Photo by Dan Bolton
"The Quality of the Experience"
Sílvia Rocha, Melissa Caldwell, Peter Giuliano, Rick Schifferstein, Georg Riedel, Karsten Ranitzsch, Luis Sottomayor with Dean Sanders.
By Dan Bolton
The magic of blending is that done well, the experience is richer, more gratifying than its components.
In June Nespresso hosted a diverse cadre of experts to explore “The Quality of the Experience” initiating a discussion of the elements of coffee quality that was the theme of its 2nd Coffee Conversation Symposium. The event was organized by Britta Folmer, Nespresso science manager at the Swiss company’s Lausanne headquarters.
Presenters included an American responsible in part for articulating the essence of the specialty coffee movement in that country; a professor of anthropology to analyze social behavior elicited by the brew; a professor of chemistry to relate the complicated alchemy that is coffee and an industrial designer who described the impact of sophisticated packaging and design on the consumer experience.
The intimate half-day gathering drew energy and expertise from CoCoTea 2015, an international scientific congress of researchers from 37 countries that is convened every two years to share the latest findings on the makeup of coffee, cocoa, and tea.
Peter Giuliano, who runs the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s (SCAA) annual symposium, introduced the notion that from its inception coffee was a focal point for social interaction. Preparing coffee is a comforting ritual that begins in Ethiopia with beans roasting over a communal brazier. The sight, sounds and smells of preparation heighten anticipation and encourages friendly exchange. Enjoying coffee began as a simple, primitive, holistic experience. It subsequently underwent a tortuous route through the industrial age. The experience of sharing conversation over a cup was laden with complexity as coffee permeated the Arabic countries and spread to Europe, the New World, and Asia. As coffee exited Africa cost made it a luxury exclusive to the elite. In time it infiltrated the masses fueling the working class with a predictable decline in quality that ultimately reduced consumption. During two centuries of industrialization the “gathering was broken,” said Giuliano.
Professor Melissa Caldwell, who teaches anthropology at the University of Santa Cruz, California, described the modern transformation in coffee appreciation. Drinking coffee became synonymous with a place. But specialty coffee shops did not reprise their role as the fabled 1700s English coffee house where rich and poor mingled in thoughtful exchange. She described modern coffee shops as a place you go to “feel not alone.” In America coffee shops are a “familiar place with friendly strangers,” she said.
Social interactions have a lot to do with the perception of quality, she explained. “How do people experience spaces: Is it fondly, peacefully, aggressively, anxiously – what are the emotional dimensions?” she asked.
Coffee drinkers are attracted by the fact they are in the company of others but not forced to interact. “It is both a public and private space” but certainly not a place to discuss religion and politics and ‘why you don’t want children,’ ” she said. As Starbucks discovered, encouraging customers to discuss racial tensions with baristas “is not an appropriate topic. It violates the rules of civility.” Yet, at home, sharing coffee is an invitation to disclose intimate details.
Sílvia Rocha, a professor of chemistry at Aveiro University, which hosted the event, explained yet another nuance of quality. Aroma influences emotions and memory, she explained. Experiencing the taste of coffee evokes a range of feelings. Conversations over coffee include a chemical component that enriches the experience, but not to the same magnitude as wine. Coffee is actually more complex, she explained, with more compounds than wine thanks to roasting but “in wine there are a lot of different classes of compounds with very different aroma.”
Coffee and wine
Coffee and wine are also consumed on very different occasions. The same person drinking wine will experience a different emotional connection. “It is possible to know a lot about wine,” she said, citing location, varietal, producer, and vintage. “With coffee the connection is not so strong,” said Rocha, who suggested that coffee companies consider marketing strategies to strengthens that connection.
Rick Schifferstein took the crowd a step back to observe coffee on the shelf in packaging designed to make it desirable. Schifferstein, a professor of industrial design at Delft University in the Netherlands, is an expert in merchandising who is conversant in what it takes to add value. In many ways his work wraps all the above into a hard-to-resist message that stimulates consumer senses, evokes emotions and builds anticipation to mimic the age-old promise of a pleasant conversation over a satisfying cup.
Together these presentations informed a group discussion to end the evening. The panel was moderated by Dean Sanders, chief strategy officer of UK-based Goodbrand. Joining the presenters were Karsten Ranitzsch, Nespresso head of coffee, Luis Sottomayor, who heads the Œnology team at Portugal’s Casa Ferreirinha and Sogrape Vinhos and Georg Riedel, 10th generation owner of Riedel Glassworks in Austria.
“There is not [just] one coffee for consumers” and no single coffee experience but “very diverse” experiences, said Ranitzsch. A sip of coffee is just one aspect of the coffee drinking experience. Quality is influenced by emotions, surroundings, even the cup in hand. “The main challenge for consumers is finding the right product for the right occasion,” he said.
Riedel was most entertaining in presenting his view that drinking vessels make a strong contribution to the perception of quality. He illustrated the point, citing a heavy stemmed coffee glass designed to better appreciate coffee aroma and showcase its color and crema. Participants drank from these goblets during a coffee break. Yet most coffee, in the name of convenience, is served in gaudy paper quickly discarded, he noted.
“At Riedel we are dealing with swallowing, functionality; this has nothing to do with fashion which is short lived. We make tools, instruments,” proclaimed Riedel. “People insult me when they call my glasses ‘pretty’,” he said emphatically.
“Drinking vessels help us to be more attentive… so we can take a moment to appreciate the coffee and reflect on the taste itself,” observed Ranitzsch.
“It is important for every product of quality to have good functionality – and then go beyond functionality,” said Schifferstein. A rounded product experience involves the psychological effects of customers interacting with the product by imparting their own meaning and values, he said. He advocates a multi-layered experience structured “to create a great product but also a great context in line with the cultural setting.”
That setting requires flexibility, according to Giuliano, who believes the ideal specialty shop blends a sense of place with superior product and service. He said that he understands the desire for solitude and speedy morning service. The former barista reminded the group he learned first-hand “no talkie before coffee” with the morning crowd. But rather than acquiesce to a shop-wide atmosphere of isolated coffee drinkers, he argued that coffee professionals should rise to the challenge of cultivating a holistic experience that encourages conversation and interaction reminiscent of Ethiopia.
“On the second cup people are prepared to learn more about their coffee and what coffee can be, where it comes from, how it got there and why it tastes the way it does. That is where we can really add value,” he said.