Specialty is simply a choice

Fri 25th October 2019
News, Trends

Assembly’s Nick Mabey examines the diversity of motivations for people involved in the sector from the supply to demand ends of the chain

Although specialty coffee needs to hold the plight of coffee producers at its core, it has become so much more than a finite definition of quality and ethics.

I was asked recently what the most interesting thing happening in the industry was at the moment. My immediate response was, “What industry are you talking about?” My second was, “Sorry”...

The industry in question was of course specialty coffee, however my reply got me thinking about my inability to accurately define just what specialty coffee is, or in fact understand whether it’s even important any more, and if not, why not?

Two years ago I would have said specialty is probably best defined by what it isn’t. Five years ago I would have said, “Coffee that scores an objective quality score of 80+ points.” Today on reflection, my definition is this: the industry is simply a network of independent businesses which choose to participate in an alternative supply chain, to ultimately reorganise a historically exploitative value chain.

Although I believe this to be fundamentally true I also realise it is probably a product of my increasingly myopic perspective of the industry as a green buyer; someone who spends most of my time looking at the supply chain and developing idealistic views on the virtues ‘alternative supply chains’ can provide.

What this definition doesn’t account for is the broader culture of specialty coffee in the supply ‘chain north’, and the evidence that specialty values, although undefined, have permeated a much bigger audience
– baristas, social activists, enthusiasts, competition winners and Instagrammers who engage with the industry for many more reasons than to deliver sustainable profits back to producers.

It says something about how far the industry has come that these values are now so ubiquitous that the challenge we face is no longer how to differentiate from a commoditised/high street – whatever you want to call it – proposition, but how to differentiate among ourselves.

Though value chain reorganisation is at the heart of what ‘we’ (as roasters) are committed to achieving, there is certainly less evidence that this is the primary consumer motivation (perhaps with the exception of FairTrade), then the reality of consumers engaging with ‘independence ideology’ – “an enduring consumer tendency to respond to social influences pertaining to product and brand choices and uses by giving minimal weight to the prescribed norms of consumer reference groups adhering instead to personal preferences and tastes despite the apparent deviation from the prescribed norms of consumer behaviour absent the motivation to actively rebel against existing norms.”*

I presume most consumers looking for an alternative experience are driven more by a desire to support local business rather than seek out higher quality coffee. I also presume that part of the decision is an acknowledgment – even if subconscious – that choosing to buy ‘independent’, from a local roaster or cafe is a more ethical proposition, similar to buying from a farmers market as opposed to a supermarket. Traceability, social responsibility and quality is implicit, but rarely the core message of a brand.

My point is this, it’s all a choice, triggered by a multitude of motivations, but ultimately one that is self expressive.

The same is true for baristas. Working in hospitality is often just the lens that allows people to pursue self-expression. For many it becomes a passion, whether it be cocktails, wine or coffee. And more and more the communities that spring out of these sectors become self-defining and self- perpetuating forms of creativity and business endeavour. I regularly host and participate in events, public cupping and panel discussions with entities such as the Kore Directive and Some People Like Coffee and am continually amazed at the diversity of attendees and the range of motivations bringing them together in a united passion for the industry.

So if the question remains, what is specialty and should it be confined to
a singular goal? The answer is probably yes, but we should embrace the diversity of reasons people become engaged and the meaning they gain from being connected to the growing global community.

AU - Clark, Ronald
PY - 2006/01/01
SP -
T1 - Consumer Independence: Conceptualization, Measurement and Validation of a Previously Unmeasured Social Response Tendency
ER -

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