insights into which trends are likely to have the most impact on any business. For example, if customers are looking for convenience, businesses might focus on trends like mobile-friendly ordering systems or delivery services.
It’s also important to understand why certain trends become popular. Is it because of their novelty, their price point, or something else entirely? Understanding the motivations behind customer behavior can help businesses make informed decisions when picking which trends to follow.
Celebrities may also have a huge influence on consumer behavior. People are often drawn to trends that their favorite celebrities endorse, and this can be particularly true in the specialty coffee industry. People may be more likely to try a new product if they see their favorite celebrity enjoying it, and this can lead to an increase in sales for businesses.
Trends in the specialty coffee industry might also be influenced by larger trends that are taking place across industries. For example, if plant-based food options become popular in the restaurant industry, you may find that customers begin to expect vegan alternatives when it comes to their specialty coffee orders.
At the same time, trends in specialty coffee can also inform larger markets. For example, cold brew coffee has become increasingly popular over the past few years, leading to a surge in cold brew products across the catering industry. It’s important to keep an eye out for interconnections between trends in different industries, as they can provide valuable insights into where the market is heading.
The trouble with trends is that they’re often fleeting, which in turn makes them unsustainable. The entire coffee value chain – from producers to roasters, baristas, retailers and consumers – may need to consider the implications of following a particular trend or driving it forward. It’s important for the specialty coffee industry players to not just consider factors such as profitability and having a competitive edge when making decisions, but also to think about aspects such as quality, business to business (B2B), sustainability, eco-conscious practices and social impact.
You may wonder why any of this matters. Trends can be a great way to grab the attention of potential customers and keep them engaged, but at the end of the day if they don’t support the overall evolution of the specialty coffee industry in a positive way, they can be a short-term solution that doesn’t benefit any business in the long run.
Understanding the nuances of trends in specialty coffee is key to choosing ones that are sustainable and beneficial for all involved. As for consumers, cutting through the noise and recognizing products, services or concepts that bring real value to their lives is essential.
The Coffee Hall of Fame
Celebrity endorsement has long been an effective way for businesses to promote their products and services. With the rise of social media, celebrities have an even bigger platform to influence what their followers buy. In industries such as fashion and beauty, this influence has been particularly pronounced. Whether it’s a celebrity-designed clothing line or product endorsements from influencers, celebrities can drive consumer behavior in powerful ways.
In the coffee industry, celebrities can help drive sales by making certain trends more popular. This is especially true in cases where a celebrity’s influence on a certain trend is already well-known, as many customers may be inspired to try a product simply because “their favorite celebrity is using it.”
There are many examples of celebrities endorsing specialty coffee products, from George Clooney’s endorsement of Nespresso to Brad Pitt’s collaboration with De’Longhi. In addition, many celebrities have their own coffee lines or endorsing coffee brands such as Tom Hanks, Emma Chamberlain, George Clooney, Green Day, Hugh Jackman, Millie Bobby Brown, Sodagreen and many more.
Celebrity endorsement can also influence the types of trends that become popular. For instance, if a celebrity endorses a specific type of coffee (i.e. cold brew), more people may be inclined to try it out and the trend might become increasingly popular over time. Additionally, celebrities can also influence how certain trends are perceived and talked about in public forums such as social media, which may lead to an even greater increase in their popularity.
However, the power of influence comes with responsibilities too. The coffee industry heavily relies on sustainability and ethical practices for its success, and celebrities should take this into consideration when endorsing certain products or trends. In addition, celebrities should ensure that they are promoting products that offer real benefits to their customers, rather than simply creating hype around a trend in order to boost sales.
The quality parameter is also something celebrities should consider when endorsing a product. While researching for this article, I noticed that most celebrity-endorsed coffee brands/products tend to focus on commodity over specialty coffee. It’s interesting that though they have the power to introduce something new to the consumers, they are also influenced by what is commonly accepted.
It is, however, important to note that celebrities have a whole team of strategists, marketers and advisors who devise the best plan for their endorsements. If I had to guess, the main reason why celebrities focus more on commodity coffee over specialty is because some might not even know what specialty coffee is.
Yet, coffee is a beloved commodity that is increasingly threatened by the effects of climate change and rising production costs. Pests, drought, and the pandemic have combined to further complicate matters, resulting in coffee reserves falling to their lowest levels in 20 years. This has forced prices up and made it harder for producers around the world to obtain fair profits.
That’s why celebrities can play a role in popularizing efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change and other threats to the coffee industry. When their favorite celebrity promotes a product, fans are more likely to take an interest in the industry and companies that are committed to sustainable practices and community development.
The good news is that we’re seeing more and more endorsements from public figures for coffee companies with good intentions. Marley Coffee, owned by Bob Marley’s son Rohan, was founded to create jobs in Jamaica. USA roaster La Colombe has partnered with Leonardo DiCaprio to produce a coffee blend that supports the environmental wing of his foundation.
For brands, having a well-known face associated with their product can help amplify their message whether it’s about sustainability, transparency, flavor, or efficiency. It also helps customers understand the impact of their purchasing decisions and encourages them to make sustainable choices.
Rooting for the Underdog
Now more than ever, coffee enthusiasts have access to a global platform where they can share their love of coffee with the world. From popular YouTube channels and Instagram accounts to TikToks and other digital content platforms, any person passionate about coffee can become an influencer, if they have a knack for it.
These influencers often play a key role in promoting new trends in specialty coffee, helping to educate their followers and inspiring them to try new brewing methods, flavors, or types of coffee. Some of these influencers have even become celebrities in the specialty coffee community and beyond.
James Hoffmann is one example that comes to mind. He is an English barista, YouTuber, entrepreneur, coffee consultant and author who became well-known after winning the 2007 World Barista Championship. Since then, Hoffmann has authored three books including The World Atlas of Coffee and has launched several businesses such as Square Mile Coffee Roasters while consulting for a number of coffee ventures.
Hoffmann has gained a large following on YouTube, having over 1.8 million subscribers in 2021. His videos focus on the specialty coffee industry, and evaluate different brewing methods as well as reviewing equipment in an easy-to-understand and humorous way. In their 2021 article, titled “From Oslo Pram Guy To The Teenage Vacuum Expert”, British newspaper The Guardian notes Hoffmann’s distinct appearance such as his silver hair, glasses and soft voice that adds to the charm of his channel.
Over on the other side of the Atlantic, Morgan Eckroth, better known as @MorganDrinksCoffee, is an established American content creator and barista from Portland, Oregon. She has garnered online fame across their social media accounts; with nearly 7 million combined followers across TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram.
Their impressive barista skills and were recognized in 2022 when they won the US Barista Championship. They earned international recognition for their second place finish at the World Barista Championships and were invited to join Onyx Coffee Lab as their content marketing specialist later that same year.
Hoffmann and Morgan are two influencers that have helped to popularize specialty coffee. With their knowledge and passion for coffee, each has made a significant impact inside and outside the industry. The specialty coffee industry needs ambassadors like them to spread knowledge about specialty coffee and make it more accessible. What I believe makes these two truly special is the honesty in their approach and how it resonates with their followers. They are celebrities in their own right, within the specialty coffee world.
Events and competitions are another medium of the specialty coffee industry to promote its work. They are primarily a great way for members of the specialty coffee industry to come together, network, and share knowledge. These gatherings promote innovation in the industry and allow attendees to learn more about new trends and products that are emerging. Tristan Campher, owner of the Coffee Works coffee shop and micro-roastery Groundwork Coffee in Dublin, Ireland, told me that he kept an eye at this year’s World of Coffee in Athens, Greece.
“Usually innovators in coffee are at competition level and so the recent events at World of Coffee Athens were insightful. I enjoy picking and choosing ideas and seeing if I am able to replicate and implement these ideas into my own practices,” he said. Savina Giachgia, Coffee Expert at Nestlé Professional and 2023 World Brewers Cup Runner-Up, also believes that World Coffee Events (WCE) serve as the ultimate meeting point for coffee lovers and coffee trends to interact.
“WCE host great innovations, R&D and new technologies around coffee and can inspire the coffee industry to further advance. During such events, you can also come across with great coffee stories around the world, taste amazing coffees and learn through their novelties! Competitions are an interesting part of World Coffee Events too. We get motivated, inspired and well informed by watching people participating, explaining their point of view, their research results and of course creating the new trends. World Coffee Events keep the coffee community and the whole industry alive,” she said.
I must say, however, the question I always seem to find myself asking during these events is if the consumer is being left behind. Are the new methods, products and trends created actually making specialty coffee more accessible to everyone? Innovation in the industry is always exciting, but it’s important that it not be exclusive to just the professionals and coffee fanatics in the industry.
In the 2023 Coffee Intelligence article, “The Fight For Specialty Coffee Is More Than ‘Big vs Small’”, Jordan Montgomery, writes, “Over the years, the specialty coffee sector has increased its market share, but still remains a minuscule segment of the wider coffee market – which is why it maintains its identity as a dedicated underdog. The battle between “big” and “small” lives on, and perhaps with good reason. Brands like Starbucks have seen revenue increases of over 140% over the last ten years, driven largely by rapid growth in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Comparatively, the specialty coffee sector is predicted to grow annually by around 11 to 12% until 2030, despite exponential growth during the last two decades. With up to 62% of specialty coffee shops failing within the first five years of opening, it’s no wonder they feel challenged by larger brands. Small and independent coffee shops operate on narrower profit margins than large companies, whose global reach and budgets far exceed those in the specialty sector.”
During our interview, Savina briefly touched upon this topic and explained to me why she believes the future of specialty coffee is expected to grow in terms of consumer demand, “Consumers, nowadays, are knowledgeable and conscious about coffee quality, origin, and processes and are looking for unique flavors and transparency in the coffee they consume. In addition, as consumers prioritize environmentally friendly choices, the demand for such coffees is likely to increase. Moreover, with specialty coffee we push the boundaries of innovation, from new brewing techniques to unique coffee bean varieties or cross species, usually resulting in fresh experiences to consumers.”
While this is in line with the consumer demand facts I mentioned above, and even though I agree with what Savina is saying, it’s hard to ignore that specialty coffee is indeed, an underdog. It is up to the industry to create accessibility and equity so that everyone within the coffee supply chain is reaping the rewards of its growth. It takes a collective effort, from both large and small players in the industry, to promote specialty coffee’s values and keep access to it open.
Trends From The Grounds Up
I often feel like there are two categories of trends in specialty coffee: those that are tailored to the consumer and those that are a response to what the industry itself needs . For example, new brewing techniques like cold brew and a stronger focus on convenience-ba sed brewing have been created over the past few years largely due to consumer demand. On the other hand, t rends such as specialty Robusta and innovation at the coffee-producing countries level , feel like a response to the needs of the industry itself.
I asked Tristan what trends he is seeing in specialty coffee, “There are always multiple trends across the globe, staying up to date with what’s happening around the world has been interesting and engaging. In particular the process independent coffees have gained popularity amongst roasters and brewers whilst more and more cafes and coffee shops have started roasting their own coffee. On a recent trip to South Africa I was astounded at how many coffee shops had their own roasters. I believe the next or current macro trend is leaning towards cafes roasting their own coffee in store.”
This echoes a quote I read by Andy Newbom, instigator at Torque Coffees for the 2023 Fresh Cup Magazine article, Experts Share Emerging Coffee Industry Trends Of 2023, “Every coffee location will ‘roast,’ and at some point, the roaster and the espresso machine will combine. Using rapid roast conveyor belt-type systems, a customer’s coffee will be continuously roasted per drink and then ground and extracted into a cup.”
There are a few key consumer trends that have emerged in recent years that show a clear preference for convenience when it comes to coffee.
The emergence of single-serve coffee makers and coffee pods is one such trend. Consumers can simply place a coffee pod in their machine and have a fresh cup of coffee in seconds. This is a major time saver for people who are rushing out the door in the morning.
Another key trend is the rise of ready-to-drink (RTD) coffee. These are coffee drinks that come in bottles or cans and have become increasingly popular in recent years, especially among younger consumers. More and more coffee brands are launching RTD products as a way to meet the demand for convenient, graband- go coffee options.
Finally, the rise of coffee on tap is another trend that favors convenience. Many consumers are starting to discover the world of coffee on tap, which is a system where coffee is brewed and stored in kegs and served from a tap. From nitro cold brews to nitro lattes, coffee on tap is becoming increasingly popular, as more and more coffee shops invest in these systems to meet consumer demand.
The COVID-19 also had an impact on how people purchase and consume coffee. For many, convenience is now more important than ever. With more people working from home, there has been an increase in demand for at-home coffee solutions that are easy to use and require minimal effort.
Services such as contactless pickup and fast delivery have also become more popular as consumers look for ways to minimize contact and get their coffee fix without leaving home. A recent study by Deloitte, found that about four-fifths of consumers value convenience even more now than before COVID-19, and more than fourfifths of consumers expect flexible shipping and fulfillment options, like BOPIS (Buy Online, Pick Up In-Store), from retailers.
Many big companies have caught on to this trend and are investing in ways to make their products more convenient for consumers.But while the industry is preparing to offer all of this to consumers, what are the consumers really drinking? Amilka Lee, owner of Coffee Lovers Roasters, coffee trainer and consultant, told me that, “Surprisingly, in my travels I have discovered that the vast majority of countries, including those that consume the most in the world, drink a dark roasted coffee. Despite the fact that in many places I have found good quality coffee, it is very dark roasted and that does not let us appreciate it.” He also pointed out that in recent years, coffee processes like anaerobic fermentation, carbonic maceration, the addition of yeast, and infused coffees have taken over the specialty coffee market at the industry level.
Kenean Assefa Dukamo, Head of Coffee at Daye Bensa Coffee and 2022 Cup of Excellence Ethiopia winner, is a second generation coffee producer who has been in the industry for the last five years. He shared with me that, “We have seen a major transformation of coffee processing techniques in Ethiopia over the last few years. Many producers are experimenting with new practices such as honey processing, anaerobic fermentation, and some even introducing experimental processing methods that they believe will help bring out the flavors and profiles of their coffees.”
But what is the point of experimentally processing a coffee if the consumer prefers dark roasts? Amilka said something that reasoned with me, “The consumer’s preference is directly related to their coffee culture, their concept of “quality” and, above all, the economic factor. Plus the world of coffee, in general, has been static for many years, with the aggravating circumstance that, since coffee is a commodity product, consuming countries did not have information on its origin and the coffee growers’ needs and, above all, how much they are paid for their product.”
Of course, just because the consumer prefers dark roasts or might not know what Arabica is, doesn’t mean that specialty coffee should stop innovating and exploring. It is important to keep pushing boundaries both for the sake of coffee quality, knowledge, and access. However, it is also necessary to educate consumers in order to create an understanding of why specialty coffee may be different from their usual cup.
It’s important to remember that even though coffee is just a drink to some, for others it’s their livelihood. You might be surprised to know that many coffee farmers have never even tried the coffee they harvest. Depending on the size of their farm, which sometimes might only be a few hectares, they have other priorities such costs of labor and production, climate change effect on their crops, as well as selling their coffee at a decent price.
Consumer trends eventually make their way to the farm, and as specialty coffee continues to grow, we need to make sure that those driving the movement are doing their best to be inclusive and support the communities they are impacting. Amilka thinks that staying committed to specialty coffee and its innovations is giving more spotlight to those who grow coffee. “My vision is that baristas and roasters are the link that connects the consumer with the producer, as well as the visible faces that represent the entire industry. Share your knowledge of coffee with the end customer, because if the end customer does not learn to appreciate quality and specialty coffee, it is impossible for them to understand why they pay more for the “same coffee”.
Savina echoes Amilka’s thoughts and reflects on the impact of climate change, “Love and respect have to be the two fundamentals for those interested in coffee. Along the coffee cultivation and production processes, many people work hard to ensure it reaches our hands and as for all agricultural products, nothing assures you that it will be same year after year.”
Global demand for coffee rises while environmental crisis keeps going and affects its production. To ensure the best quality and taste, coffee should be treated with care and respect for the environment.”
So, does the consumer know the true meaning of specialty coffee? It is evident that the specialty coffee market needs to invest in consumer education.There are many benefits to consumer education, both for the consumer and for the specialty coffee industry. For consumers, education can provide them with a greater understanding of the coffee they are drinking and allow them to make more informed choices. By providing them with this knowledge, they will be more likely to purchase specialty coffee in the future. Furthermore, education can help to create a more sustainable and ethical industry by teaching consumers about the importance of supporting these types of businesses.
For the special ty coffee industry, consumer education can lead to increased sales and growth. In addition, it can help to build trust between the industry and the consumers , since specialty coffee companies that are transparent about their practices and willing to educate consumers are more likely to be seen as trustworthy.
Due to the limited market size and the challenges that specialty coffee businesses face in terms of price and convenience, many specialty coffee businesses tend to focus on niche markets because they are unable to compete with the big players. I am not a specialty coffee business owner but I understand it’s difficult to attract the mass market. However, I do believe education is key in this case and that if everyone was educated about specialty coffee, it could be a game changer for the industry and make specialty coffee more accessible to everyone.
It’s not only important for consumers to not get lost in the world of trends but for business owners as well. We still need to ensure that those driving the specialty coffee movement are doing their best to be inclusive and support the communities they are impacting. The way things are right now, it’s difficult to cut through the noise of trends and get a chance to appreciate the effort that goes into specialty coffee.
From celebrity endorsements to specialty coffee ambassadors and coffee events, I’ve seen specialty coffee being treated as a trend of the moment, a marketing tool, a hobby, a passion. I personally like to think that specialty coffee is not just a trend but a movement that seeks to celebrate coffee in its entirety. It should be enjoyed not just for the flavor and aroma, but also for the process of how it was cultivated, produced, processed, roasted and ultimately brewed. But most importantly, specialty coffee should be appreciated for the effort that went into bringing it from seed to cup.