Will there always be space for “craft” in specialty coffee?

  • The value of industrial automation is expected to exceed £3 billion by 2025, the impacts of which permeate every industry
  • For specialty coffee, the increasing prevalence of automation seems at odds with the “craftsmanship” the sector was founded on
  • Yet, growing consumer demand for speed and convenience could make an automated specialty coffee sector hard to avoid

IN RECENT years, coffee consumers have begun to demand convenience above all else. For many, the next question is obvious: what does this mean for the “craftsmanship” once so integral to specialty coffee?

​​Since the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a clear switch towards favouring convenience in consumer behaviour. In response, coffee companies have increasingly started automating their operations to improve speed and consistency.

A recent report by UCC Coffee estimated that globally, automation would be worth more than £3 billion by 2025 – and is showing no signs of slowing down.

In the specialty coffee sector, tasks that were once seen as artisanal have now been automated. Even manual pour over brewing – once a hallmark of specialty coffee – is becoming increasingly automated in coffee shops thanks to automatic filter brewers (such as Marco’s SP9 and Ottomatic).

This is before we consider ongoing labour shortages and costs rising across the board – all factors that could force some in the specialty coffee sector to face an ultimatum: automate, or risk becoming obsolete.

Understanding the customer

The conversation is clearly more nuanced than that, however. For instance, “convenience” could mean different things to different customers, and brands that focus on it haven’t necessarily deprioritised craftsmanship.

“It’s a quick and easy jump to assume that convenience means ‘fast’, but that isn’t the most important thing to every customer,” says Seth Lantz, business development manager at Allegro Coffee Company. 

“Maybe convenience for your customers means having the right food options so they can get breakfast or lunch in one stop. Maybe it means having an abundance of available outlets and reliable wifi.”

In these situations, being able to deliver convenience does not necessarily set limitations on craftsmanship. It’s also important to recognise that while consumers do want speed and consistency, they will also expect a certain “minimum level” of quality as part of that.

“They’re not necessarily looking for the best, but they want something good, fast, and consistent,” says Seth.

For these businesses, automating the process of brewing coffee can maximise speed and efficiency while still maintaining quality.

Some fear there won't always be space for craft in specialty coffee

Always space for the best

However, some argue not only that convenience and craft can coexist, but that they’ve already been doing so for some time. 

“Espresso itself was invented to brew coffee faster,” says Nanelle Newbom, co-founder and roaster at Torque Coffees 

Nanelle suggests that specialty coffee brands aiming to scale will need to embrace automation in some way. However, doing this does not necessarily spell the end of “craft” – nor does it mean a race to the bottom in terms of quality. 

“Tools are not the enemy of the craftsperson unless that person is not willing to grow and change,” she says. “When I started roasting we used a clock and graph paper, and measured flame height using the knuckles of our fingers. 

“When we first trained baristas we had them stack pucks into a tower to see if they were consistent. Today we can invest more time tasting the shots and understanding how we are affecting them with our choices. We can invest our craft in genuine customer service.”

So, while consumers do now value convenience more than ever, pitting it against the concept of craft might not be as intuitive as it seems. 

“One could accuse convenience of killing craft, or one could see convenience as something that expanded the market for craft beverages to include people who would not otherwise be there,” says Nanelle.

While this may be so, between a focus on the “personal touch” and the human aspect of specialty coffee, part of the concept of “craft coffee” is clearly at odds with automation. This means people will naturally position craft and convenience against one another – irrespective of the reality in coffee shops.

“True craft coffee has always kind of been a niche,” Seth concludes. “Even with the rise of specialty coffee as a whole, craft coffee represents just one corner of that world.

“To me, this idea of ‘craft’ represents any number of different areas in which a café or roaster is trying to be the absolute best at doing what they’re passionate about. And there will always be a market for the best.”

Coffee Intelligence

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