June 12, 2023

Does third wave coffee culture focus too much on consumer education?


For many industry professionals, access to more formal education is key to continuously improving a number of factors. These can range from coffee quality to roast profiles to extraction to customer service.

At the same time, consumers’ interest in coffee education has also increased over the past few years – helping to bridge the knowledge gap in specialty coffee.

It’s fair to say that more informed consumers are a big part of achieving true sustainability in the supply chain. However, it’s also understandable to question just how interested consumers actually are in specialty coffee education. In turn, we also need to ask whether coffee shops and roasters should be focusing their efforts elsewhere.

To find out, I spoke to coffee educators Silvia Graham and Dani Bordiniuc. Read on to find out more.

You may also like our article on whether coffee consumers’ focus on education will continue beyond Covid-19.

An apprentice barista learns how to prepare pour over coffee.

Understanding specialty coffee’s relationship with education

The overarching aim of coffee consumer education is to inform consumers about what specialty coffee actually is, as well as how to prepare it to a high standard using a number of different brewing methods.

Simply put, specialty coffee scores 80 points or higher on the 100-point Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) scale. This score is determined by a certified Q grader. It’s based on several factors such as acidity, sweetness, bitterness, body, and uniformity, as well as whether any defects are present.

Other less quantifiable aspects of specialty coffee include more traceable and transparent supply chains, as well as more ethical and sustainable business practices – including direct trade. Moreover, especially with roasting and brewing coffee, there tends to be more emphasis on craft and skill in specialty coffee.

Silvia Graham is a co-owner of the Barista School in Romania. She is also the National Coordinator at the SCA Romania Chapter. 

She explains that some consumers may not be fully aware of broader definitions of specialty coffee.

“I can be surprised by the lack of knowledge, confusion, and misunderstanding that surround specialty coffee, thus decreasing its value,” she says. “Roasters and coffee shops both need to play their part in educating consumers more.”

Looking specifically at those who work in specialty coffee, there are a number of more formal training programmes and opportunities. Some of these include:

  • Professional barista training, such as latte art classes
  • Sensory analysis training, including Q grader qualifications
  • Roasting workshops
Barista School in Romania

What are the different types of specialty coffee consumer education?

There are many different forms of coffee consumer education. For example, coffee drinkers can pay to attend courses, workshops, and seminars, and can also take part in cupping sessions (which are usually free). Although these platforms are typically more expensive and time-consuming than other educational resources, they are usually more effective.

Other educational resources, meanwhile, include social media posts, blogs, and articles. While these are free, and therefore more accessible, they are less hands-on than classes and workshops. This can mean their effectiveness varies somewhat.

Dani Bordiniuc is a barista, coffee content creator, and coffee consultant. He is also the creator of Brewing With Dani, an educational platform designed for home baristas and coffee enthusiasts.

He tells me that one of the most effective ways to educate coffee consumers is through direct interactions. At the most basic level, this can simply involve a barista engaging with a customer in a coffee shop.

Essentially, this type of communication allows for a two-way exchange of information, while creating a more personal connection at the same time.

From his experience, Dani explains he usually begins his one-on-one educational sessions with a few questions. He says this helps to gauge the level of knowledge of the consumers, as well as the type of equipment they use at home. 

“The first priority of specialty coffee consumer education should be getting the fundamentals right,” he tells me. “For example, consumers need to understand the importance of using fresh coffee, as well as water quality and grind size uniformity, before diving into the specifics.”

By starting with the more basic aspects of brewing coffee, Dani says consumers can develop a stronger foundation on which to build their coffee knowledge.

The importance of informative and relatable education

As a means of increasing its effectiveness, both Silvia and Dani agree that consumers need to relate to the information they receive from specialty coffee educational resources. This can be done through a number of ways, such as providing analogies, alluding to personal experiences, and telling stories.

“Based on my experience as a barista and coffee shop manager, sensory experiences and curiosity play significant roles in educating consumers,” Dani says. “The approachability of specialty coffee educators is also key – language used should be simple and relatable.

“By slowly exposing consumers to different flavours and types of drinks, they will become more curious, inquisitive, and open to trying things outside of their comfort zone,” he adds. “It’s a pull rather than a push.”

However, there is also the danger of overwhelming consumers with too much information at one time. In line with this, it’s important to provide the appropriate amount of information to pique their interest, while answering all the necessary questions at the same time.

Furthermore, feeling intimidated can also be a big part of why some consumers aren’t open to knowing more about specialty coffee. In turn, industry professionals and educators need to make sure that consumers feel welcome and comfortable when taking part in classes or cupping sessions.

“Any change takes time,” Silvia says. “A consumer won’t change their mind if they are dictated to, but if you provide information in a relatable way that grants them the space to make their own decisions, you will be able to make a difference. 

“A habit is very hard to change, and as the last link in a long supply chain – baristas should remember this when educating consumers,” she adds.

What are the benefits of providing coffee consumer education?

Ultimately, there are many benefits to consumer education – both for consumers themselves and for specialty coffee overall. 

For consumers specifically, having access to high-quality and more formal educational opportunities broadens and deepens their knowledge of the coffee they drink. In theory, this enables them to make more informed choices – and potentially buy higher-quality, more sustainable coffee. 

Moreover, it also increases the chances that they will keep buying specialty coffee in the future.

Naturally, this only serves to support the specialty coffee sector in the long term. By focusing more on coffee consumer education, coffee shops and roasters can generate more sales and continue to grow. At the same time, they can build more trust between themselves and the consumer. In theory, this will also lead to repeat custom, too.

Two people attending a barista training course at a coffee shop with an espresso machine.

How much do consumers actually want to be educated about specialty coffee?

Many customers value convenience and speed of service over other factors – such as coffee quality – as well. This could mean their interest in specialty coffee education is somewhat limited.

In turn, many specialty coffee shops and roasters may need to target more niche demographics – including millennials and Gen Z. The latter, in particular, has an estimated US $360 billion in disposable income. Moreover, they are more likely to spend on sustainable and ethical purchases, as well as investing in education.

However, we also need to acknowledge that there are limits to the growth of the global specialty coffee industry, and thereby specialty coffee consumer education. In order to remain sustainable and pay higher prices to producers, specialty coffee needs to be marketed as a premium product which comes with a higher price tag.

Inevitably, this ostracises many consumers who may not be willing to pay more for (or can’t afford to buy) specialty coffee. What’s more, we also need to be realistic about quality standards for specialty coffee, and account for the fact that not everyone is interested in drinking higher-quality coffee. 

In turn, it’s highly unlikely that these people would be open to paying for or taking part in specialty coffee consumer education, too.

Is specialty coffee education accessible enough?

Investing in coffee consumer education can be a successful business venture for some coffee shops and roasters. However, there are important factors to consider when it comes to the accessibility of specialty coffee.

As roasters and cafés pay more money for higher-quality coffee, they also need to charge customers higher prices. Naturally, this can exclude some people who simply can’t afford to buy specialty coffee.

Moreover, given the recent economic downturn and rising inflation in many countries around the world, it’s fair to assume that many people who are interested in specialty coffee have less disposable income to spend on premium products. Similarly, they may have even less money to invest in coffee education.

Looking beyond traditional markets

It’s fair to say that in some countries around the world, the specialty coffee market is much more developed. For example, places like North America, Western Europe, Japan, and Scandinavia all have prominent specialty coffee culture. 

As a result, coffee consumer education in these countries is relatively well developed, too. However, in other parts of the world, the focus on specialty coffee education is noticeably smaller. But that’s not to say that their respective specialty coffee markets aren’t growing at pace.

Across Latin America, for instance, consumption of specialty coffee is increasing in certain countries. Using Brazil as an example, research from the SCA states that Brazil’s specialty coffee market share doubled between 2016 and 2018 from 6% to 12%

Similarly, the specialty coffee markets in Colombia and Mexico have also grown in recent years – indicating potential to improve coffee consumer education.

Elsewhere, in India, while the market is relatively young, specialty coffee is growing rapidly. Younger generations are now more likely to drink coffee than their predecessors, and there are many emerging specialty coffee brands in the country, too.

Eastern Europe and Baltic countries are also starting to see a rise in specialty coffee consumption. While they currently may not be predominantly specialty coffee-consuming markets, the potential for growth is certainly there.

Is there too much of a focus on traditional markets still?

At the same time, however, it’s important to acknowledge that the general format and structure of specialty coffee education is largely focused on more “traditional” consuming markets. These are mostly countries in Europe and North America, as well as Australia, and New Zealand.

Ultimately, this means that in less traditional markets, unless consumer coffee education is catered more towards market trends in the specific country, it may not be as effective and informative.

A barista educating his customers  about coffee in a specialty coffee shop.

As specialty coffee continues to grow and expand into new markets, it’s likely there will be an increasing need for consumer education.

However, equally as important, we also need to understand that not everyone shares the same interest in coffee consumer education. Therefore, specialty coffee brands need to know when and where it’s appropriate to offer educational resources, as well as to which demographics of consumers.

Moreover, given its relatively small market size, the growth of specialty coffee consumer education may also be somewhat limited. This is an important factor that specialty coffee businesses should keep in mind as they look to expand their reach, too.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on online education in the coffee sector.

Photo credits: Dani Bordiniuc, Silvia Graham

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