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October 11, 2019

News › Opinion ›

Specialty Instant: An Oxymoron

When well-sourced, carefully roasted and properly brewed, coffee speaks of the place it was grown, where the pace of life is generally much slower than that of those drinking the end product. Many years of work have gone into your cup of coffee, and in our opinion, it's worth spending a few minutes to prepare a cup and a few more savouring the flavour. 

One way that the ‘specialty’ coffee industry has established itself in the market place is as something 'other'. Quality-oriented coffeeshops are defined against a backdrop of high street chains and those stuck in the second wave. The wares of a ‘specialty’ coffee roaster square up against anonymised blends comprised of cheap, defective and typically carbonised coffees from commercial coffee roasters, available for a few pounds in your local supermarket, often replete with FairTrade and Organic logos. Through brand tribalism and a shared language and aesthetic, we have defined ourselves in opposition to what else is available. Yes, we can discuss cup scores and defect counts, but ultimately ‘specialty’ coffee is experiential, emphasising flavour, provenance and quality over convenience, frugality and affordability. 

If you want something special and delicious, time and skill are as necessary ingredients as high quality beans and brewing equipment. If you want something less costly, more everyday, and you aren't so fussy about your morning cup, cheaper coffees are available, often coming ready-ground to save you some time. And, if you value convenience over everything else, at the expense of affordability and flavour, you have instant and pod coffees. 

These are the antithesis of special.

Pods and instant coffee fall into an even lower category than the cheap whole bean and pre-ground coffee options; they're not even proper coffee. Watching with growing concern at a recent muddying of the waters between specialty and commodity coffee, we now see 'specialty' coffee roasters introducing certain products into their own ranges that, for us, cannot be considered specialty.

‘Specialty coffee solutions' that remove the need for cleaning up, along with any effort or skill in coffee brewing, are becoming increasingly prevalent. You can buy 'specialty' instant coffee, 'specialty' coffee pods and single-serve drip packs and coffee ‘teabags’ that you simply dispose of when you're done. No grinding, no mess, no fuss, and undoubtedly an inferior tasting cup of coffee at the end of it.

To be clear, we're not a group of curmudgeonly Luddites looking to preserve the status quo and neither are we against our industry pushing the boundaries. 'Specialty' coffee has always been progressive by design and delivering quality coffee is an ongoing, iterative process underpinned by continual change and improvement, driven by experimentation and learning. However, it needs to be said that these apparent advancements and embracing of technology developed for convenience and commodity coffee are detracting from the value of 'specialty' coffee. A subpar and innately compromised product is being peddled at an inflated price tag.

First addressing the subpar and compromised product, 'specialty coffee pods' and 'specialty instant' are ludicrous in the same way that 'Gourmet Microwave Meals' are; the promise of something special is instantly undermined by the delivery mechanism. The calibre of the beans being used to create instant and pod coffees is not retained via the process of pre-grinding and dosing into pods or through freeze-drying brewed coffee. To claim to be delivering both quality and convenience when these product lines are introduced onto a 'specialty' roaster's offer list is equivalent to the promise that pots of instant noodles can provide a comparable flavour experience gained when eating a bowl of slow-cooked bone broth and hand-pulled noodles. Convenient food products don't claim this, accepting their mediocrity as a trade-off for convenience, but grandiose claims are being made about the quality of the wares in ‘specialty’ roasters’ 'convenience' coffee ranges.

Onto the inflated price tag. Whilst rebranding a coffee pod a 'capsule' may make the price of 55p sting a little less, for just 5.4g actual coffee that's a price of £101.85/kg. If you splurge for the 85p capsule, you're spending £157.40/kg. That's equivalent to £25.46 or £39.35 for a 250g retail bag of beans. As difficult to comprehend as the high prices is the idea that 5.4g coffee is a reasonable dose of coffee to prepare a single cup. 

It isn't.

Lacking enough raw ingredient to create good flavour intensity, body or to give the drinker the caffeinated effect they seek from their brew, means that a coffee pod’s size inevitably mars the discerning coffee drinker’s experience.

'Specialty instant' is even more costly. It can cost upwards of £3.10 for a sachet designed for 250g water. You'd need 16.8g to produce 250g brewed coffee in a pourover using a typical brew ratio of 60g/L. That’s the equivalent of around 15 ‘serves’ per 250g bag of beans. The equivalent cost of a 250g bag of coffee in terms of instant, in this case, would be approximately £46 per bag or £184/kilo. 

We should not applaud convenience at the expense of quality, especially when it is also at the expense of expense itself.

In today’s world, many of us would sooner waste money than time because the latter feels increasingly finite. It's something we understand, but we also believe it can be overcome. After all, it takes less time to grind your coffee than it does for your kettle to boil, and if you want to enjoy a delicious, freshly brewed cup of coffee whilst remaining hands-off, there are fantastic brewers that fit the bill, such as the 50-year-old MoccaMaster.

Extremely convenient coffee options like instant and pods create problems when they're embraced by the ‘specialty’ coffee industry. Coffee becomes just one more ingredient that people become more detached from. We, as an industry, shouldn't be encouraging people to stop drinking 'proper coffee'. The dumbing-down enabled through offering convenient, fast foods means we're eradicating the skills and understanding required to purchase and consume a whole host of ingredients consciously. We also run the risk of seeing these sorts of products retraining a person's palate to accept and tolerate stale tasting goods. In this case, as in many others, faster is not always better. If you're looking for nothing more than a quick medicinal caffeine hit there are far more efficient and cost-effective ways of doing so. 

If you haven't got five minutes to make a cup of coffee, grind the beans and drip water through the grounds, then you definitely don't have the further ten minutes to enjoy it. If speed is critical, buy a pod machine, but make peace with the fact that what you are drinking is not special. 

However, if you do want to carve out a niche in your day for enjoyment and moving slowly, then here's a link to our V60 brew guide.

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