Heritage Coffee, my company, recently conducted a study on roasting trends in blend composition, roast coloration and pack weights, among other attributes. This is a great exercise to see what exactly is winning the battles out there and in what direction overall trends are moving. Just because a product was a winner and perfect to lead with 10 years ago does not mean it is the correct coffee to lead with today.
We cannot rely on preconceived notions of what is working based on external factors such as media/news, either. Case in point: back in the late 1990s I was asked to oversee a cupping at a very large Northwestern employer to help a client land the coffee business. The volume involved made the trip well worth the effort, and I was curious to put to the test my assumptions about what the general employee population would choose as their favorite blend.
I brought along a darker roasted 100% arabican blend that I felt was a very close facsimile to the leading Northwest coffee of the time, as well as a coffee I felt matched up well against a popular East Coast lighter roasted product. I also brought a blend that had about 25% robusta included and lastly, a blend of 25% dark roast and 75% light roasted arabican beans.
To my amazement, the darker roasted coffee came in dead last.
So, back to our in-house study. We have found that our roast colorations overall have increased (gotten darker) over the past 10 years. As coffee shrinks when roasted, these darker roastings have bumped up our shrink rate from 16% to close to 17.5%. We called a few roasters we are on good terms with, to see whether they have experienced similar findings, and they all confirmed our numbers.
Brian Martell, who spearheaded our study, wrote about the results for his blog with Canadian Vending magazine, and posited the following possibilities for this trend:
1. There are claims that darker roasted coffee is better for you (no proven clinical research backs this claim);
2. Starbucks has always had a darker roast than other traditional coffee shops, and may have contributed to the shift;
3. Perhaps the most compelling potential reason for more dark drinkers is the increasing age of North Americans. As we get older, we tend to lose some of the more subtle sensory perceptions on our palates, and therefore may find stronger, bitter flavors more appealing. The average age of Canadians is 40.6, and 37.1 for the U.S., but 20 years ago it was 32.9 for the U.S. and 35.8 for Canada.
I would say there is some merit to all of the above. To the list I would add that the growth in espresso and espresso-based beverages has had influence on coffee-drinkers, too.
THUMB ON THE SCALE?
I can't help wonder whether there could be another reason for the trend -- that we are offering more dark roasted coffees, and in some circles, only darker roasted coffees, thus steering the trend ourselves. If, during the cupping I held at that Northwestern employer, I had only offered darker roasted choices, the client would have had to select the best of the darker coffees even though, if given a chance, the consumers would have voted for a light roast coffee.
So to extrapolate that because roasts have darkened over the last decade, we should offer only darker roasted coffees, would be doing a disservice to our clientele -- and to ourselves, as clients may look elsewhere to find a coffee they find more appealing.
It is no longer good enough to brew up only your light-roasted offerings, or your dark-roasted coffees. You need to present your prospects with a full spectrum of roasts, and of blends with differing roast colorations.
Years ago, when asked which roast color I felt was best for a particular coffee, I responded: some people like their steaks rare, others well done. No matter how good the cut of meat, a rare steak lover will never be satisfied with a well-done piece.
Be sure to keep up with the trend, but be careful not to make assumptions about where it may be going next, or what might be its cause. It is far more important to know that there will never be one answer, and that the more answers you have at your disposal, the more easily you can fulfill your customers' needs.
Having shrink averages increase is not in itself a problem, just an interesting statistic. But it is worth noting that, with global consumption somewhere in the neighborhood of 138 million bags (at 132 lbs. of coffee per bag), the extra 1.5% shrink represents roughly 273 million more pounds of coffee going -- literally -- up in smoke versus 20 years ago!
As my dad was fond of saying, "That's not chopped liver."
KEVIN DAW is president of Heritage Coffee Co. (London, ON, Canada), a private-label roaster serving the breaktime management industries. A 30-year veteran of OCS, water delivery and vending operations, he has concentrated on coffee roasting for the past two decades.