Coffee Brands

Author: george Posted: May 7, 2012

Do you buy based on what’s on the outside of the bag, or what’s in it?

I don’t think the following applies to Green Buyers/Roasters looking for coffee from farms and importers, but rather from the perspective of a customer looking to buy from a roaster or specific shop.

Personally, I wish I could say that the first factor in deciding which coffee I am going to drink is where it came from – that is, based on it’s origin.  If the roaster isn’t to my liking however, it inevitably won’t matter much what I’m drinking; I probably won’t like it.  If, on the other hand, you take a lower quality coffee (or one that is less preferable to another) but have a good roaster, I’ll generally like it, or at least have a higher chance of doing so.  Therefore I will generally choose the roaster first and the origin second (if there are options.)  This might seem like an obvious and rather simple conclusion, but let’s dig a little deeper.

Now I know it doesn’t work quite as simple as this, but to give an example of what I’m talking about with specific examples, let’s say you have a theoretical palate that regards all taste and smell as equal.  (In other words, it rates chocolate equal to caramel and berries equal to lemons etc. etc.)  Now, take a 90+ point “Cup of Excellence” coffee from Guatemala and pit it against a coffee that scores in the low 80s also from Guatemala.  Now have it roasted by the same roaster.  Now have them both brewed properly.

In my mind, the “Cup of Excellence” coffee should be a better cup. By that I mean it should be the preferred of the two, if cost and all other factors that might per sway you one way or another are equal.

Now let’s take that same 90+ cup of excellence coffee from Roaster “A”, but have it roasted by a roaster whom I do not like.  This may be because they roast too dark/too light/under develop/over develop/you-name-it, and then the low 80 point coffee from Roaster “B”, a roaster who I do like – and guess which coffee I’m going to choose?  The coffee from roaster “B”.  Again, I know this is a theoretical example but it’s necessary to get the point across.

Basically what this means to me is that as someone who is ordering a coffee to drink and enjoy, I don’t care as much about which coffee I’m drinking if it’s not roasted to my liking.  What good is the world’s greatest coffee if it isn’t roasted in a way to showcase it so?

And that leaves the roaster as the single most important factor in determining if I am going to enjoy the coffee, does it not?

If the roaster is the brand, and the coffee is the product, then what happens in this case is that the brand becomes more important than the product.  And that seems wrong to me, and IS wrong in other areas of my life (clothes, cars, etc).

Perhaps, though, there is a 3rd possibility:  In coffee, perhaps in actuality the “brand” (the roaster) and the “product” (the coffee) are one and the same?  Especially as roasters continue to offer direct support to farmers and specific lots of farms I’m sure  the two will become much more interdependent then they are at the moment, but are we at that point yet?

A final observation:

Whether they know it or not,  I would argue that customers by default are forced to choose a brand or roaster just in the act of going to a particular coffee shop.  For example if you decide to go to Stumptown, then your first decision is to drink Stumptown Coffee, and then a particular origin.  The same goes for choosing any particular shop over another:  Intelligentsia, Coava, Grumpys, Squaremile, insert-coffee-shop-slash-roaster-here.  (You could say you choose a particular cafe because of atmosphere/service but then you aren’t even part of this discussion).

A small exception to this rule would be a cafe that of course supplies multiple roasters.  Having worked in several of these shops though, it’s almost guaranteed that a customer gets excited over a roaster as oppose to a particular coffee.  A prime example of this was shown a couple of months ago when 1 of our guys was in London and brought back enough Square Mile to put on the menu for a week:  The coffee was the Colombia Narino Bella Vista.  But they were not excited for the Narino Bella Vista from Colombia; they were excited for Square Mile.  (As were we, I might add – it was rather nice.)

And so I ask again:

Do you buy based on what’s on the outside of the bag, or what’s in it?

5 Responses to “Coffee Brands

  1. Collin says:

    Unfortunately I have experienced the same at Caffe Streets, the multi-roaster shop I used to work for. Certain customers latched onto one of the 3 or 4 roasters we offered regularly and would be overly hesitant to drink other roasters coffees on offering even if they happened to taste much better that day. Some of this was based on hype around certain exclusive roasters (either not normally seen or tons of marketing) or based on bad experiences of a good roaster being brewed poorly elsewhere.

  2. May 8 — Madcap Kiryama | YHZ 'morning' espresso says:

    [...] Can’t believe I took a 15$ cab in Arlington VA to buy this brand!  cheaper to order SquareMil… [...]

  3. Coffeestork says:

    Interesting post. I can’t say that I’m immune to the roasters reputation. It defintiely plays a factor in my coffee buying decisions. I also find a barista’s recommendation plays heavily into my decision as I usually like to get their opinion. This is especially true when I find that their taste is similar to mine.

  4. Adam Scott Paul says:

    While there are many other factors that directly impact that behavior, such as location.. ie: where you go to buy your coffee ( online, supermarket, cafes ) In most coffee buying scenarios, the consumer’s purchase behavior is driven by the brand – not the product itself.

    Consumer realizes need or want for coffee…
    Considers where / how to make the purchase based on location, convenience, availability, price. At this point, they have made up their mind, they are getting coffee. For most, the journey of choice ends here. You walk into a store, and you can only buy what they offer. Same goes for cafes. Online you have freedom of choice.

    Those factors aside, Coffee is a commodity – and when you have a product who’s fundamental features are basically the same across an industry, branding can become one of the strongest ways of influencing consumer purchase behavior.

    What is interesting in coffee though, is that you have consumerism even at the Roaster level… Roasters might consider the country of origin a particular “brand”, or a varietal, washing method etc… It’s these features that the pros in the industry latch onto.

  5. Coffeestork » Ehtiopian Kochere: Some Roaster Highlights says:

    [...] while back, a post on CleanHotDry asked what was more important to you the origin or the roaster when you buy a coffee? Having tasted [...]

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