Branded coffee chains continue to grow in the land of tea drinkers with 643 outlets opening in 2017. The main coffee chain that springs to mind is Starbucks, their massive popularity has fueled the coffee chain craze and led to a huge number of stores opening.
Starbucks is now one of the most recognisable brands in the world. There is a total of around 990 stores within the UK, with that number growing year on year. This increase in popularity has led to nations which were predominantly tea drinkers, such as England, becoming more reliant on speciality coffee shops for their caffeine fix.
However, there is a discourse around Starbucks that the coffee is not of the highest quality. With the success it has had, can a coffee company like them really thrive without great coffee? We will look at the coffee industry as a whole and why going with a local coffee roasting company can give you the tastiest coffee.
Is Starbucks Speciality Coffee?
Compared to how the average UK consumer used to have coffee, Starbucks has a speciality feel and probably falls under some people’s idea of speciality coffee.
Most households historically would probably have only experienced instant coffee, with it being a relatively modern phenomenon having a range of brewing methods in the UK. In all honesty, most households still won’t have espresso-making facilities so it still holds a certain degree of speciality.
So Starbucks is speciality coffee then? Well technically no. While it emulates some of these conceptions of an average consumers perception of speciality coffee to some degree, it doesn’t quite match what speciality coffee embodies or match the taste required.
Starbucks partly gets swept up in this because they (kind of) follow the speciality coffee trends. Their cafes are filled with drinks and brewers that are beloved by the speciality coffee community, such as cold brew coffee, french presses, and pour over brewers.
However, there is one significant differentiating factor that we will talk about below.
What is Speciality Coffee? – Reality and Misconceptions
When many think of speciality coffee shops, they have a certain perception. These can be older than average baristas, funny coffee farm names, latte art, manual coffee brewing, and tiny espresso drinks are the things we see in the speciality coffee movement, but the roots go much deeper.
Speciality coffee in the green bean state can be defined as a coffee that has no defects and has a distinctive character in the cup, with a score of 80 or above when graded according to SCA standards, but a high score is often not enough, in fact a badly roasted or burnt 90+ cup cannot really been defined as speciality coffee.
Specialty coffee can consistently exist through the dedication of the people who have made it their life’s work to continually make quality their highest priority. Those people are the farmers, the green coffee buyer, the roaster and the barista.
There are many values that also go into coffee production, both speciality or not, and they are worth mentioning.
Great coffee in the eyes of many in the coffee community is a process, from growing and roasting, to grinding and brewing. To them, coffee should prioritise relationships. This leads to ethical sourcing and sustainable practices on and off the farm. Coffee purchases aren’t impersonal transactions – they’re relational.
Most importantly, speciality coffee pursues quality. They seek incredibly grown and processed coffee, roasting practices that highlight the best flavours, and brewing devices that produce the most flavour and balance.
Finally, speciality coffee is a community. Suppliers are made up of a global network of people who want to make coffee more ethical, sustainable, and delicious. Though they may source, roast, and brew differently, the basic communal goals are the same.
Where Does Starbucks Fail?
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz famously defined Starbucks as the “third place.” Starbucks goal is to become the Third Place in our daily lives. (i.e. home, work and Starbucks)
“We want to provide all the comforts of your home and office. You can sit in a nice chair, talk on your phone, look out the window, surf the web… oh, and drink coffee too!”
Notice how coffee is an afterthought. This is the biggest compromise Starbucks makes when it comes to being classed as a speciality coffee establishment. They sell an experience for you, where there is wifi, nice decor, music and ambience. Coffee is just a means to deliver the experience.
Starbucks fails on a few other more specific tests. Firstly, they don’t meet the required taste score that all speciality coffee must hit. They don’t publish specific roast dates on coffee bags (their beans are often weeks or months old when you buy them,) they don’t usually publish specific information on the coffee origin and they tend to have more general flavour notes.
This makes sense when you see their business goal above. Starbucks sacrifices a lot for scale, taste being one of the things they sacrifice. With the number of stores with the same feel and products they have, selling the experience is possible but it is not possible to have that speciality coffee taste.
Why a Local Coffee Roaster?
A local coffee roaster gives you the option to consume what is defined as speciality coffee. They are almost the opposite of Starbucks, as they look to do things in small batches to maximise freshness and maximise taste.
A great cafe will normally either buy their beans wholesale from a coffee roaster or have their own roastery on the side. This ensures the taste of the coffee they produce and allows them and their customers to know exactly where the coffee comes from.
What Do Coffee Roasters Do?
Roasting transforms the chemical and physical properties of green coffee beans into roasted coffee products. The roasting process is what produces the characteristic flavour of coffee by causing the green coffee beans to change in taste. Hence the terms dark roast etc being used when talking about coffee flavour.
The vast majority of coffee is roasted commercially on a large scale, but small-scale commercial roasting has grown significantly. Some coffee drinkers even roast coffee at home as a hobby in order to both experiment with the flavour profile of the beans and ensure the freshest possible roast.
How Coffee Roasters Work – What to Look For
So you’re interested in a coffee roaster. While these steps below aren’t followed by all roasters, they are what you should look for when thinking about a coffee roaster. This allows you to get both an ethical product and a great tasting one. There are many roasters who produce bad coffee as they don’t follow these steps.
To transform the coffee beans into this great tasting coffee, beans are needed first. Coffee roasters have to find these beans and somehow, try and buy it. Here are a couple of ways they do so.
- Warehouse / Catalogue Sales – The chief method of sourcing for several decades, ordering green coffees from an importer only required the roaster to order a catalogue or visit a warehouse.
- Direct Trade – Roasters travel to visit the farms in this sourcing model. They shake the hands of the farmers, inspect the land, and get to try the coffee in the region it was grown.
Once they have bought the beans, the roasting begins, which is when they apply heat to coffee beans. Roasting cycles are planned beforehand since roasted coffee only has 2 to 3 weeks of peak freshness.
There are hundreds of chemical reactions that take place within the 10 to 15 minutes it takes to roast a batch of coffee, controlling these can be quite difficult. Small changes in temperature, humidity, airflow, and time can make dramatic changes to the final cup, so roasters have to be very precise with their roasting routine and environment.
Roasters are constantly experimenting with roasting times and conditions to create new flavours. Often they will make small test batch roasts of coffee and conduct a process called cupping to test the flavour of the roast. Testing will be done numerous times before having a batch they sell commercially to ensure quality.
How Much are Our Locally Roasted Beans in Comparison to Big Brands?
To get this level of freshness and taste you’d expect to pay more. While you’d be correct in that assumption, the price isn’t much more than you’d expect. For example, a bag of our seasonal heavy bag espresso is £6.60 for 250g. A bag of Starbucks espresso beans from Tesco is £3.50.
The gap in quality is much larger than the gap in price. This is because roasters conduct roasts to order, to ensure your beans are as fresh and tasty as possible.