It’s half an hour before the shop opens. You’re getting ready to dial in, staring down this bag of coffee that, after weeks and possibly months of negotiations, your shop is now about to serve.
Maybe there’s a reputation about this coffee – a well-established farm, a rare variety, a special processing method, an excellent cup score… perhaps all these things combined. But how do you make sure you’re serving it to the highest standards? How do you highlight its ideal flavour features, while balancing expectations and not driving customers away? And should you even be serving high-value coffees on bar?
To find out, I chatted with coffee professionals at The Crown: Royal Coffee Lab and Tasting Room in Oakland, California. Sandra Elisa Loofbourow, Tasting Room Director and a licensed Q-grader, and Alex Taylor, Lead Barista, shared their thoughts on the advantages and challenges of offering high-value coffees in the café.
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The Crown: Royal Coffee Lab and Tasting Room’s menu, featuring the company’s “Crown Jewel” coffees. Credit: Evan Gilman
Why Serve High-Value Coffees?
Not every customer wants a high-value coffee. However, serving them can differentiate your brand and attract a certain type of client.
“[This] can solidify your establishment as a place where guests can expect a coffee-tasting experience and a true coffee destination,” says Alex. “High-value coffees won’t necessarily cement your café as a guest’s [everyday], go-to shop (although they certainly may), but they can establish your shop as a must-visit destination for coffee enthusiasts, professionals, and the general public.”
Cups and barware at The Crown: Royal Cupping Lab and Tasting Room. Credit: Evan Gilman
But what is a high-value coffee? “Obviously, price can make a coffee high-value in many ways, but for a specialty café, there are more factors to consider,” Alex tells me. “Rarity, notably high quality, unexpected flavour profiles, and relationships with producers can all qualify a coffee as high-value, and it can be even more exciting to offer a mix of the above.”
At The Crown, for example, they recently featured a lesser-known, low-caffeine coffee variety called Laurina. “[This was a] coffee from a producer who interned at Royal years ago, [and] a Sumatran coffee that didn’t really taste like a Sumatran coffee,” he says.
Serving high-value coffees like this can, in theory, better support the entire supply chain. Alex admits that it’s not always as simple as paying more for a coffee and expecting that this will have a positive impact. “It would mostly depend on how much of the price paid for the coffee is actually getting back to the producers and their communities. Paying more for a coffee doesn’t always mean paying the producers more.”
However, he believes that cafés serving high-value coffees are best placed to open up further discussions about coffee as a product with many different beneficiaries and contributors.
“By offering ‘relationship coffees’, we can put faces and personal stories to the names behind the coffee and start conversations with our guests about the supply chain itself,” he says. “Coffees with different flavour profiles or unusual characteristics can change the way consumers think about the coffee they drink and help broaden coffee drinkers’ horizons.”
“Coffee is inherently a high-value product,” Sandra tells me. “It takes an enormous amount of labour to produce and transport coffee to consuming countries, and this high cost of production is not always reflected in the landed price.”
She says that coffees that fetch a higher price, perhaps due to cup quality or scarcity, can be a good way to warm people up to paying a premium for a product that requires years of investment and passes through dozens of hands before landing in our cups.
Brewing coffee at The Crown. Credit: Evan Gilman
The Challenges of Offering High-Value Coffees
All that being said, there are things to bear in mind before you begin purchasing high-value coffees to add to your menu.
For one, it can be hard to convince folks to spend more on coffee, due to the drink’s long-standing reputation as a quick, often bitter, on-the-go beverage. This is where coffees with high cup scores come into play: consumers may be willing to pay a premium for beverages that are exceptionally delicious or unique.
“These coffees may open up discussions about processing, production, or the supply chain, or at least change people’s standards for what coffee ‘should’ cost,” Sandra says. “These conversations may be difficult, but they are absolutely worth having.”
In addition, controlling wastage and freshness of stock can also factor largely in a café’s decision to serve a high-value coffee. Depending on the café’s clientele, it may be hard to shift those highly priced beans – and that, in turn, can lead to waste.
“It’s painful to waste high-value coffee! So much work went into making that coffee what it is today, and we have the responsibility to honour that work by making and serving the best coffee we possibly can, day in and day out,” Alex says.
Of course, there are always ways to reduce waste. “If a coffee is just a little off-spec or we don’t have enough to keep it in full service, we’ll try to find new ways to serve it behind the bar or use it in training or classes,” Alex adds. Yet sometimes, it simply isn’t cost-efficient for a café to offer a high-value coffee, considering its perishability and demand.
And then there is the risk of purchasing an expensive, high-quality coffee for it to be poorly brewed.
So, what can you do to limit or resolve these challenges?
A barista gets ready to tamp.
Practical Tips For Serving High-Value Coffees
- Train Your Team
“Having the team on the same page in regard to dialling in is really important – it helps reduce waste while dialling in throughout the day and ensures that the coffees are tasting the way they should be, regardless of who is brewing them,” Alex says.
Team calibration training and detailed brew notes are good ideas. “The more specific your notes are, the easier it is for another team member to jump in and brew the same coffee exactly the way you dialled it in,” Alex adds.
Encourage your staff to lean on each other’s expertise, too. “I often ask for help dialling in new coffees, because I know a fresh perspective can be enormously helpful,” Alex tells me. “Working as a team both relieves some of that pressure and helps ensure we’re serving top-notch coffee drinks all the time.”
The Crown’s Tasting Room in Oakland, California. Credit: Evan Gilman
- Taste Your Coffees
“Think of a high-end cocktail bar: many bartenders will taste every single drink they serve,” says Alex. While that level of attention to detail isn’t necessarily possible or encouraged in a busy coffee bar (“I don’t want a guest to see me stick a straw in their cortado,” Alex says with a laugh), it’s definitely possible to taste every urn of batch-brew, check your espresso dials frequently, and taste your manual brews just as regularly.
- Refer Back to Similar Coffees
“When dialling in a new coffee, use prior offerings as reference points to help cut down waste,” Alex adds. While it’s not always the case, it’s a good rule-of-thumb that coffees from similar origins or coffees processed or roasted the same way will behave similarly behind the bar.
A barista prepares multiple pour over coffees.
- Know Your Offerings
If you’re going to offer high-value coffees, it’s likely that customers will want to ask for more information about them. “Be prepared to answer questions about the coffee’s background, explain what you like about the coffee, and give some pretty specific tasting notes,” Alex says. It can look silly or unprofessional if all we know about the coffee is that it’s expensive.
- Keep Doing Quality Control
If a coffee no longer tastes the way it should, cafés need to identify the issue and, if possible, resolve it. “High-value coffees can stale, roasts can go off-spec, and you might botch the occasional brew,” Alex says. “You’ll only be judged on the coffees you actually serve, so do everything you can to make sure the product lives up to the hype and reputation.”
- Cater For as Many Customers as Possible
Sandra tells me, “Coffee can be an intensely personal experience for people, part of a ritual that gets their day off on the right foot. We do not want to alienate any one type of coffee drinker – we hope consumers of almost all preference can find something on our menu that they enjoy.”
It can be worth serving a wide range of coffees, from accessible ones with familiar flavour profiles to the rare, experimentally processed micro lots. Alternatively, it can be a good idea to look at how you’re presenting your high-value offerings. Will the average consumer be able to understand why they’re so special? Will someone who isn’t already a coffee connoisseur feel tempted to try them? And if they are, will the barista’s explanation be meaningful to them?
A barista tamps coffee before pulling an espresso shot.
Serving a high-value coffee can be as daunting as it is exciting. So, make sure you understand why you’ve made this menu choice. Take the time to find the ideal recipe for it, and taste the coffee regularly as part of your quality control. Train your team, both on how to serve the drink and share the story behind it. And, most of all, enjoy sharing a coffee you’re passionate about with your customers.
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