Food & Wine Thursdays: In Praise of $4-a-Cup Coffee

(I apologize. I have no idea why WordPress published every iteration of this article. Here is the full, official article.)

It's like drinking money!

An excellent and much-anticipated coffee roaster opened in my neighborhood last week. Although primarily a roasting facility to fulfill the needs of their wholesale customer list, they also have a coffee bar in front selling brewed coffee and espresso drinks to walk-up customers. Although lauded by many, they were also reviled by a very vocal contingent critical of their prices ($4 for a cup of coffee, up to $6 for an espresso drink) and no-frills policy (espresso and milk drinks only, no sweeteners on hand).

What this criticism revealed was a fundamental misunderstanding of what high-end coffee roasters are doing when compared to their more quotidian competitors. In fact, competitor isn’t the right word, as roasters like Handsome Coffee, Intelligentsia and LAMILL are not looking to compete with Peet’s, Starbucks, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf or your every day neighborhood coffee bar filled with customers tapping on laptops for a couple hours while eating a stale pastry and nursing a beverage that is more milk and sugar than coffee. These high-end roasters are fulfilling the needs of a growing group of coffee drinkers who are interested in tasting geographical uniqueness in coffee that is roasted and brewed to specific standards to enhance those qualities.

Handsome Coffee in particular is roasting beans on a much smaller scale than even its closest competitors. They personally source small lots of the best coffee beans they can find and roast them in small batches to their own unique specifications. Coffee roasting, like many food and beverage production processes, can only scale up so much before you lose a degree of specific control over the quality of your product. Certain producers realize this and respect it and some consumers appreciate that attention.

And because selling retail coffee drinks isn’t the primary purpose of any of these premium roasters, their coffee bars function more as coffee showrooms, designed to feature their product in the best way possible, increasing their exposure and, hopefully, increase their wholesale demand. Getting coffee from a high-end roaster is about experiencing coffee in all its coffee-ness, not about getting a caffeine fix buried in milk and Splenda.

It’s also no different than any other luxury product where, if purchased in the branded store or showroom, a product will invariably cost more than if purchased online or at Best Buy or Nordstrom Rack. Theoretically, the quality of service and the retail experience make up for the premium paid.

(A friend mentioned to me that he wondered how many people critical of paying a premium for hip, trendy high-end coffee voiced their criticisms using Apple products. I found that analogy to be particularly appropriate.)

But this is all a very silly argument, as coffee is perhaps the single most overpriced commonly-consumed beverage out there when compared against its production cost. Whether at $2 or $4, that cup of coffee is turning a profit by the hundred-fold. If you’re splitting hairs over a buck or two in the price of a cup of coffee, then don’t go out for coffee so much.

The fact is (and I promise this is a fact), roasters like Handsome Coffee offer a higher quality, smaller production, more sustainable and more expensive to produce product than other types of coffee shops. Whether you think you can taste that premium and if that premium is worth paying for is the question and I see both sides of the argument and I don’t criticize those who don’t see the point in paying more. It’s no different than with wine.

For me, being pretty much a coffee addict, regardless of price I’d go broke if I didn’t make most of my coffee at home, so when I do go out, I’m happy to pay the extra buck for a unique cup in a nice space.

Which is why I love my neighborhood $4 cup of coffee.

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About David D.

I'm a wine professional. Like a real one who makes most of his living in wine and have for most of my adult life. I also write, but you can see that.
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One Response to Food & Wine Thursdays: In Praise of $4-a-Cup Coffee

  1. Erik says:

    I think I would like to try this cup of coffee next time I’m around.

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