Walk in to any “third-wave” coffee establishment, or even a mass market chain such as Starbucks, Peets or Nespresso, and you’re bound to encounter an overwhelming assortment of coffee varieties at all quality levels and price points. There are coffees labeled Single Varietal, Single Origin, Micro Lot, Small Batch and even Grand Cru. The question for every consumer becomes: how do you know which coffee is better, and with so many different labels of quality depending on where you shop and which brand’s name is on the package, which coffee is actually the one to buy?
“I think coffee honestly is the most confusing beverage for the customer and that is something the coffee industry is paying attention to and is very worried about. It’s the simplest of all the beverages, it’s a bean you roast, you grind and you pour hot water over, but if you ask the average consumer what makes coffee special or good most people would have no idea,” says Tim Hill of Counter Culture Coffee. It’s why so many coffee growers seem to at least subtly be looking at other popular adult beverages, such as wine, for answers.
The Gesha varietal of coffee is one of the most celebrated and sought-after, if not the most celebrated and sought-after, coffees currently on the market. Widely considered to be the epitome of what high-end coffee should aspire to, the coffee can fetch up to $75 dollars a bag, yet each coffee company chooses to label the quality of this coffee differently. Blue Bottle Coffee, the VC funded San Francisco chain, refers to their Gesha offering as “small lot,” whereas the Chicago chain Intelligentsia has called it “single origin” and Portland’s Stumptown refers to it as “Grand Cru.” Even for what the free market widely considers the best coffee currently available, there is a differing opinion on how to label the quality of Gesha and present it to the consumer. “For the sake of the customer, there has to be a designation, but who decides that?” questioned Hill when we spoke.
Potentially the people who are going to decide that won’t be the “third-wave” coffee companies if they don’t organize soon enough. Mass-market coffee, the Starbucks and Nespressos of the world, have already co-opted much of the language these small roasters are experimenting with, and with their much larger megaphones, they’re the ones exposing and getting the consumer comfortable with quality classifications.
“At Intelligentsia we’ve long believed freshly harvested is just as important as freshly roasted, ground and brewed, so in our labeling we’ve tried to distinguish our freshest and best coffees and decided to introduce the label ‘In Season’ to our coffees that are less than 9 calendar months from the completion of harvest. Some time later we noticed Starbucks began to use similar rhetoric on their reserve coffees, although this doesn’t seem to be used anymore” said Intelligentsia’s Stephen Morrissey. While the “third wave” companies continue to experiment and test, the big guys are using their language as a means of marketing.
“Grand Cru” is a quality label with which many wine drinkers are familiar, and it’s the one Stumptown, and now Nespresso, has chosen as their quality signifier. “What we started to notice was there was coffee that was really exceptional, but that also deserved a better price. Then we had the task of saying, ok, how do we communicate that to the world. How do we differentiate the ones that are exquisite compared to the ones that are entirely great. We needed our customers to understand it. That’s how we chose Grand Cru, because many consumers were already familiar with the label,” said Matt Lounsbury of Stumptown.
The problem is, in many of these labelings, it’s the coffee company itself, whether boutique or mass market, that decides which coffee deserves the seal, and then after determining that, they also determine what to call the seal of quality in the first place. This is what’s been so hard for people who are familiar with wine to understand, especially with regards to the Grand Cru coffee labeling. In wine, these designations come from a higher authority, whether a country’s agricultural board or some other governmental organization, not simply the winery itself. It’s why even though Bordeaux’s Chateau Mouton Rothschild thought for decades it was worthy of the First Growth label, it was not able to call itself a First Growth until a higher government body decided to promote the winery to that classification.
When Tylery Coleman, a prominent wine blogger who blogs under the name Dr. Vino, recently noticed the Grand Cru offerings from Nespresso while commuting through Grand Central, he couldn’t believe the company was referring to its pods with that weighty label. “While I have seen the term handwritten on bags of beans at boutique roasters,” wrote Dr. Vino, “ it seems more tolerable and chuckleworthy there as the bags tout a single coffee plantation. But the Nespresso pods on display had no visible connection with the place(s) of origin and their “Grand Crus” simply evoked flavor profiles. If the Champenois went nuts about the mere rumor of a Champagne iPhone, shouldn’t a defender of the Grand Cru system be flipping out over Nestle’s brazen marketing?” Nespresso had co-opted the language of quality used by the “third-wave” companies and wine, and was using it as a marketing tactic to sell pods. I reached out to Nespresso to get clarification on their process for labeling certain coffees as Grand Cru, but never received a response.
Among the group of “third wave” roasters, what everyone does agree upon is that there are certain coffees, like the Gesha, that do warrant a sort of special classification; the question everyone seems to be asking then is: what is that classification and how do they take ownership of it before the large coffee companies like Nespresso do? “The need to distinguish great coffee from not so great coffee is getting more and more relevant by the minute,” said Morrissey.
So if wine was able to figure out how to organize and determine quality classification, why hasn’t coffee been able to? Competition has a lot to do with it, according to Lounsbury: “The problem is that the coffee industry is really competitive, so how do you organize and come together simply to provide clarity in labeling when there’s so much else going on. We’re still very immature and we have a long way to go around organizing and getting together. When it comes down to it, coffee is so young it’s still really competitive.”
As a result of the competition, “it’s more or less the free-market determining quality,” says Hill, no matter what the labeling of the coffee is, which changes pretty frequently. In this current scenario, the differing terms every roaster uses become shallow and meaningless with no weight behind them, and they are ultimately dropped after they are co-opted by the larger brands, resulting in the ultimate confusion of the consumer. “We’re having this conversation right now: do we continue to call our best coffee Grand Cru once we see people like Nespresso are doing it? Is this the best way to describe it and what we’re doing?” said Lounsbury.
With labels changing so often, the free market determining quality isn’t such as bad thing to fall back on. In fact, it’s probably more reliable, as many familiar with the historical back-room deals involving wine ratings can attest (there’s a reason when Mouton-Rothschild was elevated that no other classifications of Bordeaux were changed, and it’s probably not just because Mouton was the only wine worthy of a different rating). That being said, everyone in coffee agrees there needs to be a consensus on what ratings to use and what to call the “better” stuff whether it’s determined by the free market, or another body, such as the Specialty Coffee Association of America. Morrissey mentioned that the SCAA has begun to help the industry move in this direction, but others I spoke with felt they aren’t moving fast enough.
To the SCAA’s credit, the organization is trying to be a guiding force, but they admit, as do the coffee companies I spoke to, that it’s tricky, as no one organization wants to be the “voice of god.” “I would hate to be in a place where one group told people what’s good about coffee and what’s bad about coffee. Part of drinking coffee is the journey and I hate to take that away,” said Ric Rhinehart, the SCAA’s Executive Director. The one thing that Rhinhart’s organization does want to push forth is that determining good coffee should be about taste, facts and science, not just marketing.
Coming together and organizing is going to be tough in an industry that currently resembles the Wild Wild West and unfortunately, unlike in wine, there won’t be much help or support coming from the countries where the coffee is grown. The countries that grow the best coffee in the world happen to also be some of the world’s poorest. Understandably their governments have bigger issues to deal with than helping the coffee industry determine how to present its differing levels of quality to consumers.
In the meantime, while these conversations continue to occur, it seems the best strategy for consumers is to ignore the quality labels all together, especially at the mass market level, and simply trust their coffee provider. “One of the current positives and negatives to coffee is that it’s generally sold by the company that makes it, so you do tend to identify more with the companies that are producing the coffee rather than the beans that went in to create it,” says Counter Culture’s Hill. For these current “third wave” roasters themselves, that’s not such a bad thing, it leads to loyal customers and could be why it’s taken everyone so long to organize. As Stumptown’s Lounsbury put it, “We love when people come in to one of our shops and talk to a coffee steward, to figure out for themselves what makes our coffee different and special.”