It sucks that this coffee sucks
Is it me, or is it you?
There’s nothing worse than spending your hard earned money, in a cost of living crisis no less, on something that is meant to blow your socks off, only to deliver mediocrity.
That was me recently after I received a limited edition coffee in the mail.
I was looking forward to this coffee so much. It was only available for a short time. It was only available once this year. I tried one cup of it last year and it was incredible. And it was expensive - $175 per kilogram.
I wasn’t going to make the mistake I made last year and be too slow to buy the coffee.
I bought this coffee and brewed the shit out of it. V60, Aeropress, Chemex, Mokapot, Origami, plunger. You name it, I tried it.
But, this coffee sucked.
What was the coffee, bro?
I thought quite hard about bagging on this bag, and very hard about naming it. But I’m not going to. Why? Well, because taste is subjective.
What tastes like a dud to me might taste like gold to you. What is described by a roaster as ‘unicorns that poo rainbows on candy cane clouds’ might be like ‘a dead rat rolling down a muddy hill at the dump’ to my taste buds.
So, I’m not going to name the coffee.
But I felt like this was becoming a trend. This disappointment wasn’t the only one I’ve had recently. A lot of the coffee I’ve been drinking recently has been, well, average.
I asked the experts
I complained about this to another coffee enthusiast and they expressed the same disappointment. It got me thinking is this more than just my taste, or is there a problem with coffee in New Zealand right now?
I hit up a few roasters around the place to ask. The answers I got were really interesting.
I’m not going to reveal my sources, for reasons that might become pretty obvious.
“Be one of the cool kids”
One roaster said “The reality is that New Zealand is a strong dairy drinking nation who often wouldn’t notice the lower quality, darker roasted coffee in blends designed for milk. [AND} because companies can get away with this, they do, and this sets a low standard for others to meet.
“Where’s the incentive to do better when good enough makes you more money?”
That might sound quite pointed, but it’s true. Especially in these economic times, why spend money on a gamble that might not pay off? Better to not innovate when hitting the middle is a guaranteed pay day right?
While it make short term business sense, does that come at the expense of progressing the whole industry? Does that harm the reputation of the industry as a whole?
This roaster went on to say: “It’s the same with the higher end coffees such companies will sell. Most of the money is in the middle of the market, and often it’s peoples first experience with true high quality specialty coffees, [which can be] an experience much different to their usual experience, which is often off putting.
“By roasting out some of the character of a high quality Gesha, you get to sell the Gesha brand, look like you’re buying from a recognized estate or farmer, get to share a slightly more interesting coffee with your large customer base and get to look like you are one of the cool kids.”
The problem with Gesha
For those unfamiliar with Gesha/Geisha coffee, there is a mad story around it that I blogged about back in 2013. You can check that out here if you’re interested.
TL;DR - tastes good, it’s rare, it’s expensive.
It’s now really popular and almost all roasters in New Zealand have one on offer these days. But they don’t seem to be as awesome as they used to be.
This is partly due to roaster skill and experience “…many roasters I’ve seen, just don’t know better. They’ve been doing 16 minute roasts for espresso for so long, that’s just what they do. If they want to do a lighter roast, they just drop it a few degrees lighter. Its just not that simple and roaster design and setup has massive influence on the cup quality coming out,” said my deep cover source.
But they also said this:
“I believe the overall standard of greens has skyrocketed, this makes it (in theory) easier to find quality offerings and the really stand out lots aren’t as mind blowing as they used to be. Basically, the bar has been raised so much higher.”
Some coffee for you, some for me
So, who are roasters actually trying to appeal to?
“For us at [awesome roaster of awesome coffee], we do our blends for the main crowd of coffee drinkers, but our single origins and special reserves are mainly for us and all the other coffee lovers in a country. Due to high shipping costs and cost of green we don’t even make money with them. We barely cover costs and I assume that most roasters in the country feel that way.”
A pandemic, a war and a frost walk into a bar
There’s a lot in that cup, and coffee is agricultural product that is grown on the other side of the world. Maybe it’s our remoteness impacting on the (perceived) quality of the coffee I’m drinking.
A roaster noted “the other thing that a lot of roasteries have been struggling with is getting their shipment in on time due to COVID (everything is still delayed) and often the samples we tasted, don’t match the taste of the coffee, that arrives at the Warehouse later.”
Green beans are expensive, sometimes roasters just have to work with what they end up getting - better to sell something than nothing. I guess that’s just the economic realities.
The roaster went on to say “There is a lot going on in origin at the moment and that’s the main cause for coffee prices and delays. For example Brazil had frost again! And because Brazil is the biggest coffee provider, it determines the coffee price in the world. Unfortunately the problem is a little bigger than how the Roasters decide to roast their coffee.”
So is there a trend in New Zealand to roast average coffee?
What a loaded, shitty and unfair question. No roaster is going to say ‘yes, I’m average and knowingly sell average products to consumers.’
The answers I got to my terrible questions were insightful, considered and honest. The realities are pretty stark. Roasters have to shoot for what is going to make their business sustainable, and that’s a good thing. Roasters have to work with what they end up getting sent, and that’s understandable. Roasters are learning and catching up with the innovative happening at the farm, and that’s excellent.
And coffee has gotten so good, and we have access to such amazing coffees roasted really well, that we are taking excellent for granted.
Maybe I need to spend some time on the Budget brand instant, so I can better enjoy the amazingness I get the absolute privilege to drink.
Don’t be afraid to try something new
My experience is just that, my experience. My taste is my taste. I don’t want people put off from trying a limited expensive coffee just because I didn’t vibe with this one.
But it also shows that you don’t need to break the bank for great coffee. The best coffee I’ve had this year was really affordable. Good taste sits at all ends of the spectrum.
Just promise me you’ll try at least one coffee this year that you’ve never had. With high risk is high reward. Do it.
Thanks to the roasters who shared their thoughts
They didn’t have to respond to my silly little questions for this silly little blog, but they did, and that’s cool.
We have an amazing coffee scene in New Zealand, where everyone supports each other, shares their time and knowledge (and secrets) so everyone can enjoy an amazing cup of coffee.