Why pay more for specialty coffee?

In specialty coffee shops around the country, menu boards mark top coffee prices anywhere between $6 to $16 per cup. To the uneducated coffee consumer, it’s ludicrous. To specialty coffee professionals, it’s not enough.

Campos Coffee Founder Will Young has always paid more than the average price for his specialty coffee purchases, and has reflected that quality in cup prices. But Will doesn’t want to be among the minority paying more and charging more for specialty coffee, he wants others to join in.

“It’s up to the consumers and the roasters to unite and agree to pay more for specialty, but it’s a hard gig to sell,” Will says.

To maintain the “true definition” of specialty, Will says the entire industry needs to look at every single stage in the value chain and make sure each reflects the true meaning of the word “specialty”.

United Sates-based coffee entrepreneur George Howell refers to specialty coffee in terms of craftsmanship, and to Will, true specialty is about the de-commoditisation of coffee in its entirety.

“It’s the application of true craftsmanship by every stakeholder in the coffee chain to produce an enlightened, quality-focused final product for the consumer,” Will says.

This starts with the choice of varietal and follows right through to that first sip by the consumer. It’s about the picking, the processing, the packaging, the shipping intermediaries, and how it’s treated when it arrives in Australia. This includes how the coffee’s stored, how it’s roasted, how it’s treated by the barista, the environment, and even the hospitality of the servers. All of this incurs a higher cost.

To Will, “true specialty” coffee must also have a taste component. The coffee should be sweet, clean, and represent the unique flavours indicative of the coffee varietal, processing, and growing region.

“It’s about never dropping the mantle of true specialty as the coffee passes through each stage of the value chain,” Will says. “For example, you can have every stage meet the specialty definition right up to roasting and then choose to roast for commodity volume over craftsmanship. You could roast the coffee in seven minutes as opposed to 14 minutes, and just like that, the mantle of true specialty is dropped.”

Will says the same applies when a barista decides to speed the coffee through the extraction process by adjusting the grind coarser.

“All it takes is for one person to drop the ball and true specialty coffee quickly becomes commodity coffee,” Will says.

Some café owners don’t want to be defined by specialty and are quite happy to serve just “coffee” or “pretty good coffee” and happily make an income from it. But for those who want to be identified for serving “true specialty”, a commitment is needed, and this comes with extra cost.

“You won’t get huge margins from selling true specialty, but it attracts the right people: those who do it for the passion,” Will says. “Those who choose true specialty need to measure themselves against those levels of processes to make sure they’re being authentic.”

Will says Australian roasters have a reputation overseas for paying “too much” for their coffee. He thinks it’s a trend that started between 2009 and 2014 when Australian roasters started to form direct relationships with producers. At the same time, the Australian dollar rose to US$1.10. Will says Australian roasters found fantastic coffees for the high prices they were willing to pay, and have remained with the same coffees ever since.

Will says Australian buyers are welcome overseas, especially when they offer 50 cents per pound more for a great coffee. Many international companies see this as “upsetting the apple cart of the coffee world”, but Will says paying more is necessary if Australia is to uphold its position as a world leader in specialty coffee. Campos Coffee has always paid on average 20 to 30 per cent more than the average price as part of its company philosophy, and Will has no intention of lowering it.

“We’re not changing our buying prices. It’s good for the farmers and our beneficiaries. We just know that if you don’t pay specialty prices, you don’t get specialty coffee, so we’re happy to pay a high price,” Will says. “One of our core values is authenticity and this applies more than anything to our company being a specialty coffee roaster.”

In Australia, Will says retail prices are steadily going up, but wholesale over the past five years has stayed somewhat stagnant. In some cases, it has decreased due to increased market competition. The risk there is that someone is going to get hurt, be it the roaster who chooses to sell their coffee too cheap, or the consumer who’s drinking lower grade coffee because their roaster decided to keep their margins and buy lesser quality raw beans.

“The Australian dollar is down. There are now rumours it will get to 65 cents. Below 70 is a big deal for roasters. They would be looking to make savings on beans because they don’t believe they can afford to raise their prices, and this is fraught with risk,” Will says.

But how do we educate the consumer on all these external factors driving coffee prices up? That, Will says, is the ultimate question.

“Australia consumers definitely know a good coffee from a bad one, and I think it’s getting easier for them to decipher specialty coffee versus good coffee, but that’s not the case in other countries where there’s still a big gap in the market and they’re used to drinking a certain standard of coffee.”

This article features in the February 2018 edition of BeanScene Magazine. Subscribe here today to see the FULL copy: www.beanscenemag.com.au/subscribe