Let’s face it, the trend in Perth is that cafes are investing more seriously in something consumers (yes, that’s you) have been demanding for years: better quality. Every time a coffee is returned because it’s ‘just not right’, a bad review is posted on-line or a full cup is left on the table, consumers unwittingly form part of the masses demanding a higher standard.
As a result, Perth’s most progressive cafes are today delivering a more quality-focused beverage. This means it’s now easier to spot the difference between a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ coffee. This is a good thing, right? The part that seems to have totally blindsided consumers is the true cost of the increased quality, which is now being reflected in prices. I actually think the increase in quality has been so gradual that most consumers don’t even realise how high the standard is now that they have become accustomed to it.
Perth’s media is quick to condemn cafes for charging up to $4 a cup, without considering things like ingredients, equipment, location and operators … all things that clearly have an impact on the price. Obviously, people can easily respond to this by saying, ‘Who cares? It’s just coffee.’ Well to that I say, find somewhere cheaper, buy instant, and don’t read this article …
This notion of a ‘standard price’ for coffee doesn’t sit right with me, and would be the equivalent of a Shiraz having a standard price per bottle, regardless of other factors. By creating that expectation, I think we also encourage our WA cafe culture to underachieve. A ‘standard’ price means the best cafes are undercharging (un-sustainable) and the worst cafes are over-charging; they feel justified in upping their prices to the ‘going-rate’ without increasing quality. A $3.40 coffee that is terrible is obviously not a good deal!
To create a realistic demand, consumers need to understand the link between value, quality and price. Here are a couple non-subjective topics that hopefully start to address some of these issues …
This is an important one, as there is definitely some confusion between preference and quality. I’m not going to pretend I have the answer for everyone’s individual preferences, however, just because you enjoy it, doesn’t mean it is quality coffee. I am referring to the actual physical quality of the raw ingredients, also known as green beans (which is coffee before it is roasted).
Let’s start by considering the way coffee is sold at origin; most of it is separated into ‘grades’ which represent a specific, post-processing quality to which a value is assigned. What does this mean? A general statement like ‘Brazilian coffee is the best’ would always be incorrect. Every coffee growing country will produce a range of ‘grades’ from one extreme to the next, from the worst imaginable (mouldy, fermented, sour, dirty, dusty … ) to the best possible (sweet, smooth, complex, syrupy, balanced, fresh, clean …).
Although we are far removed from the supply chain, we should remember that coffee is an agricultural product and that no matter what, there are bound to be variations in the beans. This is where the grades come in. Grades are mainly decided by two things – the size of bean and the physical defects present. This is then sub-divided into Category 1 (most likely to negatively affect the quality of the coffee) or Category 2 (less likely to affect the quality of the coffee, but still imperfect). Examples of Category 1 defects would be mouldy or fermented beans, while Category 2 would be more along the lines of chipped or malformed beans.
The specifics of grades can vary slightly from country to country, but the nature remains the same; the most uniform sized lots with the least amount of defects are the most expensive coffees, and have the best physical quality. What does top end physical quality guarantee? It guarantees that your coffee will be free from ‘off-flavours’ or taints, with a clean cup profile that shows distinct and discernable character. Roasters then receive samples of these lots, cup them according to specific repeatable protocols, and indentify the ones that not only show all of these characteristics, but also those that have added layers of complexity or interest.
Anything above and beyond just clean coffee means another premium is added to the overall price to reward producers, and occasionally to compete with other discerning buyers. What does this mean for you? The average consumer should be able to distinguish some of the more general quality descriptors (favourable and un-favourable) such as body; thick, creamy, silky, viscous, etc … vs. thin, gritty, watery as an example. You should also be able to discern the level of sweetness or lack thereof, or bitterness, and lastly the cleanliness and freshness of new crop vs. old crop, baggy, dusty, flat coffee. This is one layer of quality that consumers often associate with the roast or the barista, rather than the raw ingredient itself.
The cost associated with the range of grades is significant and also requires constant management and seasonal purchases to maximise freshness. This means that top end roasters and cafes pay significant premiums to offer a high quality seasonal product, while at the low end of the scale, roasters take advantage of cheaper grades and older coffees resulting in poor and ‘off’ flavours. The most common positive flavour attributes which consumers recognise (and which are most likely due to the quality of ingredients) are described as smooth, sweet and chocolatey … whilst the most common negatives are bitter, harsh and sour. As you can see, it costs the producer more to pay extra attention to an already labour intensive crop. This cost is passed on the buyer, then the roaster, then the cafe and, ultimately, the consumer.
There are a number of stages along the supply chain that require the use of equipment which can negatively or positively affect the level of quality. The first stage is in the processing of coffee at origin. Equipment is used to pulp, remove mucilage, wash, ferment and dry, as well as complete the final stages of sorting. This equipment forms a crucial part of the quality puzzle.
As consumers, there is no need to worry or be informed about this stage, it’s the responsibility of roasters to spend the time, money and effort required to make the best potential selections. Quality of equipment at origin and time spent travelling and selecting coffees equates to marginal increases in price (at the cafe level), whilst making huge increases in identifying quality.
The second stage of equipment is roasting and packing equipment. Each origin produces something very different to the others, for example, the size, moisture content and the densities of each coffee is rarely the same. This means that roasters need to have the capacity to manipulate certain variables like drum speed, airflow and the level of the flame (in the case of a gas drum roaster) to suit different coffees. The investment in top quality reliable and flexible roasting equipment combined with stabilised storage is another significant cost of increased quality.
Finally, the last stage of preparation is the purchase of an espresso machine by the cafe. A three group machine can vary from $8,000 – $20,000 and represents a huge range of technological differences. Most of the time, more expensive equipment means increased water temperature stability and ease of operation. Extracting and dissolving the best potential from the bean relies heavily on water temperature and quality, as well as grind particle size (i.e. a good grinder). At the top end, cafes spend upwards of $20,000 on equipment, and extra capital on water treatment facilities as well as on-going maintenance. At the low end, cheap or used equipment is selected, poor maintenance (i.e. dull grinder burrs) and a low level of hygiene and machine cleanliness takes place (e.g. caked-on milk on the steam wand and dirty group heads). These are some general examples of the added costs associated with quality.
The trend of consumers demanding better quality combined with increasing numbers of cafes opening and a diminishing number of serious coffee professionals, means that there continue to be staff shortages. Finding team members who take coffee seriously and are passionate, meticulous, hard workers, personable, and customer service orientated can be like finding a needle in a haystack. Should cafe owners stumble across these widely sought after employees whether they are roasters, trainers, customer service, baristas etc., they are paid high wages, so that employers can offer competitive salaries and hope to keep staff. The cost of producing quality coffee often also means ‘fewer shortcuts’ which requires even more man-power! More coffee in cups to increase the balance, fresh milk every time, watching extractions and making constant adjustments, barista training etc … The added cost of quality strikes again!
This article really just begins to skim to the surface of the real cost of quality. I find it amazing that our local media is obsessed with the price of Perth’s coffee and seemingly treats a wide range of quality issues as a single product that should adhere to a nominated acceptable price. The truth is that there is a huge range of ’qualities available locally, lots of which the average consumer should be able to discern. There is also a massive financial cost associated with increased quality.
What blows me away is that the difference in cost between low and high end coffees seems to hover around a range of $0.50 per cup. Amazing! The real question is not whether coffee prices are too high at boutique cafes, but whether those that are cheaper, are actually cheap enough!!? Are the ones using less coffee, lower grades, cheap equipment, bad baristas, poor service and re-steamed milk actually worth $3.00 – $3.50 a cup? Or are they just riding the coat-tails of progressive cafes who are investing money and increasing prices in line with quality?
So what should you look for in a good coffee? No ‘off flavours’, smaller cups with less milk and more SWEET coffee; silky dark brown contrasts in milk drinks, dissipating crema in long blacks, short thick espressos, higher prices, good equipment and knowledgeable staff.
What to look for in bad coffee? Bitter harsh flavours, big bulky cups, mid to high range prices, flavoured coffee options, washed out colours, pale non-dissipating crema … sound familiar?
The moral of this story is that coffee is not just coffee. It remains the second most traded commodity in world, touching many lives in the countries that predominantly rely on it as a cash crop. If you think coffee is too expensive in Perth, don’t like small cups or baristas who know what they are talking about, there are MANY options that will always remain available to you, including the very cheap instant coffee fix. Our coffee culture is growing along with the rest of the world. As our cafes become more progressive, so too do the producers. In years to come, there will be many ‘aha!’ coffee moments ahead, as we continue to explore ways to express unique flavour profiles. Support our breakthrough cafes and you’ll soon see that you won’t have to travel to Melbourne to be inspired.