The coffee culture is still on the rise

Reaction to last month’s London Coffee Festival has sparked more debate over whether speciality coffee has yet reached the crest of its wave, or whether the public’s enthusiasm still has some way to go – and if so, how the hospitality trade should be prepared to respond to even greater consumer interest in coffee. The public response to the event surprised even many of the exhibitors, when they heard that the attendance was 16,209, of which 10,127 were consumers and 6,082 were trade visitors.

These figures were indeed surprising – even the number of ‘trade’ visitors, members of the leisure industry who turned up to see what is happening in the coffee world, were claimed to be higher than the coffee trade’s own specialist business-to-business shows.

The public attendance figure was quite astonishing, even in an industry which has been often reported to be dominating the high street.

The trade press which serves the beverage industry has been suspicious of some of the more wilder and over-enthusiastic figures which have plagued the coffee trade in recent years – three years ago, a survey commissioned by one of the biggest coffee chains attempted to show that 35 per cent of the British population go into coffee shops once a week, and just last month a daily paper reported that ‘eight in ten of the population drink coffee every day… spending an average of £2.88 per cup’.

These figures, which simply do not relate in practical terms to the ‘economically active’ population, are a combination of exaggerated ‘research’ and loose reporting, but it is certainly true that the public enthusiasm for coffee does continue to soar – and it is true that at the London Coffee Festival, crowds really did stretch round the block for each of the three sessions held over four days.

What drew these crowds is still unclear. Enthusiasm for coffee in the ‘gourmet’ or ‘connoisseur’ sense was probably behind many of them, as it is correctly said that the general public is these days more knowledgeable and demanding of its coffee than ever before. Equally, the social aspect may be responsible for having drawn many of them – the community role of the coffee shop continues to be higher than ever before. Putting the two together, the demand for truly good coffee in a truly desirable social space, is something which certain parts of the hospitality trade have yet to catch up with.

There was been much to learn from interaction between trade and consumers at the London event, organiser Jeffrey Young told Coffee House magazine. One clear observation was that many trade suppliers felt a sense of coming together with the public in a common enthusiasm for a ‘movement’ surrounding the concept of great coffee and the coffee-house culture.

“The increase in standards of quality coffee and café environments has made the cafe culture appealing to the British consumer lifestyles,” remarked Jeffery Young. “There is an important social aspect to the café culture – people go to coffee venues not just for coffee and food, but also to be around other human beings, and this is a compelling factor as to why this sector has been so robust, even in recessions.

“At the same time, consumers are curious and interested about coffee, which is a fascinating product, as part of the overall growth in ‘food culture’.”

At the London Coffee Festival, several exhibitors agreed that the hospitality trade must now respond even more to the enthusiasm being shown by consumers.

At La Cimbali, a maker of Italian espresso machines, marketing manager Matt Tuffee reported that the general public displayed a genuine interest in both coffee and equipment.

“We had wanted to avoid a pointless queue of people just wanting free coffee. We got around this by engaging in conversation with every person that asked for coffee, in demonstrating what we were showing… and this seemed to get a really good response.

“For the trade to capitalise on this interest, we need to keep the momentum up.”

Union Hand-Roasted, a pioneer of speciality coffee whose festival appearance involved a continuously well-attended series of live coffee-roasting demonstrations, roaster Jeremy Torz suggested that the London festival demonstrated the coffee trade and the public getting together in a way which embodies the spirit of the modern coffee culture. This, he acknowledged, is something which the wider hospitality trade could do well to recognise and react to.

“From the public profile, most of the people we spoke to had a genuine interest in coffee, and probably represent the emerging trends of the ‘early adopters’. Both the trade and public visitors reflected a true emergence of the coffee sub-culture.

“It seems that all we feel about the ‘boutique’ and ‘third wave’ coffee is now slowly coming true, and that the tipping point we hope for in creating a new sense about coffee, and new standards for coffee in the UK, now has a real chance of breaking through.”

This is not, he suggested, simply a minority interest. It was that ‘sub-culture’ interest in gourmet coffee, popularly known as the ‘third wave’ of the modern coffee market, which recently inspired the big high street coffee chains to raise their game significantly. Now, the hospitality trade in general could do well to look closely and seriously at what is really happening in coffee, and to realise that coffee is no longer something they can regard as a commodity product… the general consumer now expects something truly special in return for their two or three pounds a cup.

If the hospitality trade clicks to this, the standard of coffee in the UK could be in for another quantum leap.

“Let’s not forget that the big coffee players looked very closely at what was happening around the edges, and reacted accordingly,” agreed Torz.

“There are exciting times ahead!”

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