- Single origin and micro lot coffees have long been central to the specialty coffee industry
- Micro lots are expensive to produce, and cater to an increasingly small segment of the market
- Blends are becoming more accepted as part of a specialty coffee roaster’s identity.
WITHOUT WANTING to be overly reductive, the specialty coffee industry was founded on a tradition of using single origins. It underpinned everything; from expressing the unique characteristics of each coffee to ensuring traceability along the supply chain. Years later, however, this guiding principle is not so central for the sector.
Although the idea of “single origin” coffee seems relatively straightforward – coffee from one origin – there is actually a lot of nuance and breadth within that definition. It can come from a single country, region, estate, and so on.
Furthermore, the process of collecting and processing coffee varies across different countries. For example, Ethiopia and Colombia often combine small harvests from numerous local farmers, technically qualifying as single origin coffee. However, compared to coffee grown and processed on a “single estate” farm, this shared definition can lead to confusion.
As specialty coffee consumers take a greater interest in traceability, the ambiguity around “single origin” coffee has become increasingly evident – and not something a specialty coffee roaster wants to be caught out on.
In response, many have refined their focus; “micro lots” became a defining feature of a specialty coffee roaster – with no confusion about where they come from.
Are micro lots viable?
Today, micro lots have offered roasters an opportunity to “double down” on single origin coffee and the values they represent. However, many are discovering that building a business around these coffees comes with its challenges.
While micro lots can garner a certain level of attention and notoriety for specific farms, producing them requires time, care, and investment from farmers. As such, they are often expensive to produce, which means they tend to operate at the premium end of the specialty coffee market.
“For a lot of farmers, the resources are limited,” says Julian König, head roaster of KRÖM Kaffeerösterei Magdeburg. “So the expensive nature of a micro lot production – because the production often involves experimenting with expensive varieties and farming methods – can be really challenging.”
In turn, roasters must be able to afford the higher prices of micro lots, as well as be sure they have a receptive market for them.
“Micro lots often come with higher production costs and also a limited supply,” says Thomas West, roaster for KRÖM Kaffeerösterei Magdeburg. “For smaller roasters like us, these higher costs can be a significant hurdle, and we need to ensure that the prices we charge align with the expectations of our customer base.”
“Our customers want quality coffee at an affordable price. So we would struggle to rely only on micro lots – it would be financially challenging. In the end, the customers decide in some way what you can sell.”
This is ultimately the crux of the issue: while specialty coffee is becoming more popular, this isn’t being driven by a market demand for micro lots. Indeed, micro lots operate in such a niche, premium corner of the market that specialty coffee roasters aren’t able to hinge their businesses on them – and they must look elsewhere if they want to survive.
Blends are good for everyone
While specialty coffee roasters have been struggling with the viability of selling micro lots, a familiar alternative has emerged. Blends have always been there in the background of specialty coffee; but never have they been so prevalent. Today, they are finding their way onto competition stages and coffee shop menus across the sector.
“The tastes of specialty coffee lovers evolve and a more diverse range of coffee preferences emerges as the audience grows,” Julian says. “Taste-wise, micro lots can be exciting, but not everyone is looking for such complexity in their daily cup. Blends offer a balanced, reliable option that suits a wider range.”
Essentially, if a specialty coffee roaster wants to be successful, it needs to offer what’s popular; and a demand for consistent, familiar blends is what’s driving the market.
Nevertheless, specialty coffee roasters aren’t so quick to drop their micro lots. Indeed, they stand as a testament to the single origin heritage of specialty coffee. Yet, it could be argued that they are just that: a symbol – a marketing tool for coffee roasters to stay on brand, helping them to maintain their “specialty” identity.
Indeed, a familiar portfolio of today’s specialty coffee roaster will be composed largely of affordable, reliable blends, complemented with a smattering of exotic micro lots.
“Offering a blend can be a strategic move for roasters looking to scale the business,” says Thomas. “Additionally blends can help to maintain a stable income so that you have the financial opportunity to explore micro lots.”
Blends can mean greater stability for producers, too. When purchasing for blends, roasters can invariably commit to buying in larger volumes on a more consistent schedule – essentially because they are backed by the bulk of market demand.
In contrast, micro lots are – by their nature – produced in smaller volumes. This limits a roaster’s ability to make bulk purchases. Additionally, market preferences for experimental micro lots change frequently, making it difficult for roasters to purchase in large volumes, even if they wanted to.
While there is always likely to be a demand for premium, niche micro lots, the prevailing direction of the market is headed in a different direction. And when it comes down to it, this can be seen as good for everyone involved. In general, farmers can spend less time and investment producing micro lots, secure in the knowledge that a larger portion of their harvest will be sold.
And for roasters, blends are important for a healthy bottom line; but they also represent a willingness to meet the broader demand that’s shaping specialty coffee’s future.