Signature Drinks and The Specialty Coffee Experience

By Colin Whitcomb

For those who build and run specialty coffee shops, the big question is: How do we want people to experience coffee? It’s a loaded question, as answering it requires probing even further: How do we want people to drink coffee? How do they interact with coffee? Should they be drinking black coffee and espresso neat? Or is enjoyment of coffee in any form all that matters? Should the experience be fast, or slow? If people aren’t experiencing coffee in a way that makes them stop and take notice, to appreciate a truly superb coffee experience, how do we alter that?

There is no one answer to these questions. We must wrestle with them as we define our vision and create an authentic specialty coffee experience. What I would like to suggest is that signature drinks are a tool to discovering an authentic experience, to creating diversity in the specialty market, fostering an understanding of what can make coffee truly special, and cultivating a customer base of coffee drinkers without feeling like we need to compromise.

Unfortunately, the discussion over the experience of specialty coffee has been framed in ways that can feel increasingly polemic. Shops have refused to offer sugar or milk with their coffee, they have eliminated any sweeteners in espresso-based drinks, taken menus off the wall or done away with describing their drinks as “cappuccino” or “macchiato” and using instead only the words, “espresso with milk.” At the same time, others are willing to make and build any drink the customer asks for, arguing that restricted offerings and other limitations alienate customers rather than reveal the world of specialty coffee.

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What we have been able to agree on is that specialty coffee is delicious, that it is so because of the work of many people, and that unique and delicious flavors exist in different coffees from around the world, which are developed and unlocked through roasting and brewing. In a way, the mission for many specialty shops is simply to provide delicious coffee to those who desire it, and to introduce it to those who may not have that perception.

Alongside this contentious debate, some have sought to bring clarity. James Hoffmann’s talk at the 2012 SCAA Symposium put into words what many hadn’t quite been able to articulate, which was, in summary, an argument against a fast-food mindset and a fast-food cafe model. Essentially, if you look and operate like a Burger King, how can you expect people to interact with your cafe and your coffee otherwise? And how can you charge a premium? Few would argue that fast food delivers the most delicious and enjoyable experience. A year later, Mr. Hoffmann argued for the necessity of having diversity in specialty coffee, suggesting that just because a shop looks or acts differently doesn’t mean what they’re doing is wrong. By extension, one argues, diversity allows us to adapt in the growing specialty coffee market.

Alongside James’ influential talk came research from SCAA presented by Tracy Ging. This research frames specialty coffee drinkers in two categories: specialty-adopters and super-specialty drinkers. In Ging’s talk, she relates, “Adopters are a little less knowledgeable and a little less adventurous that the super-specialty people, the super-specialty people were leading the trends.” Part of what this research reveals is that coffee can mean a lot to people—they want to love coffee. One respondent in this research gives us the memorable line, “If it matters to you, it matters to us.” It also reveals that many of the ways we describe specialty coffee’s qualities may not be all that effective. I began to worry that factors like elevation, growing region, and coffee variety were ways that we were talking to ourselves—show, only for our peers—suffering the poet’s fate, and that, weirdly, for some shops, the fewer people who enjoyed their ultra-refined and super-limited cafe experience, the better they felt they were doing at providing a true specialty coffee experience.

A second talk presented by Ms. Ging last April delved deeper into the lives of specialty-adopters and super-specialty drinkers. We learn that some adopters are never going to become super-specialty drinkers, black coffee for its own enjoyment is not in their future, but, for many others, it could be.

We learn that super-specialty drinkers almost always begin as specialty-adopters, drinking sweetened and flavored coffee drinks, often in larger sizes. We also learn that for super-specialty drinkers there is huge room for them to learn and grow in their enjoyment of coffee. When things cost more or take longer, the super-specialty drinkers understand that to be a signifier of quality. And many do want to know how things like elevation affect the quality of coffee.

With this in mind, let me suggest again that I believe that the goal of most specialty cafes is to engage super-specialty drinkers and—for some—to convert specialty-adopters. Truthfully, once someone has become a specialty-adopter, most of the work has already been done—they drink and enjoy specialty coffees, paying premiums, and from a business perspective there are those for whom no more is required. But, for those who wish to refine the experience further and reveal the qualities of single-farm coffee, micro-lot coffee, auction winning coffee, et cetera, (and charge even higher premiums accordingly) there remains some work to be done.

I would like to suggest that signature coffee drinks can be a tool to convey the unique qualities of coffee, to help turn specialty-adopters into super-specialty drinkers, and differentiate a cafe as unique and quality-minded.

 

It’s no surprise to us in the coffee industry that many of our most loyal super-specialty customers started drinking sweet and milky signature drinks. Most likely, we did as well. Chocolate, caramel, vanilla—these, and other sweet ingredients are the flavors that hooked us. So what’s the problem? Theoretically, once hooked, attentive and empathetic service could reveal more nuances of coffee to those customers. This works in some instances, yet in others we still find ourselves stymied. For many coffee professionals, the problem is that signature drinks obscure the flavor of the coffee, after such hard work and care has been put into making the coffee itself taste so great.

So what if, instead of a salted-caramel latte, a cafe offered a small espresso spritzer made with a berry-infused simple syrup? And they showcase berry because the espresso they use is a natural-processed coffee with ample notes of berry? And they choose berry because the season supplies a rich selection of ripe berries? Both could be tasty, but the latter drink can be used to communicate the message of coffee having unique qualities. Furthermore, intentionally crafting a signature drink in this way is not something that national brands do—it takes longer and is more work, but we know from SCAA research that time and work cues alert specialty drinkers to the idea that quality is involved. These ideas of intentionality, seasonality, working for quality, taking ones time to ensure the best—are these not also the same qualities many wish to communicate to our customers about the work that is done by coffee producers?

I would venture to say that the above mindset isn’t far from how most barista competitors conceive of their signature drinks, and I further wonder if perhaps this could help to resolve what has historically been a contentious point between barista competitions and retail environments. The denouement is in the realization that the many of the best competitors are creating coffee experiences that can appeal to adopters and super-specialty drinkers alike. Pete Licata’s U.S. Barista Championship and World Barista Championship-winning performances obviously appealed to his judges, but listen again: his clear, concise presentation has the capacity to engage specialty drinkers on all levels and reveal to them the unique qualities of not only a single coffee, but broadly, the qualities of all specialty coffee.

To be fair, signature drinks like those presented in barista competitions have occasionally found a home in some specialty shops, although mostly surrounding competition season, and oftentimes only “off-menu.” Still, the embrace of signature drinks at the cafe level is encouraging. It’s a sign, not just of cafes highlighting their competition baristas, but also of cafes seeking to deliver an authentic experience not defined by the extremes, not artificially constructed to control, but stemming from a place of truth that we ourselves know.

Intentionally crafted signature drinks have the ability to please super-specialty drinkers, but also have the ability to speed the move from adopter to super-specialty drinker without alienating them by suggesting that coffee with other ingredients is “less than.” They provide baristas with a new avenue for exploration and refinement of their craft, and deliver new revenue streams for cafes whose limited menus also mean limited ways to gain and retain new customers. Furthermore, a well-presented signature drink gives talking points, not only for baristas, but also for specialty-adopters who may not have known which questions to ask.

Whatever else, what frustrates so many in the debate over the specialty coffee experience is worrying over compromise. While I see strength in willingness to meet people where they are, I can understand the desire to operate from a place closer to our hearts. There’s no reason to adhere to any static notion of what constitutes an experience that leads people to an appreciation of specialty coffee, or even what an appreciation of specialty coffee is. As the saying goes, it’s the journey, right? Not the destination. Let’s embrace signature coffee drinks as a way of diversifying our coffee experience, and leverage them as we continue to explore the spread the message of specialty coffee.

Colin Whitcomb works in Washington, DC with Madcap Coffee as head of training. He began working as a baris- ta in 2006, and since 2008 has worked over 10,000 hours as a trainer. Colin currently serves as secretary of the Barista Guild of America (BGA), volunteers as a subject-matter expert for the SCAA, is an organizer of the DC area TNT’s, and occasionally writes for Barista Magazine. He likes poetry and orchids and cool springs and sharing coffee. You can reach him at colin@madcapcoffee.com. 

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