Weekly Musings 1/15

Unfiltered and unedited, here are some stream of consciousness thoughts from this week.  Take them with a grain of salt and feel free to talk with me about any of it.

On shop and restaurant reviews

James Hoffman recently wrote the following on his blog about all the restaurant reviews he reads.

Great restaurants sell memories, and they’re very good at that. We’d be wise to remember, before our arrival at such an occasion, that we all have terrible taste memories and recall. It would be far wiser to pay attention to everything else, all at once. The gestalt, combined experience is what makes for the greatest, most treasured memories.


I love to sit in a cafe, to linger over a coffee. Perhaps to read, perhaps not. I don’t want to be head down, hunting like a truffle-pig for the aromas prophesied on a small chalk menu board. I don’t want to tune out the noise around me, to focus on the coffee. I want that cup to be entwined in what I see, and hear, and feel.


— James Hoffman, jimseven.com

Jim puts many of my thoughts into words here.  In the coffee industry, we like to hype up the next big thing in innovation or quality.  It’s awesome that people are dedicated to the craft and constantly setting the bar higher, but, at the end of the day, we go to a coffee shop for the experiences and memories they bring.  I spend my afternoons at Mercantile because it feels like home.  Sometimes the coffee is a bit off, but the new barista who doesn’t know my name bothers me more than that.  The poor interaction I have with the staff sets the memory more than an ok shot of espresso ever will.  (I will go on to say that terrible coffee will taint the memory for me though, especially on a first impression.)

As I continue to grow and learn in writing my reviews, my focus on coffee offerings has shifted from a quality perspective  to a focus on uniqueness.  You can get a good shot of espresso just about anywhere in a big city nowadays.  There’s nothing special about that.  For an experience to be more, it needs to be novel or unique in some way and I try to take that approach in my reviews.

On designer roasters

I was talking with my girlfriend this week and she mentioned how she was running low on coffee.  She lives in rural Michigan and the nearest famous roaster would is Madcap but she doesn’t find the $20/12oz price tag worth it.  I agree.

Pricing and valuation is a funny thing.  Once you establish a name for yourself you can charge whatever you want and people will pay it because you’ve established an artificial monopoly on your product.  You aren’t just selling coffee, you’re selling Madcap Coffee.  Kitchenaid mixers, Beats headphones, Prada purses.  All of these products are selling a brand that goes beyond the product itself.  They are selling a culture, an identity, a symbol.  They charge more because they can.  Coffee has gone the same way with many of the “famous” roasters.  Companies like Madcap, Intelligentsia, and Blue Bottle have set the standard at $20/12oz and the market supports this price.

Maybe these companies are charging a reasonable amount for their labor and costs (the definition of reasonable is an entirely different discussion).  I’m not critiquing them here, simply questioning the dynamics of the current market.  I’ve had some really good coffees from lesser known Houston based roasters and payed up to 30% less per ounce.  I honestly think Boomtown or Greenway could hold its own against any of these designer names. Now that may be a short coming from me, a failure to understand the intricacies that make these designer brands of higher quality in an objective way.  But, if I can’t discern the difference with my level of experience the majority of casual consumers won’t be able to either.

The question is then, what makes people willing to pay more for designer roasters?  My primary concern as a customer is satisfaction per dollar.  I will theoretically take a coffee that is 10% worse but 25% cheaper down to a certain threshold.  My second priority is experience.  I will try something new over something I’ve had before.  That’s it for me, that’s how I make my coffee decisions.  Designer roasters don’t fit either of these criteria.  I’ve had my share of designer coffee, it’s not new anymore.  I’ve paid $10 for a cup of ultra premium, Blue Bottle Geisha and thought it was just ok.  The experience isn’t new, and the cost isn’t worth it for me when I can pay $3 for a Boomtown Keyan that I absolutely love.  Ultimately, if the designer coffee brings you more satisfaction then by all means go for it.  But if you’re buying it because it’s the hip thing to buy, please reconsider and explore your options a bit.


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