Blue Bottle Seeks Instant Success and Alters Our Perception
The world of coffee has gone topsy-turvy again, and I haven't quite figured out who is out of touch and who is brilliant in the following scenario. Blue Bottle Coffee has been launching its Exceedingly Rare coffee line for the past year. It consists of micro-lot coffees with exceptional sensorial qualities packaged in small 100-gram increments inside a tin jar at a high price point. Treating a rare coffee in this way makes sense. The next move was to take that same sacred, rare and expensive coffee and sell it as instant coffee crystals. Dehydrated, instant coffee crystals have long been regarded as a low form of coffee brewing. The Exceedingly Rare Instant coffee sample I tried was the Yemen Qima Bait Alal which sells for $80 per 100 grams whole bean. The instant coffee comes in only three servings, portioned in three separate vials.
The aroma of this instant coffee was intense, with notes of allspice and clove. The flavor was
well expressed with notes of strawberry, creamy milk chocolate and raisin. Unfortunately, the body was extremely light, and the flavor intensity faded from its vivid opening like the tail of a shooting star. The experience was pleasant overall and would inform a newcomer, with little room for error, of the flavors that are possible in a great coffee; however, it left this coffee drinker unsatisfied and under-caffeinated. If this were the start of my morning, I would need another cup to ward off the headache.
What an exciting idea. Traditionally Speciality coffee and commodity coffee have played in separate sandboxes, and both had dug into their identities and refused to play in the other box. These borders are dissolving as quickly as instant coffee crystals. Some speciality players like Joe Coffee in New York and Counter Culture have dabbled in instant using Swift Cup as a "Specialty Instant" producer. When these speciality brands freeze-dry their coffees, they usually use mild, middle-of-the-road coffees like a sweet and steady Brazil, Minas Gerais or a blend. They do this knowing there will be some compromise of subtlety and quality in the cup.
Blue Bottle is boldly putting one of their most prized, expensive and coveted (there is a waiting list) coffees in the format of instant crystals. Does this move take the sacred and transform it into the profane? Is all the producer's effort and the value of the time and exceptional quality created being adequately experienced in the end? Some might say that for the layperson who does not own a grinder and refuses to weigh their coffee, this is the only way for them to get the brew right and experience the coffee as it is. Others might quip that you should only be allowed the privilege of such a coffee if you know how to brew it properly and appreciate it.
The wealthy have always been able to purchase an experience without needing any great knowledge or skill within the subject of that experience. The finest wines in the world are not reserved solely for great sommeliers or vintners. They are merely waiting for the correct dollar amount to be paid. By making one of the world's most expensive coffees an easy-to-brew instant coffee, Blue Bottle has perhaps taken the most significant step in elevating coffee and its value simply by making its value delivered entirely based on monetary exclusivity rather than skill and appreciation.
This simple move finally brings coffee into the realm of wine symbolically and monetarily, which is what Specialty coffee has always wanted. But, will the speciality industry embrace this victory or reject it, for it sacrifices long-valued ideals of accessibility for all income levels to enjoy the most extraordinary coffees?
On the polar opposite side of the business, we see a new development from one of the original commodity coffee brands, Foldger's. One of the original instigators of the 2nd wave of coffee continues to sell ground, instant and single-serve formats exclusively and almost entirely blends. The often-considered relic of a bygone era of coffee has recently produced a series of videos teaching customers how to properly make pour-overs and weigh and store their coffees for freshness. One of the oldest American coffee brands is starting to play in the speciality sandbox but only in preparation methods. The coffees remain the same; however, they embrace different ways of brewing their products.
This move seems incongruous; however, it makes perfect sense. Suppose part of the gap between the affluent and the proletariat is the ability to purchase and enjoy experiences without knowledge or skill. In that case, it makes perfect sense that the blue-collar brand of Foldger's would teach you how to DIY your coffee. Surprisingly, it has taken this long for them to lean into this aspect of utilizing their ingredient. You can also find the latest trends, like recipes for Dalgona coffee and cold brews.
These two widely different brands are bravely adopting new ideas and methodologies that seem at odds with their heritage and are unexpectedly aligning perfectly with who their customers are and what their brands are about.
Written by Jake Leonti, F+B Therapy
Mr. Leonti has worked in coffee for over twenty years with disciplines at every link of the value chain from barista to roasting, green grading and importing. Jake is the current Editor-in-Chief of Coffee Talk Magazine, columnist at Santé Magazine, member of the Roasters Guild and host of the Food and Beverage Therapy podcast