Bitter end: Why companies are ditching the “world’s strongest coffee” claim

world's strongest coffee
  • Death Wish Coffee pioneered the use of the term “world’s strongest coffee”
  • The FDA has set a safe limit of 400mg of caffeine per day, but consumers continue to seek out coffee with high caffeine content
  • Some brands are distancing themselves from the claim as they seek to broaden their customer base

THE NEED for roasters to stand out in the hyper-competitive coffee market has provided consumers with higher quality coffees, given producers more credit for their work, and made new technology more accessible.

All of this, while also holding the industry accountable to a more stringent set of guidelines on everything from economic practices to environmental stewardship.

However, the desire to differentiate has also given rise to some tenuous, yet popular, concepts. One of these is the idea of “the world’s strongest coffee”.

Pioneered by a handful of roasters in the US, “strong coffee” typically refers to coffee with a higher than average caffeine content. Some varieties and species, such as robusta, have considerably more caffeine than others and it is often a blend of these beans that are slapped with the label, “world’s strongest”.

The other most common use of the term is in reference to the coffee’s taste – or, more specifically, the intensity of its bitterness. By this definition, the inherently bitter robusta is also often used to provide higher intensity and hit the “strong” aspect the brand is pushing.

However, these are by no means the only definitions of “strong coffee”, which can make the term somewhat misleading. A number of companies not only tout themselves as having the “world’s strongest coffee”, but have built their entire brand around this loosely defined aspect.

Some believe this is an innately American approach, where other products, such as hot sauces, have benefited from similar claims. But companies around the world, from South Africa to Australia, also take advantage of the “world’s strongest coffee” label, many of which have been hugely successful.

So why are some brands that previously adopted the claim now starting to distance themselves?

False appeal

For many, coffee is primarily a vehicle for transferring much-needed caffeine into the system.

Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant that occurs naturally in a wide variety of foods. It can produce positive physiological responses, such as increased alertness, improved metabolism, and thermogenesis.

According to coffee scientist Joseph Rivera, it can also make people feel happy.

“In addition to the metabolic effect, caffeine causes the release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens region of the brain,” he says. “This means that simply drinking coffee does cause an increased sense of pleasure and overall well-being, physiologically.”

However, regular caffeine consumption can also cause dependency, giving rise to the infamous “caffeine addiction”. Because it always corrects the symptoms of withdrawal, this can lead some to believe that the more caffeine they consume, the better it will be. This might go some way to explaining the appeal of buying “strong” coffee.

For example, when the EMSL Food Chemistry Lab tested samples of Death Wish coffee back in 2015, it found its caffeine content was as much as 210mg/100ml – more than five times the average. Commonly referred to as the world’s strongest coffee, Death Wish’s popularity stems largely from those looking for a quick “hit” of caffeine, whether to get going in the morning or stay up late studying.

But Joseph says that filling up on coffees with higher than average caffeine content isn’t necessarily the best way to solve withdrawals nor reap any of caffeine’s other benefits. This realisation may have led to its waning appeal among consumers.

“It is well known that caffeine constricts blood vessel in the body and brain,” he says. “When caffeine is no longer present, blood vessels dilate, expanding in diameter and causing increased pressure in the brain, resulting in the all too common ‘no-coffee headache’.

“The FDA has set a limit of 400mg/day as a safe dose for most people (around 3-4 cups of filter coffee or three double espresso). Above this limit, people may experience negative effects including heart palpitations, increased anxiety, and nausea.

“My guess is that manufacturers [of strong coffee] are assuming people who consume more caffeine will be more motivated to workout, which is undoubtedly beneficial. But personally, I cant imagine working out when I feel anxious and nauseated. If anything, over-consuming caffeine would actually have the opposite effect.”

Pivoting away

Death Wish Coffee is, arguably, the market leader when it comes to claims around the “world’s strongest coffee”.

Since launching in 2012, it has grown to become one of the most well-known coffee roasters in the US, roasting millions of pounds worth of coffee at its facility in Round Lake.

A significant chunk of its success is down to its striking claims, which have, naturally, encouraged a slew of copycat brands, all bearing the same hallmarks.

A prominent idea is that drinking “strong” coffee on a regular basis forms part of a lifestyle choice, often centred on a “counterculture” movement. To perpetuate this, many invoke words such as “rebel” and “renegade”, along with the use of all-black packaging, skull logos, and heavy metal or sci-fi video game aesthetics.

The early years of UK-based roaster Black Insomnia were characterised by a similar approach. Like Death Wish, it claimed to sell the “world’s strongest coffee” and catered its branding to appeal to a similar demographic.

However, it has recently dropped the claims and even pivoted away from its original branding. Black Insomnia’s founder, Jim Walker, says the tagline was its unique selling point at the start, but never part of its long-term strategy.

“It was the spearhead for breaking into the market and it worked really well,” he says. “We got a big buzz in early 2017 when we launched in the US and our coffee ended up on Good Morning America in front of 70 million people. It was a real headline grabber.

“But we always intended to change that. Now, there are a lot of companies claiming it and we don’t want to be involved in the bun fight. We’re adapting our taglines and branding to emphasise the caffeine’s ability to provide energy instead. This appeals to our customer base of fitness fanatics and extreme athletes.”

In this sense, Black Insomnia is promoting itself as an alternative to high sugar energy drinks. This is helping the company reach a broader range of customers, while shaking itself free of being seen as a gimmick.

It’s also helping them protect a niche that departs from the now-saturated claim of having “the world’s strongest coffee”. Jim says the company’s strategic intent has been refocused on “bridging the gap between energy and coffee”. They are doing so, in particular, through their line of high caffeine cold brew drinks, using 100% fine robusta.

To Joseph, more companies laying claim to the world’s strongest coffee could benefit from a similar move.

“From a consumer perspective, I think [the world’s strongest coffees] are novelty products and perhaps something you try once or twice and never again,” he says. “Although many of these products can provide for a sustained caffeine buzz, they forget that they do so at the expense of taste.

“And if there is anything I’ve learned working in the food and beverage industry, it’s that ‘taste is king’ and people will ultimately base their purchases based on their taste buds over anything else in the long term.”