Specialty coffee still has a reputation for being elitist. Will it ever go away?

red carpet coffee
  • Specialty coffee has historically had a reputation for being elitist
  • However, coffee’s fourth wave is bringing mass commercialisation and market consolidation
  • Estimates that the RTD market will be worth US $26 billion by the end of 2031 is a prime example of how the industry is changing

AS THE coffee industry has evolved through different “waves”, people’s perceptions of it have shifted. The first and second waves democratised coffee as it became a globally traded commodity and, eventually, a household staple. These efforts were to make it more accessible.

As coffee entered its third wave, certain standards like quality, traceability, transparency, and novelty were pushed to their very limit. In the process, this more premium end of the market garnered an “elitist” reputation.

The culture surrounding specialty coffee came to be seen by some as exclusive or intimidating. The language and rituals surrounding the sector ended up alienating a wider consumer base that often couldn’t make sense of the premium prices commanded by specialty coffee.

Consumer education quickly became a prevalent feature of specialty coffee, partly as a way to counter this perception of elitism and include more people. It became a priority to get end users to understand specialty coffee as a complex, differentiated, and usually sustainable product to justify higher prices. In more niche consumer groups, this came as a welcome initiative.

“Consumers are increasingly interested in where their products come from, be it asking if our coffee is fair trade or engaging in conversation,” says Paul Harris, Founder of Derelict Coffee Roasters.”They want to know more.”

But coffee drinkers, even in the specialty segment, often just want a cup of coffee, nothing more.  Many believe that pushing education onto the public can be arrogant when it was never requested in the first place. Educating consumers is a fine balance between business accountability and listening to end users.

“Ongoing education is important to sensitise coffee drinkers to what happens behind the cup, so consumer consciousness is not lost over time,” says Margaret Nyamumbo, founder of Kahawa 1893.

Is innovation taking us away from elitism?

Innovation has played an important role in globalising coffee consumption through production, processing and distribution transformation. However, in the specialty segment, innovation is what has so far kept it niche and challenging to scale up.

On the competition stage, barista routines have become increasingly technical. Competitors showcase the latest advancements in extraction theory, experimental processing techniques, and so on.

And it’s likely that there will always be a market for this in the real world. Innovation will continue to push specialty coffee into new niches that specifically cater only to those deeply involved in the sector – the elite.

However, it’s evident that the majority of coffee innovation has shifted its focus. As the industry progresses into the fourth wave, the primary goal of innovation is to discover ways to make coffee more accessible and convenient.

“The news of automation coming to world level coffee competition, for example, is a divisive one. But it’s one example of accessibility and the walls of elitism coming down,” says Paul.

Maggy believes the industry needs to innovate to scale up and make high-quality coffee accessible to more people. 

“I believe that for coffee, scale and pricing are intertwined,” she says. “You can’t divorce scale from efficiencies that make coffee ultimately cheaper. Ultimately, a larger scale means we can impact more farmers.”

The meteoric rise of ready-to-drink (RTD) coffee and the development of specialty coffee capsules are examples of this shift towards making specialty coffee more accessible to the mass market. The global RTD coffee market alone was valued at $US 12.6 billion in 2022, and estimated to reach $US 26 billion by the end of 2031.

“Convenience is king,” says Maggy. “Customers love to have coffee already made for them or ready at the push of a button. What we’re seeing is RTD and capsule manufacturers innovating to make sure the quality of coffee is not lost during the brewing process.”

Always room for the “elite”

As specialty coffee enters the fourth wave, a fundamental characteristic of this is to appeal to the masses. As the segment scales up, it will have to accept becoming more accessible – and brands that don’t embrace this may remain “elite”, but will also end up being left behind.

Technology will play an important role in making specialty coffee more accessible and less intimidating for the average consumer. As coffee machines become more autonomous and user-friendly, they can demystify much of the process of brewing specialty coffee, reaching new demographics along the way. 

To be profitable at scale, the specialty coffee industry needs to move away from a niche commercial strategy and shed some of its elitism. 

“Specialty coffees with a low 80s score have the highest volume and are most likely to scale by reaching mass consumption,” says Maggy. “The higher end coffees that are more expensive to produce and come in small batches will remain though, for exclusivity.”

Economic pressures on disposable income are reframing consumers’ priorities and the way the sector operates. With rising prices, roasters are spending less money on coffee as well – whether they want to or not. 

The commercialisation of the specialty coffee segment is inevitable against this changing backdrop. While the “elite” and its niche market will remain, it won’t have a chance to grow beyond its current size unless it considers lower scores and prices as tradeoffs. 

Coffee Intelligence

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