Is Brightness the Flag of Specialty Coffee?


As I sift through some previous articles on a cup of joe that was selling for $12 a pop, many thoughts pass through my mind. In one of these articles (article here), Liam Singer from Cafe Grumpy in NYC, tries to answer a reporter’s question: “Why should  I pay $12 for a cup of coffee?”

And answer it we must. Not only because we are offering a service, and it is by definition part of our job, but because the longer this question remains unanswered the more limited our clientele base will be. Although specialty coffee has a following, and one that thankfully continues to grow year after year, it is still more common for people to associate coffee with a commodity beverage/drug  than a fine crafted brew. People don’t seem to complain at the steep prices for beer, wine or other fine crafted beverages even though the actual cost (both in time, labor, and money) are nowhere near those of producing coffee. Why? Why do people get “craft beer” and “fine wine” but don’t understand “specialty coffee”?

I have a theory, again, very possibly unintelligent but a theory nonetheless. And it starts with a question.

What makes a coffee exciting to you? Acidity.

Coffee Marketing:

Commodity coffee, although poor in quality and lacking the depth of its counterpart, is commonly described as “bold” for dark roasts or “mellow and smooth” for lighter roasts. If you notice, these descriptions don’t include fruits, flowers, or foods. Instead, they talk strictly about body. We can assume then, that most commodity coffee is marketed by the characteristics of its body. Yet most specialty coffee is marketed by the characteristics of its acidity. “Clean acidity”, “juicy,” “sparkling,” “bright,”…

What does that mean? If you have had the opportunity to attend a cupping, taste coffees side by side, or had some one-on-one time with someone knowledgable from the industry then maybe you understand these terms. But for the average customer who we are trying to appeal these terms are just intimidating. If you had none of the above experiences those terms might even be off-putting.


Samples arrive, they are sample roasted, mostly to a relatively light profile, and then cupped. At least for me, coffees with highlighted acidity always jump out on the coffee table. It’s something pleasant and unexpected. I know coffees are judged and rated on more than simply acidity but it seems that more and more coffees I’ve had are beyond all just “interestingly bright.” After a coffee is selected, most high end roasters are roasting especially light. The argument, as I understand, is that this is the only way of achieving all the nuance in the beans. Yet roasting light means you skip out on some benefits of roasting darker, like pronounced sweetness and body: characteristics I think untrained palates are more familiar with and can more readily detect. I am not claiming one particular profile should reign supreme, but maybe we are by default alienating a lot of potential customers by hoping that some day people will suddenly understand lighter roasted coffees.


I offer the following as proof. What percentage of people are drinking espresso beverages with steamed milk vs brewed coffee? And of the people who are ordering brewed coffee, how many take it black? Do you offer milk and sugar as condiments? We claim that sugar and milk are not needed because coffee is naturally “sweet” and has “body.” Yet people aren’t really getting that from these super light roasted coffees, hence the reason we still offer the two when we don’t all support their addition. Maybe we could have a better chance at getting our point across if we served them a full immersion brew of the same coffee at a medium roast. To highlight the nuance brought forth by these light roasts and the remarkable acidity in these coffees, we are brewing a lot of paper filter coffee.  These light roasted, filtered brews are somehow lacking what in peoples gustatory memory coffee should be. And appealing to that taste is important, although it seems we think it isn’t.

Im not advocating that we all roast darker, stop the filter brews, or sell out to consumers. Im just noticing that maybe we have stacked the odds against ourselves. By selecting, roasting, and brewing very “interesting” coffees to highlight the specialty in “specialty coffee” and set a definitive barrier between specialty vs. commodity. Maybe we should rethink the strategy and make specialty coffee more accessible. And once people start to get the craft we are all passionate about, then maybe we can offer them these beautiful, bright, and light roasted beans.

P.S. That $12 cup of joe was a Natural Processed Ethiopian. I’ve  cupped it, roasted it, brewed it, and I fully stand by the $12. Nekisse, mmmmm.



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