A few thoughts on coffee, craft beer and wine…

10303878_283130681861364_3939388416375935026_nCouple of weekends ago, the caffeine-driven people of Cup North delivered their coffee fest (or fair?) to the roasted bean aficionados of Manchester…and quite possibly beyond.

I guess I fit the French stereotype perfectly: I love baguettes, salted butter from Brittany, I love wine, I love cheese… and I love coffee; nice and black if you please.

The one thing that has been very obvious and unavoidable in Manchester over the last couple of years is the emergence of a myriad of coffee shops coming along with their Apple-geared, toned-up, bearded folk fitting so beautifully in that now classic stripped-back Scandinavian decor. I can think of at least three establishments in Manchester city centre that have already reached the “coffee institution” status having opened in the last 12 months.

Thing is, I rarely get to visit such places because I do not live or work in or near the city centre. So far, there aren’t any coffee places near those two locations presenting quite the same level of meticulous attention and care to the beverage. So to cut a long story short, I have little experience of the very modern coffee culture. But on one of the rare occasions I visited such a coffee powerhouse, I was faced with a certain level of smugness passing for geekiness. Let me explain.

I’ve got no problem, in fact I very much welcome the concept that coffee is a natural product. Grown in various places on earth, coming from different varieties to which certain processes are applied between harvest and drinking. In that sense it’s not dissimilar at all to wine. I have to confess though, when I was exposed to a cup of a coffee that was clearer than tea, had more flavours in common with that British favourite than the rich, chocolatey drink I have been used to all my life, and had to pay a fiver for it… it was a bit of a shock to the system. Still, I do not want to discard that experience as fanciful and preposterous.

On that basis, Cup North was a good opportunity to have a chat with this niche community of coffee experts. What’s the craic with coffee and what has happened to this scene for it to emerge so quickly and strongly? I mean, my perception of Britain is that of a tea-drinking nation. I know Starbucks, Costa & Co have been mushrooming everywhere for years but I still thought somehow that tea was by far the non-alcoholic drink of choice. It appears it may not be quite so. The event was seemingly well attended and most coffee roasters’ and traders’ stands were always busy. It wasn’t however sufficient for me to uncover the answer to the above question. I still don’t quite know why suddenly (and I appreciate it may not have been that sudden but I can only relate to my own observations here) it has become more commercially viable to offer a much more upmarket coffee proposition. I do think the satellite trends of vintage, Scandinavian design, the rise of artisan products, the resurgence of “authenticity”, the advent of Instagram, all helped in making the scene more “glamourous” to the anti-glam (bling-less) trend seekers; just personal observations.

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The most interesting aspect of the event for me however was the presentation delivered by Laurent Richet MS (Master Sommelier) which I had the chance to attend. Briefly, Laurent is one of about 230 people in the world to have achieved the rank of Master Sommelier, a grade he reminded us all numerous times was very hard to achieve. Well, it is. Laurent is currently Head Sommelier at Michelin Restaurant Sat Bains in Nottingham and seems to be doing a damn good job there. It was great to have a light-hearted and informal insight into this world and Laurent’s work, including a preview of his wine list; and I don’t mean the actual wines within it but the design of it, how the information is communicated to the customer in order to facilitate their decision. But why was a top notch wino invited to talk about wine in the coffee nest?

Well as already stated, coffee and wine both have many similarities and it turns out that places like Sat Bains Restaurant for one takes coffee very seriously. But all this, the chat, the similarity with wine, the hype around coffee, the “geekiness” surrounding it which could be compared to that of craft beer, got me thinking: the craft beer and more recently the coffee industry have clearly done a great job at promoting themselves, making themselves attractive, “cool”, “hip” or however you see it. Somehow both industries have been rather successful at convincing enough consumers to partake with a bit more of their money than they would have to for the established mass-market equivalent product. From where I stand, relying on my experience as a craft beer consumer from the early days, I’d say there was a certain level of understanding required about the product for a consumer to willingly spend the extra quid, at least at the start when craft beers were quite a bit more expensive than your average lager or ale.

Having observed the birth of British craft beer mastodon Brewdog and its rise to prominence, their use of punk culture and peace-disturbing marketing, they have definitely convinced many consumers in a short space of time that beer flavour is highly correlated to higher production costs leading to higher retail prices…and this is a good thing. The price of their products was after all the main argument against craft beer put forward by customers and the rest of the ‘conventional’ beer industry. Cue, where are we now?

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Image from: https://www.brewdog.com/lowdown/press-hub/brewdog-to-the-people-revolutionises-the-way-it-sells

Understanding means education and from observing the behaviour of consumers overall, only a minority are, in my opinion, willing to put the time and effort into educating themselves about a specific product, unless they have a strong personal interest in it (hobby) or they become convinced that they will get some form of benefit from putting that effort in. The benefit can be as shallow as being perceived to be “cool’, “trendy”, “fashionable” or as genuine as enjoying the artisan, high-value product a lot more than the mass-market equivalent, to the point that it would justify the extra cost.

Do you see what I’m getting at here? From my perspective, these two industries (in fact I could add the craft spirit industry in there too) have been more successful than the wine industry at making themselves more trendy, more fashionable and at convincing people that understanding more about their product will result in greater enjoyment even at a higher cost.

Unfortunately, at the end of Laurent’s presentation, the presenters went straight to an all-round chit-chat with previous speakers to discuss the coffee scene a little bit more. Not that this discussion was unwarranted, far from it, but I didn’t feel that connected to the conversation that was unfolding at the time. From my selfish perspective it felt like they could have had this chat between themselves and they didn’t really need an audience for this. There were more members of the event organisation than members of the public left at that point. And we too had to leave. But I would have loved to have discussed the above observations with Laurent and other members of the coffee scene and the audience because I am always on the lookout for ideas on how we can bring the wine chat to 2015 and to cool Britain. I know that there are MANY consumers out there who would love to know more about appreciating wine better but currently do not get involved because of many perceptions that prevent them from doing so. Some of these are real but many are illusional, ensuing from negative preconceptions perpetrated by many years of pompous discourse on the subject.

Mrs Goodzouk made a few valid points on our way back in that wine is a more difficult, intimidating subject than beer and coffee, and is ultimately less accessible in absolute money terms (it is after all more expensive than coffee although I would argue that beer’s perceived affordability can be a bit of an illusion too, but that’s a separate conversation). In other words: wine may need more consumer education to convince said consumer that spending £15 on a bottle of wine instead of £5 or £10 is going to be worth it. And the more consumers’ time and attention are needed, the more we are going to lose some of them on the way. After all, life is already super busy and our time and money is precious.

On that basis I still think that there is a LOT more work we, us in the wine industry, can do to improve the image of wine and make it more accessible. We need to acknowledge that we are suffering from decades of pompousness, high-brow action so that we can move past it and regain the conversation with our customers. This is a stigma that coffee, beer and spirits do not seem to share and that may explain in part why they have seemingly made bigger strides in expanding their respective market share in recent times.

I believe that with the clever use of social media, we can give the wine world a much needed face lift, a burst of colour and fun, which in turn will help us deserve that extra attention from consumers and enrich the dialogue.

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