James Hoffmann brought it up at the SCAA Symposium, Peter Giuliano discussed it on the the portafilter.net podcast and Ben Bicknell wrote an article on it for Five Senses. The technical word for it is “market differentiation”, it refers to a particular product changing in price due to something like variation in quality.
I couldn’t agree more with this idea in coffee. As Ben Bicknell wrote, it’s just not right that you pay the same for an unpleasant coffee as you do for a remarkably grown, processed, shipped, roasted and brewed one. I see two positives from differentiation: one, as consumers we want great coffee, and as roasters buy more and more expensive coffee they need to be able to charge more to help continue to do this; two, price differentiation can help set specialty coffee apart, in the mind of the consumer, from other coffee shops . Variation in price is the most obvious way to communicate to the consumer that the coffees available are different from one another.
But although I agree with differentiation, I see a possible problem if one were to simply re-write the menu to add variation in price (not that anyone is suggesting this). That is, buying a fantastic green coffee doesn’t mean that the consumer will experience a fantastic coffee. As we are all quite aware, there are many steps from buying a green to serving a cup. Even though a coffee may be graded as Specialty, this would mean nothing if the final step of brewing was done improperly. It may be a “specialty” coffee but it could still taste horrible if prepared poorly. And this is the thought I wanted to get down. As a customer, if i’m paying $10 for a coffee, I think I’d be in my rights to expect it was prepared very well, or even better. No? As baristas we have be totally on top of our game.
This is what’s enjoyable, but also inevitably more difficult, about coffee compared to beer or wine. If a Craft Beer or Wine Bar business pays more for a bottle, they can charge a price with little concern that the quality of the beverage will decrease when it is served. But, as i’ve said, coffee is a very different ball game. That final step involves preparation immediately before the beverage is served, and if we’re not careful the quality of that cup could be far lower than the green from which it came and therefore not worth the $10 we attribute to it.
I know that most places advocating differentiation have well structured training programs in place to ensure quality makes it all the way through to the final stage, but I think it’s important to remember (or realise) that some of us will need to up our game (we don’t all work for the best – haha). And if we do double, or triple, the price of a coffee, it’s understandable that a customers expectations will also double, or triple.
To emphasise the challenge that baristas face in this, read this poem by Nick Cho.
Cheers for reading my rambling thoughts!