If you pop into your local supermarket and pick up a bag (or tin) of coffee beans or pre-ground coffee, you’re probably accustomed to spending around £3 – £5 for a 250g bag. If you hop onto the website of a coffee roaster, or call in at a local roastery if you’re lucky enough to have one locally, you’ll find that the average price is around £5 – £10 for the same quantity, so it’s more expensive. So what’s the difference, and is it worth spending extra money on?
Speciality Coffee Vs. Commodity Coffee
There’s a big difference between “coffee” and “speciality coffee” – similar to the difference between “Malt Whiskey” and “Single Malt Whiskey”, and similar to the difference between wine and fine wine, and the difference between a cheap tin of beer and a bottle of craft beer.
With speciality coffee, the focus is on quality, the way it tastes. With commodity coffee, the focus is mainly on price & volume.
Speciality coffee producers are all about quality, they’re only as successful as the the quality of the coffee they’re producing right now, they can’t rest on their laurels as a result of the quality coffee they once achieved. This means that everything from the chosen location of the farm, the varietals they have chosen, through to the picking and processing practices, have to be very carefully thought out and painstakingly undertaken. The result is that each farm producing speciality coffee is producing it to the very best of their ability, the focus is not on price, it’s on quality.
The same is true of the roasters who’re importing and roasting these beans, they’re not focusing on roasting as much coffee as they possibly can, and getting it packed up and shipped out, they’re focusing purely on getting the very best out of the bean by using all of their roasting knowledge and skill to ensure the best possible cup of coffee from the beans they import. It generally means roasting in smaller batches, working with more expensive green (unroasted) coffee beans, and putting in more time, effort & legwork when it comes to sourcing coffee.
When it comes to commodity coffee on the other hand, it’s big business, less personal, focus is on price and volume. The same is likely to the be the case when it comes to the roasting of the beans, they’ll be roasted in much larger volume, and packaged in huge quantities.
Supermarkets are in the FMCG business, fast moving consumer goods, it’s all about numbers. They need to get it on the shelf and off the shelf again at a profit as quickly as possible, that’s their business. It’s not all about the quality of the product, it’s about the performance of the packaging, merchandising, marketing and advertising to get it on the shelf and off again turning over a profit, quickly. This isn’t a put down to supermarkets, it’s just the nature of that business. When you have a retail outlet that is costing you £xx per square foot per day to remain open, you need to turn over £xxxx per day per square foot at a margin in order to keep going, especially when you have shareholders to keep happy, and executives who need to upgrade their private Yachts ;-).
There is then also instant coffee of course, but in this post I’m discussing whole or ground beans rather than instant, if you’re interested in the quality of instant vs freshly brewed see the difference between instant coffee and fresh coffee.
Does Single Origin Mean Speciality Coffee?
Not necessarily, or at least it doesn’t quite mean what many people assume it does. In order for a coffee to be advertised as single origin, it has to come from the same region; the regions that coffee comes from, can be humungous! Just because a coffee has come from the same area, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best quality coffee beans from that area. In reality there is a big difference between a single origin, and single farm / single estate – and just slapping a “single origin” sticker on a bag of coffee beans sitting on a supermarket shelf can give those beans a higher perceived value due to the lack of understanding on the part of the consumer in terms of what it actually means.
If you buy coffee from the likes of Hasbean, Adams & Russell, or Pact coffee (see the list of UK roasters for more) you’ll often be getting single farm coffee, not just single origin – you’ll know the name of the farm, and the farmer, not just the region. Single farm coffee has to be good when you think about it, that one producer is responsible 100% for the resulting cup!
Fairtrade is more expensive – does fair trade mean higher quality?
No… In fact it can have the opposite effect, and I don’t think fair trade is necessarily fair, it’s probably more of a tool supermarkets use to increase their margins in my humble opinion. I may be wrong of course. On the face of it fair trade seems like a great thing, and I’m sure that the intentions originally were good, but I don’t really think fair trade is quite what most people understand it to be. The farmer gets pennies extra (sometimes, not always – it depends on the quality of the beans and what they’d fetch on the open market) for fair trade coffee, and as far as I understand (again I could be wrong, or this may not be the case all the time) supermarkets use the fair trade logo as a lever to push up the retail price (and therefore their margins) more than the amount that is paid extra to the farmer, which doesn’t sound too fair.
Also, fair trade can actually work to decrease the quality of the coffee. As Peter Giuliano, co-founder of Counter Culture Coffee points out in this article, since quality effects the price of coffee beans on the open market, if a farmer has better quality beans that will sell for more than the fair trade price thanks to their quality, and lower quality beans which would sell for less, which beans do you think will end up being sold to the fairtrade buyer? Also there is fairness in the dealings between buyers and producers when it comes to speciality coffee, that doesn’t need the intervention of an organisation who think it’s fair to spend a million quid on a new logo, and huge amounts each year on swanky offices all over the world. Speciality coffee demands a higher price, and as a result the farmer gets paid a higher price, and if that wasn’t the case, and if the farmers were actually better off ignoring the speciality market and focusing on coffee as a commodity, then surely they would do that?
So we’ve covered the quality of the coffee itself, and this should help you to distinguish between commodity coffee and speciality coffee, but this isn’t the end of it, the next thing you have to consider is:
Here I’m referring to how freshly roasted the beans are. When you buy speciality coffee from a roaster, it will usually have been roasted within days – certainly not months. When you buy coffee beans from a supermarket, they have usually up to a year sell by date, sometimes more than a year. There’s not usually a roasted date stamp on supermarket coffee beans, so you don’t actually know when (or where) they were roasted, but given the long sell by date, I think it would be rare that you’d end up with a coffee that has been roasted within only a week or two.
Freshness makes a real difference, and if you want to see this for yourself, leave some beans in a bag in a cupboard for a few weeks, and then get a new bag of the same freshly roasted beans from the same roaster, give yourself a blind taste challenge and see if you can tell which is which.
The first thing I notice is the difference in odour. As I said in my post about freshly roasted coffee tickling my Amygdala (no I’m not being rude, the Amygdala is in the brain…) freshly roasted coffee has a lot more about it in terms of odour, even before you put it anywhere near hot water.
The above is especially the case when it comes to pre-ground coffee, which takes me nicely to:
Pre-ground vs. whole bean
If you have a coffee grinder, and grind your own beans rather than buying pre-ground, you’ll get the very best possible taste and aroma from the coffee. Once a bean has been ground, oxygen can get to more of the coffee, which means it goes stale quicker. If you currently buy pre-ground commodity coffee from a supermarket, and you switch to buying whole-bean speciality coffee from a roaster, and grinding it yourself just before you brew, that’s a double whammy in terms of the difference in quality in the cup, be prepared to be impressed!
What is the actual difference in price?
It depends on how you brew and how much coffee you use per cup, but I’m going to assume 18 grams of coffee per cup. So you’ll get nearly 14 cups from a 250g bag – lets not be petty about the 0.111112 of a cup, and say 14 cups ;-). This means freshly roasted speciality coffee will cost you between 43 pence and 71 pence per cup. Hardly extravagant is it, when you look at it like that? How much does it cost for a glass of decent wine, or decent beer? Sure if you buy supermarket coffee beans instead you’re looking at between about 21 pence and 43 pence per cup, but as far as I’m concerned it’s well, well worth an extra twenty odd pence per cup to drink amazing freshly roasted speciality coffee.
Why I still sometimes buy supermarket coffee…
I sometimes run out of speciality coffee!
Joking apart, I am glad that supermarkets sell coffee beans, because take today for instance – I have a bag of Brazil Fazenda Cachoeira Da Grama Pulped Natural Yellow Bourbon on its way to me from Hasbean, and a bag of Doh I can’t find which one I ordered, but another great sounding coffee from Pact coffee also on its way, but because I’m an idiot, they’re both coming tomorrow – and I ran out today! So, at lunchtime I had a choice to make – instant (I don’t actually have any instant at home, but in the office where I work everyone else drinks instant so I could easily make myself one of those) or nip to a supermarket and grab a bag. I would choose coffee beans from a supermarket over instant coffee any day of the week, and I’d also choose instant coffee over no coffee if I have to.
So now you know, if you didn’t already, what the difference is between supermarket coffee and freshly roasted coffee beans, and also the difference between commodity coffee and speciality coffee, and single origin and single farm / estate – so I hope you found this useful.
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