Standing at the bar in an Italian coffee shop in Milan, I overhear two women to my left discussing the superior quality of Italian espresso over the classical filter coffee they are used to at home. They are tourists and clearly very taken with the Italian coffee culture. They are describing the coffee as being “rich,” “full-bodied” with “hints of caramel.” We have become accustomed in recent years to describing coffee much the same way we would a glass of wine. We use the language of oenology, talking about the aroma, the body, even the colour. We carefully choose between different roasts, different kinds if beans and indulgently sip our lavishly brewed and carefully chosen cup of coffee instead of downing it in one gulp.
Coffee historically in the cultural imagination was a quick and easy fix. We associate it with burning the midnight oil, dreary Monday mornings and friendly catch-ups. A standard pick-me-up for the perpetually tired or perpetually social. Like smoking, at times we see it like a bad habit we need to quit. We all have that one friend who says they are addicted and should really stop, while downing their fourth cappuccino of the day at 11am. We see it as a necessity, but to be utilised sparingly.
However in recent years we have begun to see the rise of the coffee connoisseur. The individual who has studied coffee the same way one might study wine. They take their time over the menu, carefully inspecting the selection of hot and cold brews before making a decision. They are able to taste the difference between Arabica and Robusta, can pick out the many different aromas in a single espresso and are interested in the environmental impact of the coffee. These customers are driving a trend in the market for high quality coffee. They are no longer content with whatever, with the standard selection, but want specificity.
This specificity in turn breeds a new type of coffee drinker who comes equipped with their own brand of snobbery, much like any other kind of connoisseurs they have their favourites. Where once someone might say “one coffee please,” now it is commonplace to hear “I’ll take my medium roast flatwhite with almond milk please.” Coffee is becoming personal and coffee connoisseurs are becoming specialised in cultivating their personal tastes.
These customers are starting not just to consume but are also starting to make demands on the market. They are seeking more than just coffee. As in all the luxury markets customers want experiences. For coffee this starts from the cup the coffee is served in and extends to the comfort, interior design and location of the bar.
We are beginning to see luxury coffee shops popping up in all the most exclusive shopping districts in the world, competing to serve the the highest quality and most sustainably grown brews to the most knowledgeable clients. The first requirement for existing in the modern coffee market is good coffee, but more importantly is the experience offered to the client. We can see brands such as Nespresso, Illy, Lavazza and most recently Starbucks competing in this field.
It occurs to me as I sip my espresso at the bar, that as consumers we have become as discerning in our coffee habits as we have in our fashion choices. Our choice of coffee expresses who we are and what we like, and we are willing to pay a premium for the perfect cup of coffee. This trend of high quality coffee is on the grow and we are likely to see far more cafes and bars starting to cater to these clients.