It is generally understood that you get what you pay for – right?
If you are prepared to pay more you’ll most likely get something which is better – if not purely objectively better – then at least justifiably better against an understood paradigm of quality for that particular product.
Pay £100 in a restaurant for a grand cru classe Saint Emilion, for example, and that will eclipse any supermarket Merlot – only people who don’t actually like red wine and therefore don’t buy into the understood evaluative considerations might rate them differently. Quality wine is expensive because demand for good wine has been growing for decades and that has driven the price higher – this is compounded by the aging/improving process for vintages that genuinely get better as they get older and in tandem – rarer. This is not so clear in the specialty coffee industry where the production of a truly fantastic cup of coffee is an ephemeral process with many human inputs in a short time period.
For those who have been lucky enough to taste (and appreciate) a properly cellared and aged Margaux or Petrus from a good vintage, it is clear that if you spend more on wine you’ll be drinking better wine.
Producers of New World wines might argue that a £25 Argentinian Malbec might represent superb value compared with any classed growth Bordeaux and that may be the case, but more widely speaking you pay more for a bottle and you get better quality.
Is this coffee really better tasting than a grade 1 Yirgacheffe at £12 per kg?
Put the cost of the misunderstood Kopi Luwak and the equally eyebrow-raising price of Jamaican Blue Mountain to one side and up until the most recent time, Specialty Coffee didn’t get super expensive. Even the most rarefied lots wouldn’t fetch huge amounts per kilo and prices per cup where they were served wouldn’t really ever top £5. Recently, however, lots of the recherche Panama Geisha (a somewhat rare and sought after varietal which yields flavours of Parma violets and other florals) have commanded extremely high prices at auction, upwards of 500 dollars per pound of green beans (£1000 + per kg). Is this coffee really better tasting than a grade 1 Yirgacheffe at £12 per kg? I’d find it very hard to argue that it is but it does taste different to most other specialty coffee – strange even – fascinating to the passionate coffee professional with a wealth of experience tasting coffees but to the consumer on the street probably more odd and unusual than enjoyable.
It’s easy to tell a specialty coffee from a commodity grade coffee. It is not difficult to taste that a precisely made flat white made using top quality single estate Arabicas is unquestionably more sweet, rich, complex and delicious then a cappuccino made with an espresso blend circa 1995 with a “10% robusta content for body and crema” (served with the requisite 2 sugars and a dusting of chocolate). But can such an ephemeral beverage as coffee, one that decays over a matter of minutes ever command very high prices in the western day to day consumer market, no matter how rare or ‘specialty’ the product might be?
In America, Starbuck’s has launched its foray into specialty ‘Starbuck’s Reserve’ and here in the UK Cafe Nero bought the specialty chain Harris & Hoole in a pre-emptive move to occupy the specialty marketplace and this would point to growth in this sector is widely being acknowledged. It’s interesting to note that much of this super-premium coffee is being bought up by the Japanese market where very expensive Teas already command similarly lofty sums. So maybe you won’t see Panama Geisha or Daterra micro lots on offer in Costa anytime soon for £25 per cup but if you head for Japan on holiday – you might just.