It is widely known, and widely appreciated, that there has been a great resurgence in the careful serving of top-quality filter coffee – but is it really a practical business strategy?
At a time when the concept of the ‘brew bar’ has become widely talked about in the café trade, and the general concept of coffee made by one filter process or another, one cup at a time, directly in front of the customer’s eyes, is held to be a very good thing… one of London’s most notable café bars has questioned the logistics of the process.
The argument comes from Richard Lilley, managing director of the Tapped and Packed coffee house in London, who has published a discussion document on the practicalities of single-serve brewed coffee, and who has dared to ask: “is current methodology sustainable, viable… or even what the consumer is looking for?”
Loosely defined, says Lilley, ‘brewed coffee’ means coffee made using equipment other than espresso machines, and generally prepared one cup at a time. It probably involves an Aeropress, a ceramic filter, or Chemex or Siphon (you could also argue cafetiere, but that is not widely seen in specialist coffee houses).
“The attempt to create a consistently good quality product using such brewing equipment is no mean feat,” observes Lilley, “and it has given rise to a highly scientific approach controlling and regulating all the variables; it has become a very hands-on scientific way of brewing a single serving of coffee.”
(All those ‘variables’ are the dose of coffee, the water temperature, the water volume, grind, and so on.)
“We have better tasting and more consistent filter than ever before with a whole range of marvellous and extraordinary equipment to support this,” he remarks. “So we have arrived…or have we?
“What is holding the customers back? Why is the queue full of flat whites, espressos and Americanos? Why has brewed coffee not taken off?”
The great problems with brewed coffee, he argues, is to do with preparation speed and realistic retail price.
“The customer is being punished by our prices, which we feel are justified given the time and effort required for method and production, but they are voting with their feet.
“On a good day it will take a barista ten minutes to produce one cup of brewed coffee, from taking an order to cleaning down and resetting, if the puritanical method is followed to the letter of the law. In London, ten minutes for a coffee is a price too many customers cannot justify.”
The cost of time, equipment and consumables which go into making an absolutely perfect high-quality brewed coffee, he estimates, amount to £2.41 per cup. Sold at £2.50, the profit margin is unrealistic.
The options, he suggests, are to charge £6 per cup, which will effectively alienate the mass market (there is a restaurant in London which charges £9, but that is a very different situation!) or to modify our aspirations to perfection, ditch what he calls the ‘puritanical’ perfectionism of brewed coffee by the cup, and create a method of producing brewed coffee in three minutes, to acceptable quality, and at a likely selling price of £2.
“Here is a revolutionary idea,” says Lilley. “Let’s give our customers the best possible product we can and sell it at a competitive price and within an average coffee waiting time. Yes, something has to give, but if we invested half as much time into reducing waiting time as we currently do on quality control, it would have a greater affect on positive customer response, and therefore sales.
“The dose, grind and water time are so volatile they must be flawlessly controlled, but can we still save time by being smart?
These are Richard Lilley’s suggestions:
1. Pre-dose the required amount of coffee per serve before shift, or during quiet times, into little air-tight pots. This will save weighing the dose to order and drastically reduce the time it takes to dose to seconds, just opening a lid and turning a grinder on. This will have no tangible effect on the resulting solution.
2. The time spent regulating the temperature to plus-or-minus a quarter of a degree is a waste – if we regulate to plus or minus one degree, we will save minutes per serve and effect the end product minimally, if at all.
3. He also points out (as many have tried to do before) that barista working areas really do need to be designed so the barista has to perform the smallest of movements to interact with all their tools and equipment.
This will all have a resounding effect on speed but very little effect on product quality, he argues.
The whole reason the speciality industry has taken off, says the Tapped and Packed man, is that the independent coffee-houses can produce a vastly superior coffee product to the chain stores – if the speciality baristas can now do that with brewed coffee, at speed, at an ‘entry level’ price, as ‘a first rung on the ladder that everyone can enjoy’, then the trade will take top-quality brewed coffee to a wider customer base, instead of scaring them away by our perfectionism.
Tapped and Packed recently opened its second store, at No 114 Tottenham Court Road. Its launch site was 26 Rathbone Place.